Covering theater in Chicago is sometimes about writing valedictions for companies that have decided it’s time to fold up the tent. In the past couple of weeks, two such announcements came through. Underscore Theatre announced in late September that they were closing permanently. (During the pandemic, the company gave up their storefront rental space at Clark and Montrose.) Known primarily for new musicals, such as 2019’s charming The Ballad of Lefty & Crabbe (by Brian Huther, Ben Auxier, and Seth Macchi), the company’s last full production was Annabelle Lee Revak’s Notes & Letters in May at the Richard Christiansen Theater at Victory Gardens Biograph—one of an impressive 16 world premieres Underscore launched during their 11-year history.
The company was also lauded for its annual Chicago Musical Theatre Festival, the last of which was held in February 2020, just ahead of the COVID-19 shutdown. That will live on under the aegis of Kokandy Productions.
In a press release announcing the closure, Underscore’s founding artistic director and board member Alex Higgin-Houser said, “While Underscore is closing its doors, our mission isn’t over. When we founded this company over a decade ago, it was with the goal of making Chicago a hub for new musicals. We’re thrilled Kokandy Productions is committed to carrying the torch of new musicals into the future by taking the reins of the Chicago Musical Theatre Festival.”
Founding executive director and board vice president Laura Stratford noted in the press announcement that the company had done a long-term planning process during the shutdown, and determined that “to maintain a sustainable future, our model would need to undergo a dramatic shift, especially as the community continues to recover from the ongoing impact of COVID-19. Artistic Director Whitney Rhodes and Executive Director J. Sebastian Fabál recognized that what would be required to make these changes was beyond the capacity and resources of what a part-time role could allow, and both made the difficult decision to step down.” At that point, the board decided that leaving the festival in other hands and shutting down was the wisest choice.
Eclipse Theatre Company announced Monday that they were closing after 28 seasons as a stalwart of the non-Equity scene. Founded in 1992, the company originally focused on new work, much of it by playwright Stephen Serpas and featuring actors (mostly graduates from DePaul’s Theatre School) known as “the Dog Boys.” (The late legendary casting director Jane Alderman was an early champion of the company.)
But beginning in 1997, the company shifted its mission to mirror that of New York’s Signature Theatre, which focuses on one playwright for an entire season (both older and newer works). The first playwright presented under the new model was French surrealist Jean Cocteau; the last was contemporary American writer Christopher Durang. (They had announced a season of work by England’s Caryl Churchill for 2020, but that obviously never happened.) In between, there were seasons dedicated to canonical American writers such as Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller, and Neil Simon, as well as contemporary playwrights such as Lynn Nottage, Kia Corthron, and Pearl Cleage.
The company was itinerant for most of its history. They had a storefront space in Bucktown early on, but that was gutted by fire in 1998. Most recently, they had been producing at the Athenaeum Theatre.
Steve Scott, a longtime Eclipse ensemble member—and a producer for 37 years at the Goodman—talked to me earlier this week about the decision to close down. Scott joined Eclipse right around the time the “one playwright, one season” model took effect. For the last few years, he was also part of the committee of five that selected the playwrights and plays for the season.
Though he acknowledges that the COVID shutdown had an impact on the decision, Scott notes, “It was getting harder to [continue] even before then. You know, these companies have lots of really young people who want to become part of the company. And as those young people age and get lives, they decide that they don’t necessarily want to work for nothing. It was getting harder to keep a core company together. We were starting to have some issues, I think even before COVID. But COVID was such a hard time for so many of the company members. They really couldn’t focus on doing anything with Eclipse. I mean, we proposed several online projects, but people were too busy trying to live, you know?”
Scott adds, “It was just a whole number of events, and we finally said, ‘Let’s go out on a high note rather than kind of doing some half-ass production just to keep our name going.ʼ”
Having a model built around a different playwright every season meant that ensemble members might not be appropriate to cast that year. I remember talking to then-artistic director Anish Jethmalani, when the company was producing a season of works by Black American writer Cleage in 2007. Jethmalani acknowledged that they didn’t have enough Black members of the ensemble to cast in the shows, and so a lot of the Eclipse actors wouldn’t be used that season.
