2017 wasn’t as big a dumpster fire as 2016, and I think for the most part the majority of the artistic community was ready to dig in and do the work amidst gigantic forces of oppression, as encompassed by a tiny-handed orange Lucifer-in-office. Yet for as much work as we had cut out for us in this, the first year in the Age of the Ice King, the theatre community stood up in solidarity and created some really fantastic art. Chris Jones recently came out with his Top Ten Theatre Shows in Chicago for 2017, which --predictably-- involved a lot of white noise and money, so I’m here to give you my Top Ten Things that Happened in Chicago Theatre in 2017, including shows, moments, and movements; newsworthy changes; and the occasional hashtag. In no particular order:
1. The Year of the Silence Breakers - If you’re the person in charge in any company, you above all others need to set the example for how to behave and how to treat the folks who work for you, right? Well, if you’re Brian Posen (Stage 773), Michael Halberstam (Writer’s Theatre), or Dan Abbate (Gorilla Tango Theatre), apparently that’s not true. (I feel like these Men all have something in common but I just can’t put my finger on it...) Even after that shit with Profiles went down, you’d think people would have learned. But from inappropriate jokes and comments perpetuating rape culture, to not paying your performers what they’re worth, this is just not the case. With Time Magazine’s Person of the Year publication, 2017 saw the Silence Breakers as the most influential group to effect change on a national and global scale, and in the theatre it was no different: an entire Burlesque Company walked out after months of not getting paid (Gorilla Tango), Brian Posen stepped down after so many women came forward to expose him (gross), and we still haven’t gotten the apology that abuse victim advocates need (Writers Theatre). Some cry, “Witch hunt!” but that’s far from the truth. If you worry that you’re part of the problem, however, you probably are, so the onus is on us to take a hard look in the mirror and ask ourselves if we are, and then to work to do better.
2. The Roustabouts - With graphic text throwing back to the old days of Duck Tales (aawoo-ooo), this new company founded by Tony Santiago, Ike Holter, and Jacob Stanton produced just one show, Holter’s new work Put Your House In Order. The show --which left a lot of audience members pouring out of A Red Orchid’s space dazed and terrified at the possibility of zombies in their midst (and who wouldn’t, checking out the population of Old Town on a late Saturday night?)-- was successful not just because it literally made audiences jump out of their seats, but also because of its marketing scheme: a huge amount of social media hype before tickets even went on sale, a carefully crafted extension plan, and a smart, sexy script that generated a ton of word-of-mouth interest. When those tickets finally dropped, audiences became zombies and ate them up. I for one hope this company continues to produce, and also extends their fandom-eliciting method for ticket sales to more audiences. Perhaps a concert-like approach to selling tickets is the new way to go, or perhaps they’ve just got the magic formula themselves. Either way, I’m here for the sequel.
3. Finally, some diversity in casting, and also some audiences’ (less than thrilled) responses - OK y’all, it’s 2017. I know we have a racist homophobe in office, but that does not mean we gotta be like him, too. This year in theatre offered a couple of examples of some really amazing casting choices for classic works, and audiences were....confused, to say the least. In First Folio’s production of As You Like It, there was, as a complete shock apparently to many suburban theatregoers, a racially diverse family in the form of a white parent and a black child. Not only that, but audiences ALSO had issues with the cross-gendered casting of Touchstone and subsequent language choices to have the character’s pronouns be female while retaining certain references to maleness. When more than one patron wrote to the company about it, Artistic Director David Rice did not shy away from addressing the subject. In a public statement, Rice wrote, “First Folio is committed to presenting works which, to the best of our ability, reflect the experiences of our entire audience, of our entire community.” Which leads me to two other diversely-cast classics, Picnic at American Theatre Company and Our Town at Redtwist. I’m biased because I was in Our Town, but both shows presented the story with a normalization of diversity, reimagining these stories as if to pontificate, “What if diversity was just the norm? And these stories are about...all of us?” I, for one, am ready for more. I just wonder if our audiences are…
4. AND THEN YOU GET SOMETHING LIKE THE BOOK OF WILL (at Northlight) - Two steps forward, one step back, I guess? And the ridiculous statement that “we couldn’t find any POC who could handle the language”? My bullshit meter broke. For a more insightful take on the ramifications of this production, see Emma Couling’s incredibly smart write-up of the show, as seen in New City Stage’s review section.
5. The Rise of the Intimacy Choreographer - In the wake of Profiles, Not In Our House, and the #metoo movement, theatre companies are finally recognizing the need for Intimacy Choreographers. I say “finally” because this job isn’t new. Tonia Sina of Intimacy Directors International created this position in the theatre nearly fifteen years ago and has been teaching her Pillars of Intimacy for just as long. Yet now, with both men and women coming forward to reveal histories of sexual harassment and abuse within the theatre, companies have started realizing the need for someone in the room versed in the delicate nature of this material. Intimacy Choreographers who create accountability and encourage safe spaces for actors to explore and establish intimacy between characters, without it being taken advantage of or bleeding into the offstage life, are popping up everywhere. Which, of course, begs a warning to ensure that even the choreographers themselves are highly trained, else we might end up back where we started, causing more trauma than not. For a list of qualified intimacy choreographers, check out www.intimacydirectorsinternational.com
6. Lizzie and Firebrand Theatre - Seriously, what can women NOT do? The leadership team over at Firebrand Theatre, the newly formed female-focused and feminist musical theatre company, is asking just that, and audiences are answering with a resounding, “Nothing. There is literally nothing women can’t do.” With its first production, Lizzie, extending for the upteenth time, Firebrand Theatre, true to its name, is stirring up trouble and demanding our attention, unapologetically. The combination of smart casting in the form of four powerhouse women, an all-woman rock band to back them up, and the feminist mission of the company as a whole, makes for a killer show, and a kindling of artists on fire for the revolution.
