For this year’s list, we kept our overall ranking numbers but organized everything by category.
Players 2022: The Fifty People Who Really Perform for Chicago (Introduction)
Players 50 2022: The Advocates and Changemakers
Players 50 2022: The Music Makers
Players 50 2022: The Producers and Places
Players 50 2022: The Institutions
+ Players of the Moment: Parisa Jalili and Jon Carr of The Second City
Here are the Players from Chicago’s rising stars and storefront stalwarts.
Arts & Culture Manager, Chicago Park District and Artistic/Managing Director, Honey Pot Performance
Meida McNeal is an exceedingly rare mix of working artist, scholar and public sector leader. Through Afro-feminist collective Honey Pot Performance, McNeal and her colleagues mine the rich and nuanced experiences of Black women in deeply researched, process-centric performances, one of which was the catalyst for the Chicago Black Social Culture Map—a digital archive and interactive map of Black social clubs formed around music and dance in the city starting from the Great Migration, personal and oral histories told through blues, gospel, disco, funk and house music. Last year, McNeal was one of ten recipients of a $50,000 grant from the Field Foundation, recognizing racial justice visionaries. Honey Pot is currently raising money for a tenth-anniversary iteration of “Ladies Ring Shout,” a performance about female empowerment and an invitation to healing.
Miranda Gonzalez, Ivan Vega, Antonio Bruno
Artistic Director, Co-Founder/Executive Director and Company Manager, UrbanTheater Company
Founded in 2005, UrbanTheater Company is a cornerstone to the community. At the root of that connection are the three folks who make the company prosper: Miranda Gonzalez, Ivan Vega and Antonio Bruno. This trio is elevating UrbanTheater beyond its original stage with a major grant they received this summer. The company was one of forty BIPOC organizations to receive a Chicago Cultural Treasure grant in July 2021. With that $140,000, they plan to complete their new space in the Nancy Franco-Maldonado Paseo Boricua Arts Building in summer 2022.
Artistic Director, Hell In A Handbag Productions
Twenty years ago, Hell In A Handbag Productions popped open the rhinestone-studded clasp on their purse and let loose a concoction of camp that nearly blew the Windy City off her stilettos. David Cerda, the co-founder, artistic director and leading lady of the company, is another Chicago theater artist whose work sets a national standard. With his eerily spot-on channeling of the character of Joan Crawford and mad playwriting skills, he has provided Joan many new lives. Cerda kept his company afloat during 2020 by showing video of their productions at a drive-in. The company is back on the boards, and Cerda’s plays are being played all over the country as well.
Blair Thomas and Sandy Smith Gerding
Artistic Director and Executive Director, Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival
Almost two years into the pandemic, it is inspirational that Blair Thomas and Sandy Gerding’s quest to bring back the Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival culminates with in-person performances beginning January 20. Besides the usual hurdles, Gerding says that “The inability to obtain visas for international artists paused individual giving during quarantine, and loss of key visionaries, administrators and staff at collaborating institutions large and small, combined with continued uncertainty about COVID-related shutdowns made this past year particularly challenging.” The first such gathering since 2019, this festival will feature everything from bunraku to pageant-style puppetry. Not content with jumpstarting Chicago’s return to the world art stage, they also will create original puppetry elements for stages across the United States through their innovative Chicago Puppet Studio. Also in the offering: the new Chicago Puppet Lab, which will offer space for virtual and in-person workshops and classes.
