For born-and-raised Chicagoan Marissa Lynn Ford, performance has always been part of life. From a childhood full of song and dance to a career built on the arts, her experiences from the start have been tinted through the beauty of performance. As the new executive director of the League of Chicago Theatres, Ford’s love of the theater shines on in a unique way.
Her adoration of this theater community is obvious from the start when speaking with Ford. Her connections with folks from her time working at the Goodman as well as the networks she’s forged in her life tell a story of community building. That history will inform her tenure as the leader of the League. We caught up with Ford to discuss her work and find out what she hopes to gain in her new position.
What does the Chicago theater mean to you?
It means home. It means community. It means support.
You hear things about other cities being competitive or whatever it is, but Chicago really does have that Midwest hospitality flair. We all want to see others succeed. We love partnering with one another and collaborating. It’s also a great incubator space, not only for new work, but also new theater companies. You can come here straight out of college with your friends and say, “We’re going to start a theater company,” and we’re here for you.
I’m so grateful for that. And the League [is] able to be [a] resource for that. So, knowing that the League is a place where everybody can have a seat and a voice at the table, which has been so essential to my growth and process, is what attracted me to this position. To be able to open that door for somebody else, to be able to make sure that we’re connecting people in the right way, and that we’re advocating for the importance that this industry brings not only to the city but nationally.
Absolutely, the Chicago theater community is unique, there really isn’t anything else like it.
It’s amazing. I was at Writers Theatre last night, and I saw Manual Cinema’s “A Christmas Carol.” I’ve been following Manual Cinema, but I hadn’t seen the show yet. And Writers was going to work with them pre-pandemic and, of course, it all got stopped and they had worked on this show. But they picked them back up, which just shows that collaboration that I was talking about.
I know you haven’t been in your position terribly long but do you have any short-term plans for the League?
It’s been about a month, but I do! The first part of this has been community meet-and-greets. You meet people where they are and also connect with other people in their areas. It was good to see people coming out of the Zoom box.
In this short term, my focus has been on making sure we’re uplifting the voices that need to be heard and also finding out what people need in this moment. A lot of that looks like help in terms of jobs, resources, retention, finding new space for those who have not been able to retain their spaces since the pandemic, finding talent. So the focus in the short term is making sure that we’re listening to those voices and preparing a plan to answer that call.
Because this is not about what I want for the League. This League is everybody. My job is to listen and to pull out those things in a strategic way so that we can help the most people.
So then, do you have any long-term goals for your position in the League? Even if it’s a really lofty dream?
I’ve got lofty dreams. What comes to mind, in taking this role, is that theater is for everybody.
What that looks like in another year is to see theater for everybody. To connect theaters to all these other industries and make sure that they know the benefits and our impact. How do we connect the theater to the West Loop? To the people working in IT and tech with the things that we’re doing on stage in terms of robotics [and] projections. How do we really get people to understand all the available [career] options or jobs for theater? We’re developing that next generation of industry professionals!
Whether that’s young people or whether people who are changing careers later in life. What does it mean to develop a program for people who can learn about the opportunities and practice and [creating] more apprenticeships or fellowships among all of our members? [There are] lots of things floating around. But what it all means is to show that theater is for everybody and to have everybody understand the importance of the art.
How do you think the Chicago theater is currently or likely will be?
I think we’re learning together, which is great, and continuing to collaborate and share resources. I think we will continue to be an incubator for art and continue to be that supportive space for making pathways for new people–new voices, and new leaders. We already see there are a couple of leadership changes right now happening in a number of places. You know, we see Mica [Cole] at TimeLine. We see the new incoming [executive director] Jorge [Valdivia] at CLATA. And so we do see this exciting turn.
And, you know, we’re all collaborative people. We’ve gotten to work with these beautiful professionals in the field. Being able to take what we’ve learned and also bring up the new generation of voices together is going to be an exciting time. There are things that we have to work through as an industry just across the board and nationally as well. Figuring out what it means to do new things with audiences. How do we work with our unions? How do we work with the new things that we tapped into over the pandemic and expand on those services? How do we govern ourselves differently so that we can make theater more accessible in terms of who’s on our boards, who can get involved, and who can have access to our programs?
I think we’re all thinking about this, which is really exciting, and with the next level of leaders and the expertise from the people who have been in the game quite a while, we’re going to keep moving forward.