In-person performances, breakthrough COVID cases, high-profile departures mark 2021 in local theater
After more than a year without in-person performances, Chicago-area theaters began to rebound -- gradually and cautiously -- from the COVID-19 pandemic. And in several notable instances, suburban theaters led the way.
In May 2021 the Metropolis Performing Arts Centre in Arlington Heights was among the first theaters to resume live, in-person shows outdoors and under a tent a few blocks north of the Campbell Street main stage. Glenview's Oil Lamp Theater staged productions outside, on the grounds of a local church. Meanwhile, the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie transformed its parking lot into a stage and the Lyric Opera of Chicago did the same with the Millennium Lakeside Parking Garage where "Twilight: Gods" played to sold-out, drive-through crowds.
In July, when Goodman Theatre resumed its pandemic-interrupted production of "School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play," masks were required and capacity was limited. Aurora's Paramount Theatre went a step further requiring audience members to wear masks and show proof of COVID-19 vaccination for admission to the season opening "Kinky Boots" and subsequent productions. Other suburban and city theaters followed Paramount's lead. Despite the precautions, breakthrough coronavirus cases among fully vaccinated cast and crew members in December forced Paramount, Marriott, Writers, Goodman, Broadway in Chicago and other theaters to cancel performances.
Endings and beginnings
Like many theaters, First Folio Theatre produced content online during the pandemic. However, in November executive director David Rice announced the award-winning Oak Brook ensemble he co-founded in 1996 with his late wife, director Alison C. Vesely, will cease operations upon his retirement in 2024.
That same month, Steppenwolf Theatre unveiled its 50,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art addition to its Halsted Street theater complex. Twenty years in the making, the $54 million Liz and Eric Lefkofsky Arts and Education Center includes a 400-seat in-the-round theater, classrooms and studios, a costume shop, two new bars and a renovated lobby.
Among the year's highlights was the musical "Paradise Square," whose pre-Broadway run marked the reopening of the Chicago to Broadway pipeline. The production featured a star-making turn by leading lady Joaquina Kalukango and showcased Bill T. Jones' exhilarating choreography, both of which will likely be recognized when Tony Award nominations are announced.
Among 2021's Chicago-area theater highlights was the powerhouse performance of Joaquina Kalukango in the Broadway-bound musical "Paradise Square."
- Courtesy of Kevin Berne
Changing of the guard
This year, Goodman Theatre's Robert Falls and Steppenwolf Theatre's Anna D. Shapiro announced their resignations.
A major force locally and internationally for more than three decades, Tony Award-winner Falls will step down as Goodman's artistic director -- a position he's held for 35 years -- after the 2021-2022 season. The search for his successor is ongoing.
Tony Award-winner Shapiro stepped down in August after six years as Steppenwolf's artistic director. Ensemble members Glenn Davis and Audrey Francis succeeded her as co-artistic directors.
The resignations did not stop there. Joe Keefe, the Metropolis Performing Arts Centre executive and artistic director who helped usher in financial stability and an artistic renaissance to the Arlington Heights venue, parted ways with the theater in September after nearly seven years. Metropolis representatives declined to comment on the nature of Keefe's departure but said it came in the wake of an internal investigation.
Michael Halberstam, founding artistic director for Writers Theatre in Glencoe, resigned in July in the wake of complaints about inappropriate workplace behavior, according to a statement issued by a Chicago law firm.
At Berwyn's 16th Street Theater, founder and artistic director Ann Filmer resigned after 14 years.
But theater's greatest 2021 loss occurred in late November when Stephen Sondheim, one of theater's most influential voices, died at 91. A wordsmith of the highest order, Sondheim composed grand, sophisticated scores for some of theater's most memorable shows, among them "Sweeney Todd," "Into the Woods" "Sunday in the Park With George" and "Company."
More changes ...
Northlight Theatre began its journey home to Evanston, where it was founded 47 years ago, with the purchase of a downtown Evanston property that will be converted to a three-story, 38,000-square-foot complex housing a 300-seat main stage, rehearsal hall, lobby, box office and offices. It's expected to open in 2024.
Mercury Theater Chicago, which closed in 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, reopened under new artistic leadership. The shuttered iO Chicago was purchased by real estate executives who indicated they would revive the onetime improv mainstay, according to published reports.
A former Second City Touring Company member founded the improv-based Stepping Stone Theater while ShawChicago veterans formed Misalliance Repertory Theatre. After 38 seasons, Chicago's Raven Theatre announced its transition from a non-equity to an equity theater.
In other news
Kane County Repertory welcomed Academy Award nominee Eric Roberts to the virtual cast of the two-hander "Security." The actors recorded their parts in their homes with high-definition cameras and large monitors, which allowed the actors to interact and was subsequently produced online.
Black Ensemble Theatre received a $5 million grant from writer/philanthropist MacKenzie Scott, who described the donation as "a signal of trust and encouragement, to them and to others," according to BET founder and executive director Jackie Taylor in a prepared statement.
A late November fire at the Oak Park Festival Theatre office destroyed the suburban company's sound equipment, costumes, props, lighting, computers, and nearly 50 years of OPFT artifacts and records. Company representatives are still determining what impact this loss will have on upcoming seasons.