Cody Estle and Markie Gray
Artistic Director and Managing Director, Raven Theatre
At a time when most theaters are ecstatic just to pick up where they left off when the pandemic started, Raven has not only returned, but has taken a great leap forward, by becoming an Equity company and producing an ambitious world premiere in Joshua Allen’s “The Last Pair of Earlies,” which paid off with critical acclaim, diverse new audiences, and a finish in the top ten highest-selling shows in Raven’s thirty-nine-year history. Gray, who joined Raven from Yale Repertory, says she feels “brand new” to the theater after a year-and-a-half, since she arrived during the shutdown. Estle, on the other hand, has been in his role for four years and served as associate artistic director under co-founder Michael Menendian before that. He’s been gradually reshaping the theater in a new direction from Menendian’s revival-centric approach. “When I took over,” Estle says, “I didn’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. So we keep a revival in at least one slot a year. But my feeling is that if we’re going to look back at these great writers, we need to be looking at the great writers of today… if we’re going to look at Tennessee Williams, well, then we absolutely need to be looking at Joshua Allen as well.” This season’s revival is Jonathan Harvey’s “Beautiful Thing,” which might be of more recent vintage than most revivals. Estle says, “I’ve been asking directors when they’re pitching me shows, ‘What is a revival to you?’ ‘Beautiful Thing’ is a play from the nineties. It doesn’t have to be some dusty old play from 1950. But it can be if there’s relevance to it.”
Lanise Antoine Shelley
Artistic director, House Theatre
New artistic director Lanise Antoine Shelley’s nine-month tenure has been about shaking things up at House Theatre. Shelley is holding the company accountable for centering cis, white men’s work by reframing how the company does work. She has brought in anti-racist training, changed the company structure and made changes toward a new future for the twenty-plus-year-old company. Shelley’s trifecta background as playwright, actor and director will help propel House into a new era that doesn’t, as she told Chicago magazine, “regurgitate” the same stories or perspectives time and time again.
Jorge Silva, KR Riiber and Anna Gelman
Managing Director, Artistic Director and Operations Manager, Neo-Futurists
“We are dedicated to not allowing our industry to ‘go back to normal,’ but rather move toward a model that utilizes our creative capital and employs our inclusive ethos in all aspects,” Jorge Silva says of the Neo-Futurists. This unique theater, helmed by Silva, KR Riiber and Anna Gelman, was named the producer of the “most successful” shows of the pandemic by the Tribune, was highlighted by the New York Times, and is constantly finding new ways to engage the art form. Not only have their performances evolved through the difficult past two years, but their community engagement has, too. Per Silva, they “also expanded our education programming [ten]-fold, [they] provided more artist of color scholarships than ever.”
Artistic Director, Chicago Human Rhythm Project’s Rhythm World
History is important to tap dancers, making Chicago-born hoofer Jumaane Taylor the natural torchbearer for CHRP’s annual festival that draws dancers from around the globe—a festival Taylor first attended on scholarship when he was ten years old. Taylor’s tap roots are deep and broad: The Sammy Dyer School of Theatre alum who danced with M.A.D.D. Rhythms is now part of the leadership team relocating CHRP from studios downtown to Calumet Heights on the South Side, in the building that previously housed the historic Mayfair Academy, which was founded by tap legend Tommy Sutton. Taylor is a practicing artist whose growing influence behind the scenes promises thoughtful advancement of tap dance in Chicago that also stays true to its past.
Founder, M.A.D.D. Rhythms
M.A.D.D. Rhythms, Bril Barrett’s tap-dance organization—M.A.D.D. stands for Making A Difference Dancing—celebrated its twentieth anniversary last year. The education and performance company continues to live up to its name; youth who came through the M.A.D.D. Rhythms Tap Academy, housed at the Harold Washington Cultural Center in Bronzeville, have grown into formidable hoofers and members of the professional company. The organization kept the flame bright through the pandemic, producing short dance film gems, continuing to host virtual and hybrid tap jams, putting on the Chicago Tap Summit and premiering Barrett’s multimedia stage show-dance history lesson “Hoofin’ It: The Untold Story of the Founders of Tap.”
Neel McNeill and Tyrone Phillips
Executive Director and Artistic Director, Definition Theatre Company
This year will mark a decade of work for Definition Theatre Company, which received a $1.6 million grant from the city of Chicago in 2019 to build a theater from the ground up in Woodlawn. Not only will this space serve artists, but it will act as an incubator for BIPOC entrepreneurs. Neel McNeill and Tyrone Phillips are also leading this theater company into their new territory with community-engaged programming. Definition Theatre’s work is both about and created by the communities that surround them.
