Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced a year-long focus on local theater, which will include $200,000 in financial grants, promotions and special showcases from the smallest shows to the biggest extravaganzas in the city, according to a press release from the mayor’s office.
Emanuel declared 2019 “the Year of Chicago Theater” Sept. 19. This initiative is in conjunction with the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events and the League of Chicago Theatres, and is designed to grow Chicago’s already considerable theater scene.
In Chicago, people can see a wide array of performances, from a contemporary play at the Steppenwolf Theater, a Broadway musical at the Oriental Theater and an intimate storefront show the next block over, said Deb Clapp, executive director of the League of Chicago Theatres. She called Chicago the theater capital of America.
Justin Brill, assistant professor of Instruction in the Theatre Department and former cast member of shows such as “Wicked,” “Spamalot,” “Mamma Mia!” and “Rent,” said this new initiative will raise awareness of theater productions around the city for residents and tourists.
“If you were to take a poll on the streets, most people know the big names, but have they seen a show at the smaller companies that are really the heart and pulse of Chicago theater?” Brill said.
Brill added that he hopes investments in theater will trickle down to small theaters, rather than just support the larger marquees.
“The initiative is about making sure all Chicagoans feel welcome to a theater and all visitors are aware of this important cultural asset Chicago has,” Clapp said. “People who see [each show] will walk away with something different. Once they’re aware of [theater], they’ll certainly appreciate it.”
The project will focus on diversity, equity and inclusion, according to the press release. Clapp said the groups will accomplish these goals with connections to leaders in diverse neighborhoods.
Being a part of theater for more than a decade, Brill said the importance of diversity cannot be understated. Shows such as “Hamilton” bring attention to the benefits of a wide variety of voices, perspectives and experiences for everyone involved in the production.
Brill said there is a lack of stories that reflect black, Latino and other communities.
“Are we presenting theater that is representative of our current population?” Brill said. “Or, are most of the stories being told written by white men, and being produced for a white audience?”
Executive Director of the Chicago Latino Theater Alliance Myrna Salazar said the mark of equity and inclusion in theater will be when characters like Marie Antoinette can be played by actresses of all different races or ethnicities.
Indifference, ignorance and excuses are some of the many reasons there is a lack of diversity in the theater industry, Salazar said.
Her goals for the initiative is to bring Latinos to the forefront, create mentorships across communities and a space Latino theater fans can call home.
Salazar said she intends to call out any local theater company that does not comply with the initiative’s focus on equity and inclusion.
Brill said he would like to see smaller shows and companies get a boost from the project.
“The great diversity that we have in Chicago is vital to keeping theater alive, present and viable as a means to bring about change,” Brill said. “The ways we create societal change is to tell stories that hold [the] mirror up to society.”