There’s been a lot of changeover in top leadership at Chicago theaters over the past 18 months, with more to come; we’re still waiting to hear who will be replacing Anna Shapiro as Steppenwolf’s artistic director when she leaves at the end of her six-year contract in August. (Will the company honor past tradition and draw from within the ensemble, or will they look outside the walls of the growing Steppenwolf campus on Halsted?)
But two longtime Equity companies have just announced new artistic directors, and they’ve chosen women with deep roots in town to lead them in the (hopefully) post-pandemic era.
Marti Lyons, a freelance director whose resume includes shows at Victory Gardens, Chicago Shakespeare, Court, Writers Theatre, Gift, and Sideshow, as well as work around the country at theaters such as Wooly Mammoth and Studio Theatre in Washington, D.C., and the Geffen Playhouse in LA, has been named as the new artistic director for Remy Bumppo.
And Teatro Vista has named two women–Lorena Diaz and Wendy Mateo–as co-artistic directors. Diaz and Mateo also have long resumes as performers and directors onstage and onscreen (they’ve both been seen on Dick Wolf’s Chicago PD and Chicago Med), and have been creative partners for many years. Sketch fans know them as “Lolo and Wendy” of the comedy duo Dominizuelan. (The name is a portmanteau of their Latina heritage–Diaz is Venezuelan and Mateo is Dominican.) They also run their own digital content creation company, Chicago4Real. (They produced a web series, The Dominizuelan Consulate, with Fred Armisen.)
In talking to all three women (the first female artistic directors in the history of their respective companies), it’s clear that they see their mission is to work collaboratively within the existing ensembles of Remy Bumppo and Teatro Vista, while expanding the idea of what the work created by those ensembles can be, onstage and off.
Remy Bumppo was founded 25 years ago by James Bohnen (the name came from his pets), and the company’s emphasis has been on language-driven works and classics–they adopted “Think Theatre” as the shorthand version of their mission some time ago. After Bohnen departed in 2011, Remy Bumppo brought in Timothy Douglas as his replacement. But that arrangement only lasted six months, as an apparent lack of artistic rapport with the ensemble led to Douglas resigning in early 2012. (He told the Reader‘s Tony Adler at the time, “The approach to the work that I have differs so markedly from what has gone before that it just felt the compromise was too great.”) Douglas was replaced by ensemble member Nick Sandys.
Sandys announced his intention to leave the artistic director’s post back in mid-December of 2020 (he remains a member of the ensemble), and the company hired ALJP Consulting to help find his replacement. Lyons, who hasn’t directed at Remy Bumppo in the past, found that the “brilliantly structured process” leading to her hiring meant that everyone’s voices were heard.
“I interviewed with every part of the organization. It was very thorough. I got the sense that the board, the staff, and the ensemble all had a say, and that they all had to turn their keys in order to make this hire,” says Lyons, adding, “I had a working session with the ensemble where we collaborated together, and that also then became an interview with the ensemble.”
Lyons notes that she’s joining Remy Bumppo during a time when the company has already been developing a new strategic plan “for shifting some practices and making actionable change on all levels of the organization. And that was something that is very interesting to me in my work as an individual. And I’m speaking here specifically of anti-racist and anti-exploitative practices.”
In practical terms for Lyons, that means “Representation is on the forefront of my mind. Both in terms of who’s on our stages and who’s behind the scenes for our season. Additionally, who is on our ensemble, on our board, and on our staff.” She adds, “I think the anti-racist work that is being done in the theater community really betters the working conditions for everyone. And so here’s where we’re also talking about pay equity, looking at how to pay staffers but also freelancers as fairly as possible, given the size of our organization. Pay equity is also something that is on the forefront of our minds.”
Lyons also notes, “We See You White American Theater, the conversation around that brilliant document is something that has been happening at Remy Bumppo for over a year now. And it’s something that is taken very seriously and considered very thoroughly on all levels of the organization.”
Though the company hasn’t announced its next season yet, Lyons acknowledges that Remy Bumppo has been best known for “Eurocentric classics” (albeit with a modern bent–they’ve produced seven Tom Stoppard plays over their history, for example). Lyons says, “We as an organization are very excited to continue to expand beyond those works and those writers, although they are great works and brilliant writers, to invite new lenses and new frameworks and new writers into our midst. Again, to expand what language-centric work can mean.
