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A Fond Farewell to American Theater Company

Almost exactly a month ago, American Theater Company officially closed its doors, sending shockwaves and broken hearts throughout the Chicago theater community. An institution in this city since the 80’s, ATC underwent more than a few changes, rifts and leaders, employing hundreds of artists and several explorations of the question “What does it mean to be American?” The Chicago Inclusion Project was proud to collaborate with ATC in the last couple of seasons, a partnership which began almost the moment Will Davis became Artistic Director. Today we celebrate the impact the company made on so many of us…

At ATC, I was consistently welcomed, valued, challenged, moved, and inspired by all of the work and play I saw and experienced there. ATC was able to do so much with so few resources; it offered art made with love and grit by all involved. The ATC staff gave their hearts and time so generously, and their work ethic is an endless source of inspiration. I'm grateful for my time with the company, and all of the extraordinary people I met within those walls.

- Kelly O Sullivan, ATC ensemble member

Under Will Davis' artistic direction at ATC, a much-needed un-ironic enthusiasm was brought to Chicago theatre. Like a blast of oxygen, Will's artistry and aesthetics reminded us how little we need to make theatre. And now, with ATC's closing, we are painfully reminded that there's much needed to make a theatre. The challenges Will inherited were arguably insurmountable. What he was able to do with such a paucity of resources and time is astonishing: he created a community, he curated work that brought Chicago up to pace with other cities, and he took human beings who had all too often been relegated to the sidelines and put them front and center. (Of course, staged and lit beautifully). He did all this with an exploratory spirit, a passionate searching curiosity that should serve as inspiration for all of us to always hold these questions close on our journey: what can theatre do better than any other artform, and what indeed does it mean to be an American?

- Michael Patrick Thornton, actor and Artistic Director of Gift Theatre

The arrival of Will Davis as Artistic Director of American Theater Company was a dream. A well-established Chicago institution hiring one of our country’s jewels: a true visionary. Will’s motor, CURIOSITY, drives him to build work based on questions, resulting in gorgeous and unexpected theatre. I had the pleasure of being directed by Will in ATC’s Picnic, playing Hal Carter. The casting, facilitated by the Chicago Inclusion Project, resulted in a stage picture that looked and felt quite different than previous productions of this American classic. It felt and looked much closer to the world I know. It was queer a.f. And felt completely...normal. Excitingly normal. The way he thinks about The Work, the way he dissects it, the way he builds and rebuilds. And the way we, the actors, are not CONCEPTS. Why? Because Will Davis sees us as INDIVIDUALS, not REPRESENTATIONS OF GROUPS. Does one have to be Queer to see this way? I don’t necessarily think so. But Will’s identity certainly informs the way he sees the world, and us, and it was a way I hadn’t been led in my 20+years as an actor.

Will Davis, Chicago is losing a leader that other leaders should have been looking to. Thank you for giving us your time and your heart. New York is so lucky.

- Molly Brennan, Actor

Will Davis didn’t wait for permission to start building an institution based on ideals and values rooted in a better future for this country, which is what that place felt like each time I walked in: an in-my-opinion-pitch-perfect interpretation of the American Theater Company name and legacy. He partnered with The Chicago Inclusion Project and built a casting process on a foundation of inclusion and stellar professionalism. He created residency programs that nurtured artists at so many various stages of their artistic careers, really making it about investing in the artist and their passion. He further invested in the youth ensemble, and brought the brilliant Abhi Shrestha on board to curate next-level programming aimed at truly nurturing the next generation. He produced new, challenging, developing, forward-thinking (and AMBITIOUS) works of art that asked their audiences for trust, and repaid that trust with experiences built on a bedrock of humanity and empathy and craft and innovation and insight and technique and heart and guts and honesty.

It was amazing. And Will just did it. By making certain things priorities in his process, administratively and artistically. Things that so many of us still treat as ambitions. As “if only we could”s. This is what Will and ATC meant to me - they showed me what it means to live your values, as an artist, as a company leader and as a citizen. Create the better future. Make it a priority. Read more...