Scott says, “Actors join the company because they want to act and they will build sets and do props too. But if they can’t act for a year or two, then they kind of start losing interest. We were constantly bringing new people into the company, but we were also kind of losing people through attrition or because they went on to bigger and better things. So that was a challenge, especially in the last ten years, I think, to kind of keep the company together and to augment the company as we needed to do the writers that we wanted to do.”
Admirably, the seasons Eclipse put together weren’t just “greatest hits” packages. For example, their 2014 Nottage season did include her Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Ruined and her acclaimed play, Intimate Apparel, but also a rarely produced early play, Mud, River, Stone. The Cleage season included 2 by Pearl, a pair of mostly unknown one-acts (Hospice and Late Bus to Mecca). The 2017 Corthron season featured the world premiere of Megastasis.
“We knew a lot of people had no idea who [Kia Corthron] was,” Scott says. “But she was a playwright that a lot of people in the company felt passionate about. So some of the star playwrights probably sold better, but some of the lesser-known playwrights I think were kind of dear to our heart in many ways.”
“The idea was always to do some of their signature works, but also do some of their much lesser known works so that audiences could have a feel for the body of their work and what their work accomplished,” notes Scott. “And we augmented that with offstage programs, with discussions with playwrights—if they were still around, and we could get them to come to Chicago—with readings of lesser-known plays. As much as a small non-Equity company can do, it was kind of an immersive experience into the world of that playwright.”
Eclipse also presented the annual Corona Award to an artist in the community. Though devised as an add-on for their annual benefit, Scott notes that it became a way of “honoring people, a lot of whom haven’t been honored by anybody else for their work, especially their work with non-Equity theaters and the non-Equity community. But it was a nice way of honoring people and getting friends of those people to know more about Eclipse, which helped a great deal. The very last event we did was the Corona Awards in March of 2020. I mean it was right at the start of the week that everything shut down. And one of my proudest moments in my entire career was being able to honor Mary Ann Thebus, who had been overlooked by the Jeff Awards, by everybody else, and giving her a real thrill.” (Thebus died in February of this year. She received several Jeff nominations, but never won.)
Scott notes that the one playwright, one season idea is up for grabs for any other company that may want to pick up that torch. “Hopefully somebody will come along and want to do it again.”
Black Theater Alliance Awards and a special Jeff for Chuck Smith
This past Tuesday, the Black Theater Alliance/Ira Aldridge Awards were presented at Columbia College Chicago. (Aldridge was a 19th-century American-born actor, widely regarded as the first Black American tragedian, who spent much of his career in England.)
Best production was Congo Square’s What to Send Up When It Goes Down, which just opened in a remount at Lookingglass Theatre last week. Invictus Theatre won best ensemble for their production of Ruined. Tyla Abercrumbie’s Relentless with TimeLine Theatre won best new writing of a play, and Michelle Bester’s Grandma’s Jukeboxat Black Ensemble won best new writing of a musical. Other companies and productions honored included Shattered Globe’s Rasheeda Speakingfor Deanna Reed-Foster’s performance; Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre’s Homefor Lewon Johnson’s acting; and the now-defunct House Theatre of Chicago for William Anthony Sebastian Rose II’s performance in their final production, The Tragedy of King Christophe.
The BTAAs were established by Columbia College alum Vincent Williams in 1995. As longtime Reader contributor and Columbia College faculty member Albert Williams (no relation) notes for the college’s “Green Room” blog, several of this year’s recipients (including Abercrumbie, who is also known for her acting work on the Showtime series The Chi) have Columbia College connections.
Chuck Smith Courtesy the Jeff Awards
The Jeff Awards will be presented on October 17 at Drury Lane Theatre in suburban Oakbrook Terrace. But ahead of the ceremony, the committee announced that longtime Chicago director Chuck Smith will receive a lifetime achievement award. Smith, who cofounded the seminal Chicago Theater Company at the Parkway Community Center on the south side in 1984 (with an emphasis on work by Black writers and artists) and was a resident director at the Goodman for many years, also facilitated the annual Theodore Ward Prize for best new play by a Black writer, administered through Columbia College, for 20 years. (Ward, whose 1938 play Big White Fog was an early groundbreaking work in Chicago, was a mentor and teacher for Smith.)
Most recently, Smith directed a remount of August Wilson’s Gem of the Oceanat the Goodman this past winter.