Drew Dir, Sarah Fornace, Julia Miller, Ben Kauffman, Kyle Vegter
Co-Artistic Directors, Manual Cinema
In just over a decade, the shadow-puppet collective Manual Cinema has cast a large shadow of its own, winning an Emmy Award, being named Chicago Artists of the Year by the Chicago Tribune and, most recently, creating animations for Nia Costa’s hit sequel to the horror film “Candyman.” They’ve managed to place themselves in a category of one, with work that defies boundaries, easily claiming film, theater, design and music as its playgrounds. During the pandemic they created a streaming take on “A Christmas Carol” and, at the end of January, they’ll mount the world premiere of their latest live theatrical work, “Leonardo! A Wonderful Show About A Terrible Monster” at the Chicago Children’s Theater. Meanwhile, they’ve conducted a Kickstarter campaign for a new short film, “Future Feeling,” which they describe as their “most ambitious film project to date.” But don’t expect a cap on those ambitions, which might lead to a feature film or even a television series.
Ericka Ratcliff and Charlique C. Rolle
Artistic Director and Executive Director, Congo Square Theatre Company
A relatively small company by most standards, Congo Square has always punched far above its weight on its twenty-two-year journey to becoming one of America’s preeminent African American theater companies. And now, for the first time in its history, it’s run by two women, who bring along their “big dreams.” Charlique Rolle arrived during the pandemic, which she took as an opportunity to make her mark quickly. “I always say COVID was the blessing of all blessings,” Rolle says, “at least for me, coming in as the new person to the organization. It was an easier transition to come in and to really meet and to merge into the culture and to help shape the future of our organization’s culture.” What that means in practice is streamlining the company’s operations while ramping up engagement with both the ensemble and the board. Those efforts have helped her raise more than $500,000 in grants in 2020, and her connection to the ensemble is manifest in the nomination of ensemble member Ericka Ratcliff as artistic director in the fall of 2021. Even with all the internal changes, the company has kept its creative irons hot with the popular sketch comedy series “Hit ‘Em on the Blackside” and other projects, but will be returning to live production this winter with “What to Send Up When It Goes Down” by Aleshea Harris, which it will mount at the Gray Warehouse on the Near West Side, as well as the Stony Island Arts Bank on the South Side. Beyond that, look for Congo Square to blaze an even bolder path than before under this new leadership. “We stay true to who we are, we keep nimble and we keep running,” Rolle says of their charge. “With both Ericka and I being new in this position, we really have very big dreams, big ideas for where we can go.”
Lorena Diaz and Wendy Mateo
Co-Artistic Directors, Teatro Vista
Talk to enough newer voices in theater leadership and you’ll notice a prevailing idea that it is time for decisions to become shared, for organizations to become more ensemble-led than the traditional top-down model flowing from a single artistic director. That’s certainly the case with Teatro Vista’s new co-artistic directors, Lorena Diaz and Wendy Mateo, who say such a model is really a back-to-its-roots move for Teatro Vista. Diaz says, of the ensemble, “a lot of what we do is find out what they want to do, and then we figure out how to facilitate that for them when we’re putting together the season.” They’re committed to a hybrid model of artistic production, mentioning the six-episode serial audio play “The Fifth World,” available at teatrovista.org, as well as their return to live production with the world premiere of “Somewhere Over the Border,” a new musical by Chicago native Brian Quijada at Windy City Playhouse this spring. Mateo and Diaz, best friends who’ve teamed up as comedy act “Dominizuelan” for more than a decade, see a real opportunity in taking the helm of the city’s leading LatinX theater at this time. “We hope to really influence and disrupt the system,” Mateo says. “There’s so much talk about representation. However, we already are the representation that we seek; we just need to be given access to those positions: executive producers, writers, directors, behind the camera and behind the stage.”