“Remy Bumppo and I have this really neat aesthetic alignment in that we both have a history of doing extant works, and also new works, and adaptations.” Lyons adds, “I think there is a lot of freedom in being a language-based company because we can do works that are historical. We can also do new works or second and third productions. We have a lot of flexibility and we have an opportunity to do work that is language-driven. But that can mean so many things. Certainly it has in my career. And it also has with Remy Bumppo.”
New vistas–on stage and screen
Founded in 1990 by Edward Torres and Henry Godinez, Teatro Vista’s motto is “theatre with a view”–and more specifically, a view that encompasses the broad range of work by contemporary Latinx artists. Torres took over as sole artistic director in 1995 when Godinez (who has been a longtime resident artistic associate for the Goodman) left. In 2013, Ricardo Gutierrez moved into the role.
Diaz has performed with Teatro Vista mainstage productions, while Mateo has not. But they have both been in the company’s larger circle of friends for many years. Mateo says, “We’d perform at their fundraisers and would perform as Dominizuelan in various forms. There was a program they did called Late Night TV a couple of years ago that we participated in pretty regularly.”
With the duo’s strong background in digital content, it’s not surprising that that’s one of the areas where Diaz and Mateo believe they can expand the artistic and audience reach of the company. Mateo says, “We’ve always been creating content, whether it be onstage or it be on digital platforms. And we felt that that skill set, paired with what the ensemble is already doing, would be a recipe for finally bringing theater to folks, as well as into the theater. We always look at it as an opportunity for ‘How do we step theater out of these four walls and give it accessibility to the communities who want to see our stories, who need to see themselves represented, and need to see our stories?’ So it was a convergence of all of those things and the ensemble is so energizing to lead that way.”
Diaz adds, “The audience during the pandemic, they learned, ‘Oh, I don’t have to be in the theater to have a theatrical experience.’ And so just like we learned that we can skip over commercials with TIVO, we’re like, ‘Oh, this is new and awesome.'”
Mateo and Diaz also went through a lengthy interview process, facilitated by BLVE Consults. Diaz says that the Teatro Vista board “were hesitant about a co-artistic director partnership at first. But once you talk to Wendy and I together, you get it. The ensemble was really on board; we knew that they would be because we’re so used to collaboration and what it looks like to bring that to leadership.” The two also credit Teatro Vista’s managing director Sylvia Lopez (“who is a boss,” says Diaz) and board president Adela Cepeda for their advocacy of the arrangement.
Building bridges between communities is also something that Mateo and Diaz feel they can do well, based on their own career experiences.
“Wendy and I have always been looking for ways to create bridges from one to the other,” notes Diaz. “So earlier on in our career, we were like, ‘How do we bridge comedy and theater?’ Because it was so separate. When we arrived in Chicago 15 years ago it was like, ‘The comedy community over here, the theater community over here.’ And so we set out to create a theatrical sketch show that was more of a theatrical experience, as opposed to a straight-up, lights-up, lights-down [show]. And now that bridge that we’re looking to craft is between theater and film and that digital experience.”
But of course the company will maintain its focus on live performance. Though the next season is still a work in progress, the new artistic directors did mention one show that will be happening: Somewhere Over the Border, written by Brian Quijada, whose 2016 autobiographical solo show, Where Did We Sit on the Bus?, was a hit for Teatro Vista. Diaz describes it as, “Think The Wizard of Oz meets Willy Wonka. He’s amazing. An incredible talent, an incredible musician, performer, writer, and this story is epic.” “EPIC,” echoes Mateo. Teatro Vista will produce a workshop of Quijada’s show this fall, with a full production slated for spring of 2022.
Like Lyons, Diaz and Mateo also think that the year of shutdown and demonstrations against racial injustice has potentially seeded the ground for something greater in the theater community. They also credit other women in theater with whom they’ve worked–specifically Heidi Stillman, artistic director for Lookingglass Theatre, and Miranda Gonzalez, artistic director of UrbanTheater Company, for the support they’ve given.
Says Mateo, “When the summer rebellion happened and We See You White American Theater came out with their demands, I thought to myself even at that time, ‘What would be the possibility of a BIPOC-led and -founded theater to create equitable practices for their artists? What would it look like for us to not have to demand that of the white theaters, but lead that?’ And so we have this opportunity to be that.” v