- Josh Sobel, Artistic Director of Haven Theatre

How curious? The calling card of the radiant Will Davis directing me in ATC’s Picnic this time last year. And how curious indeed. The queer inclusive casting that Will, ATC, and the Chicago Inclusion Project did for this show have already had rippling effects with Timeline’s Vibrator Play and other companies learning to answer the question “why now?” The effects that Will at the helm of ATC have had already have ramifications that can be seen in our theater community that will continue to reverberate at a higher and higher decibel, influencing art that relates to the tumultuous transition that humanity as a

whole is going through now. We don’t know where we are going but art and stories are our guiding light, slowly lighting the path ahead step by step. Will has invigorated our community and he and ATC will always hold a special place in my heart.

By the time the [Picnic] rehearsal process started we had experienced the terrifying shift of people of minorities of all shapes feeling the hate begin to turn up and I was terrified. I had just come from a very dark place a few months before...But in the midst of that darkness, Will, Picnic, and my cast helped me through it all whether they knew it or not. Through my fellow actors I pushed myself to go to new depths in my acting I had never known. I got to play a 16 year old girl, be cisgender, and be seen as Millie, the outcast. Too smart to be “pretty” and not fitting the mold, something a lot of us can relate to. In short, Will, ATC, and Picnic literally helped save my life because things were that dark in my own hidden world. Though all of this was just a stepping-stone in allowing myself to be seen, it was a pivotal one that was placed in just the right place. Every piece I got to see from ATC was challenging and pushing us forward as a community of artists, as a community of humans. I mourn for the great loss our community and Chicago has received, and I celebrate the amazing strides accomplished the effects still yet to be felt. Here’s to you Will. To the unknown.

- Alexia Jasmene, actor

As a young actor moving to Chicago I sought out an artistic home, a space to grow as an artist, and that objective transpired into becoming close with companies like Teatro Luna and Collaboraction. Whereas theaters such as TimeLine or yes, even American Theater Company for some reason, were not theaters on my radar nor places I often found myself in. And that is no fault of theirs, because it could have come down to something as simple as they didn’t know who I was - and I didn’t know their work or who they were, so I was not proactive in doing the research I needed to do, but also maybe, maybe, it came down to accessibility? Who knows.

After two tablce reads of Men On Boats, I was offered a role, which was a dream. I quickly learned that in the grand scheme of it all, I liked collaborative environments where we first and foremost brought ourselves, and then we were artists, and we were creators. Plus, I finally felt like I found someone who saw me in the light I wanted to be seen in, a light I was ready to be seen in. It seemed Will and I had similar creative ways of thinking and ways of working. I also cannot emphasize enough how taken care of, how valued and how seen I felt by Will and everyone else that made up ATC like Sarah Slight, Emma Palermo, Katie Klemme, Abhi Shrestha, Amanda Forman and Logan Jones. In a Northside theater I finally got to experience things, basic human needs, that many people take for granted. I wasn’t tokenized, I didn’t feel used as if to educate. I existed. And the ATC I was a part of and was proud to be a part of was queer as fuck but also, playful and freeing. ATC provided the roof and it was there where I had opportunities to do the thing I love in a way I suddenly was craving. And yes, I also must give a shout out to The Chicago Inclusion Project who also said, “we see you Avi, we see you.” Read more...

- Avi Roque, actor

I thought of ATC as a home. I think a lot of people did. Will Davis did the work. As a transgender actor, there was something so incredibly powerful to see someone behind the table in an audition whom I believed fully saw me, 100 percent, as I am, without having to try. Representation is truly so important. Not just for trans* folks, but all marginalized communities. Will was working actively to hand the mic over to all of us, so that our too-oft-silenced voices and perspectives could be heard, seen, and inspire those in our own communities. I became an actress on the ATC stage because I knew I was safe there. I knew I was empowered there. I was given permission to be fierce as I am, not as a token, but as a key player. It is rare that one has such a transformative experience onstage. I think many people transformed in that building, both on and off-stage, because of the magic that Will created. Because of the home that he built.

- Elle Walker, actor

Voices that deserved Volume were given the stage. Theatre that actually mattered was made there. American Theater Company felt like home to me. Will Davis led the way. I count myself incredibly lucky to have been a part of Battleaxe Betty (ATC CORE) and We're Gonna Be Okay. I learned how "to make art that looks like the people who made it" there. I learned "what it means to be an American" there. We made American mosaics. We were seen. We were brave. I marvel at what we all made together there.

- Gaby Labotka, actor and fight choreographer

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