7. Salonathon - Every Monday night for the past six-and-a-half years, Beauty Bar Chicago has hosted this home for underground, emerging, and genre-defying art (art...art...art…). The brainchildren of this happening, Jane Beachy, Will Von Vogt, Joe Varisco, and Bindu Poroori, have created not just a home, but a church for artists and non-artists alike to worship the Muses. There, the misfits of Chicago share intimate stories, take risks, share magic, and dance as a celebration of the soul. Over the years, Salonathon audiences, who span a beautiful rainbow of diversity, have held space for first-time performers clenching their buttcheeks in excitement, veteran performers of music, dance, and theatre, and even the occasional politician speaking to their constituents about social change. The thing that makes Salonathon so definitive as a Chicago staple is simply its undefinability. If you’ve never gone, go now while you still can: Salonathon will be taking a hiatus in February 2018 for an undetermined amount of time while the organizers recuperate after such a long run, probably the longest running one-night-a-week event in Chicago. Where do we go from here? We’ll figure it out. Together.
8. Jeffs So White - 2017 also marked the year of the Chicago theatre community speaking out against the longtime, established, supposed-validators of the work: The Jeff Committee. After enough pressure from folks on social media, the Committee finally did a giant survey to see where they could do better, and they discovered... they need more diversity. Also, the sky is blue. But pettiness aside, many theatre companies and artists are less-than-thrilled about a group of old white people judging shows based on their shared experience, and many are also speaking out against the inequality of female and POC nominees. From making nominees pay to attend their own awards ceremony, to highlighting people of color only in terms of how “interesting” they can make the show, the Jeffs have a long way to go before gaining the respect of the younger generation of theatre artists in Chicago.
9. Young Producers Club - Chicago is THE HOME for “If you want it to be done, might as well do it yourself!” and nothing rings truer than what I’m calling the Young Producers Club. Olivia Lilley of Pop Magic Productions, Kristin Kaza of No Small Plans Productions, and Eva La Feva of Feva Pitch Productions are probably three of the hardest working producers in Chicago, and their productions are must-sees for 2018. Lilley, whose most recent show was In Sarah’s Shadow: The Eleanora Duse Story, favors devised, DIY-style shows in found spaces. Kaza produces Slo-Mo (recently featured at Steppenwolf as auxiliary programming for BLKS), as well as other queer, femme-forward performance events at her Reunion space in Humbolt Park. Feva is, IMHO, the go-to producer of New Burlesque shows in Chicago such as SIP: After Dark at Sip on Southport and Irving Park (which features live jazz from Brooklyn Britches and a slew of professional burlesque dancers), as well as her monthly show Clipper Cabaret at the California Clipper. All three of these fierce femmes need to be supported and encouraged to continue producing work in 2018. #takemymoney
10. The Fly Honey Show - Now here’s the thing: I’ve never actually SEEN The Fly Honey Show. I know. I KNOW. I should probably walk down Milwaukee Ave naked while people yell SHAME! at me, but chances are if I did, the body-positive message of Fly Honey would get me to the temple of the Den Theatre at the end of my journey. Now in its ninth year, produced by The Inconvenience, FHS is pretty much the best party you want to be invited to. The performers, in exquisitely choreographed dances by Creator/Director Erin Kilmurray, seem to have more fun than the audience. This is the point, according to Missi Davis, Executive Director of The Inconvenience and Producer of Fly Honey. She says, “The Fly Honeys are unapologetic with self-love, and our hope is that it’s contagious.” But beyond the party, FHS’s message of “Every body, no matter what your body,” rings as one of the most authentic celebrations of what Chicago stages have to offer, and some reviewers who like to highlight body diversity in theatre (COUGH COUGH Hedy Weiss COUGH COUGH) might do well to take a page out of this sweet, sweet book. Fly there next year, baby birds; I’ll see you at the party.
So there you have it. My top ten things for 2017. Here’s hoping 2018 ushers in more change for good, more female and POC visibility, and less of the “way it’s always been done” mentality. Happy New Year!
Jaq Seifert (pronouns they/them) is a Chicago-based actor, director, fight and intimacy choreographer, and movement teacher.
Originally from Fairfax, Virginia, they received their MFA from Western Illinois University ('13) and is the first openly trans Certified Teacher with the Society of American Fight Directors ('12). They received their Graduate Certificate in Laban Movement Analysis and Bartenieff Fundamentals from Columbia College Chicago in 2015, and has been working in Commedia dell'Arte with world-renowned maestro Antonio Fava for over ten years. They adjunct at Roosevelt University and Aurora University, pioneered the Audience Designer position at Theater Wit, are an Instructor at Vagabond School of the Arts, and a teaching artist with Old Town School of Folk Music's Summer Camp Program. They have worked on Broadway and off-Broadway, with Roundabout Theatre Company, Milwaukee Repertory Theatre, A Red Orchid, Raven Theatre, First Folio, Oak Park Theatre Festival, Porchlight Music Theatre, Theater Wit, Halcyon Theatre, The Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire, Cherokee Historical Association, and The Lost Colony, and was nominated for a New York Innovative Theatre Award for Fight Choreography with Stolen Chair Theatre Company. An avid runner, horseback rider, one-time stunt person and sometime juggler, Jaq also works in the wine industry.