Founding Artistic Director and CEO, Red Clay Dance Company
Pandemic be damned, Vershawn Sanders-Ward continued taking her African contemporary dance company, as they say, to the moon. Thanks to her vision, strategic acumen and fundraising hustle, Red Clay cut the ribbon on beautiful new studios in Woodlawn in a year when many performance companies were forced to close their doors. Sanders-Ward understands that dance can do more than uplift and entertain—both valuable commodities to be sure—but that it can also attract economic activity, improve health outcomes and create community. Sanders-Ward builds this into the Red Clay growth model. Take the Dance Pamoja Challenge, a from-home family wellness program in partnership with UIC and ACCESS Community Health Network created in response to the pandemic, to the location of the new Red Clay Dance Academy on 63rd and Cottage Grove. Sanders-Ward continues to demonstrate that from the clay mighty oaks grow.
Kaiser Ahmed and Tina El Gamal
Artistic Director and Managing Director, Jackalope Theatre
Nothing is at greater risk in a time of pandemic shutdown than a storefront theater company. Operating on a shoestring budget in the best of times, the storefront relies on passion for the work, rather than adequate remuneration, to create the momentum it needs. And if, at the time of such a shutdown, key leadership leaves and, if you have an event such as the racial reckoning that swept the country and put many cultural organizations into an identity crisis, well, it’s not surprising that some of the city’s most promising theater companies have yet to resurface. Fortunately, that description does not apply to Jackalope, one of, if not the, most exciting companies to arise in Chicago in the last decade. On the surface, it might, since longtime artistic director Gus Menary and managing director Nora Leahy both left the company’s leadership (and town) in 2020. But Kaiser Ahmed, company co-founder and associate artistic director, stepped back into the role he’d held during the company’s earliest years. And Tina El Gamal, who’d been working in the development department at Steppenwolf, quickly signed on as managing director. And though the company’s live production has been limited to a touring outdoor show they created in the fall of 2021 for the Chicago Park District, called Neighborhood Narratives, they’ve maintained a productive output of digital shows including their Living Newspaper Series, with eight filmed short plays, moved their Playwrights Lab online, and launched “The New Frontier Series” and developed three new plays. And as for the larger crisis plaguing so many theaters? Jackalope’s longtime mission is to expand “the definition of American Identity by engaging with our communities to produce works that celebrate diverse perspectives,” which means they’ve already arrived where others are trying to get. This spring, Jackalope returns to live production with the Kimberly Senior-helmed “Enough to Let the Light In” by company member Paloma Nozicka, but based on the pace of the last year, that might feel like a slowdown. “In spite of the pandemic and its challenges,” El Gamal says, “Jackalope was able to employ over one hundred artists this year, while continuing our commitment to bold new play development.” So what will a Jackalope under Ahmed and El Gamal look like? El Gamal says, “I think what is going to be different is Kaiser and I, as two leaders of color, two S.W.A.N.A. (Southwest Asia and North African) leaders, want to take our mission of expanding the definition of the American identity many steps further and figure out how we can bring stories to our stages that really do expand that definition in ways that we didn’t even think possible when the company started thirteen years ago. And also seeing how that mission can be reflected not only in the art that we make, but in the way that we make it. So for example, this year we’re only producing one show, but we’re increasing artists’ pay. We are doing a longer rehearsal process so that there’s less stress involved for all of the artists and staff. And that’s really the direction that I think Kaiser and I both want to see the industry at large move in and also Jackalope.”
The Hall of Fame (Rising Stars and Storefront Stalwarts)
*= new this year
Co-Founder, Chicago Human Rhythm Project
Elizabeth K. Auman
Managing Director, TimeLine Theatre
Artistic Director and Co-Founder, TimeLine Theatre
*Michael Patrick Thornton
Artistic Director and Co-Founder, The Gift Theatre
Players 50 2022 is written by Brian Hieggelke and Sharon Hoyer with additional contributions from Amanda Finn, Aaron Hunt, Carl Kozlowski, Dennis Polkow and Noel Schecter.
All photos by Joe Mazza/brave lux