Laugh Factory prepares to go All In with accessibility in comedy

The very phrase “stand-up comedy” is arguably ableist: even though there are many working comedians who use wheelchairs or who have other disabilities, comedy clubs (like a lot of entertainment venues) still have a ways to go to address issues of accessibility for patrons and performers alike. But Nicholas Dunnigan is hoping to change that a little bit.

Dunnigan started out just a few months ago as an intern at Chicago’s Laugh Factory, even though his ultimate goal is to start his own theater company. “I wanted accessibility to sort of be one of the central pieces of my theater company. But that was kind of on the back burner when I got to work at the Laugh Factory. For my internship I had to come up with projects that could benefit the club in some capacity. I had all these different projects, like a merch stand, for example, which was one of the projects I came up with that got rejected. 

“Then one day we had a show that was entirely in Portuguese, and this regular came in. And I seated her, and I told her, ‘Hey, just so you know, the show’s entirely in Brazilian Portuguese.’ And she was like, ‘OK.’ And then five minutes into the show she left. And she said, ‘I thought I could handle it. I can’t. But if you had a show that was in ASL, I could do that.’”

That exchange became what Dunnigan calls “a lightbulb moment.” He began thinking about not just having ASL interpreters at Laugh Factory but creating a more welcoming environment for audiences and performers who have disabilities. What he’s come up with is All In Comedy, a disability-inclusive show scheduled for Sunday, October 23 at 8 PM. The lineup will be comprised entirely of comedians with disabilities (he’s still nailing down the final program), and there will be ASL interpreters, large-print menus for guests with visual impairments, and dimmed lighting for patrons with sensory sensitivity.

Dunnigan of course isn’t the first person to produce a showcase for comedians with disabilities; he notes that Second City did a disability community showcase at their Toronto theater. Laugh Factory in Hollywood and other LA clubs participated for years in the Norman G. Brooks Standup Comedy Showcase, presented by the Media Access Office (a program of the California Employment Development Department) and the Friends of Californians with Disabilities. Before they closed down during the pandemic (though they are soon to reopen under new leadership), iO presented “Who Dis,” a showcase founded by comedian Liz Komos and featuring performers from the mental health, chronic illness, and disability communities. 

Dunnigan notes that Laugh Factory has provided ASL interpreters in the past if performers request them, “but it’s not like a regular thing, or it’s not like the exact idea of the show, you know? If someone needs it, they’ll get it. But it’s not like an accessibility-centered show.”

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Originally, Dunnigan thought the showcase might be “half comics who did live with disability and the other half who just worked really well with ASL interpreters.” But as he dove into watching clips, he realized it would be easy to bring in enough comedians with disabilities to create a full lineup. Most of the performers will be local, with the exception so far of Michigan-based comic Jacob Barr. “I actually met him at the open mike at Laugh Factory. He went up after me. He killed. He was so funny,” says Dunnigan. “I bought him a drink. I told him I was looking at doing this showcase and he was so excited.”

As for ASL interpretation, Dunnigan notes that he’s looking for interpreters who have worked with theater. “Interpreting theater and interpreting comedy, that’s kind of very close together. It’s all about the bridge. It’s all about the timing. It’s all about the delivery, whether you are doing Death of a Salesman or you’re telling a dick joke.” He adds that the ASL interpreters Laugh Factory usually works with “understand sort of the different quirks of each of the comedians, because each comic is gonna be different.”

Dunnigan hopes that All In can become a regular feature at Laugh Factory and will encourage other comedy clubs to highlight performers with disability on an ongoing basis. “We do scene shows at Laugh Factory quite often. As I said, there was a show that was entirely in Brazilian Portuguese. We have Latinx-style comedy. We have shows centered around race. Representation is very important, whoever you’re representing. But this was just one thing that we didn’t really have.” 

Criss Henderson Courtesy Chicago Shakespeare Theater

Criss Henderson leaving Chicago Shakespeare

After 33 years in the job, Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s executive director Criss Henderson announced earlier this week that he’s stepping down at the end of the year. His announcement comes nearly six months after founding artistic director Barbara Gaines announced that she’s leaving the company in 2023

This is just the latest in a string of personnel changes at the top for major Chicago theaters. But though Henderson wasn’t there at the very birth of Chicago Shakes (which began back in 1986 with a performance of Henry V on the rooftop of the Red Lion on Lincoln), he and Gaines have been so closely aligned in the company’s growth that it’s not entirely surprising that he would decide to leave around the same time. Under Henderson and Gaines’s leadership, the company moved to their two-venue theater on Navy Pier in 1999 and expanded next door to The Yard in 2017. They also focused on international productions, both by taking Chicago Shakes shows abroad and by producing the lauded WorldStage series at home.

Chicago Shakes board president Mark Ouweleen notes that the company will hire interim leadership after Henderson’s departure, and Henderson will continue on a consulting basis through 2023. No successor for Gaines has been named as of yet.

Jeff Award nominations announced

On Tuesday, the Joseph Jefferson Awards committee announced the nominees for the Equity Awards. (Per Jeffs tradition, the categories for best production, best director, and the design elements are divided by “large” and “midsize” theaters operating under Equity contracts, while performers and playwrights all compete head-to-head regardless of theater size; the non-Equity Jeffs are usually presented in the spring.) 

In recognition of the ongoing challenges of producing in the pandemic, this year the Jeffs include categories for short-run productions (nine to 17 performances). Since most of those nominated are the only ones in their categories—including About Face’s staging of Terry Guest’s The Magnolia Balletfor best production, Congo Square’s What to Send Up When It Goes Downfor best ensemble (which returns September 24 in a coproduction with Lookingglass), Angela Webber Miller for her scenic design for Theater Wit’s Who’s Holiday!, and Natalie Y. Moore’s The Billboard with 16th Street Theater for best new work—it seems a safe bet to say they’ll win. 

By the numbers, suburban Drury Lane and the Goodman had the most nominations, with 21 and 20, respectively (the latter reflecting four coproductions). In the midsize categories, TimeLine got ten noms, including one for best new work (Tyla Abercrumbie’s Relentless, which opened with TimeLine at Theater Wit and subsequently moved to the Goodman’s Owen stage). The single show with the most nominations (eight total) was Paramount Theatre in Aurora’s staging of Kinky Boots. Among individual artists, sound designer and composer Christopher Kriz topped the list with five nominations (including for his original music in Relentless).

The ceremony will be held Monday, October 17, at Drury Lane Oakbrook—the first live Jeff Awards show since the 2020 shutdown. 

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