ArtsAutumn 2021

New Normal

Chicago’s arts and culture institution buckle up for a journey back to live performances this season

After 18 months of uncertainty about when and whether audiences would be able to return to live, in-person, indoor performances, venues in Chicago and the surrounding suburbs are finally opening their doors to patrons and kicking off seasons of shows, concerts and exhibits with much fanfare and celebration. From lavish operas to gritty storefront theater productions, Chicago is coming back to in-person work with verve, and artists and audiences are here for it.

“We’re brimming with excitement awaiting the return of our audiences next month, ” says Amy Rubenstein, artistic director for Windy City Playhouse, which is starting its season with a show starring Chicago chef and playwright Rick Bayless. Rubenstein continues, “Our upcoming food comedy is just what we think audiences will want after over 18 months of being closed. We could all use a good laugh and some tasty bites!”

Fun is definitely a big component in the shows available this season. Chicago Shakespeare Theater is launching its season with a raucous, Beatles-infused production of As You Like It; Lookingglass Theatre is bringing back its beloved, circus-inspired Lookingglass Alice this season; and all of the Christmas classics are back onstage for the holidays throughout the city and beyond. 

For theater-goers ready to dive into heavier fare, dramas and tragedies are also on deck at many companies. Court Theatre opens its season in October with Othello, and the South Side venue is definitely delighted to return to live experiences. Says executive director Angel Ysaguirre, “Live theater is a shared experience, offering the opportunity for an exchange of ideas and energy in a communal space. We are thrilled to return to the stage, as it provides the artistic sustenance audiences have been missing for nearly two years, while also ensuring the livelihood of both theatres and theatre artists.”

Though venues have been shuttered for the better part of two years, performing arts organizations haven’t been totally shut down for the last year and a half. Artists have been creative in finding ways to produce online content and share performances virtually, and audiences have done their best to embrace those efforts. While most folks are appreciative of the stopgap measures to keep things rolling along, seeing a show online is no substitute for experiencing a performance in person.

Eileen LaCario, vice president of Broadway In Chicago reflects that during the pandemic, the performing arts community “ was the first to close and the last to re-open, a tremendous loss for the City of Chicago, our audiences and our performing artists and professionals. In my over 50 years in theater it was the most isolating time of our lives – the silver lining is that in Chicago we always pull together in support of each other and that is what got us all through.”

Indeed, Chicago theaters have banded together throughout the shutdown and are continuing to work together as they reopen. In August of this year, The League of Chicago Theatres shared that a group of more than 65 venues across Chicagoland agreed on COVID-19 vaccination and mask requirements for audiences through the end of 2021. This unified COVID-19 protection protocol will be in effect for indoor productions, requiring audience members to provide proof of vaccination or negative test certification upon entry and to wear masks.

League of Chicago Theatres’ executive director, Deb Clapp explains, “The arts and cultural community is embedded in the fabric of Chicago. Not all of the League’s more than 200 member theatres will be able to open this Fall. We are pleased that many members of our vibrant performing arts community that will be opening have come together to craft a unified response to this crisis so that audiences can once again experience the joy of live performance without future disruption.”

With masks firmly in place and protocols and policies at the ready, some organizations have already opened their doors to eager audiences with early fall concerts and events. The McAninch Arts Center got things started with a lively, crowd-pleasing concert.

“When we presented The High Kings on Sept. 12,” says MAC’s executive director, Diana Martinez, “it was our first performance before a live audience in 18 months. We didn’t know what to expect but were thrilled to see that our audience had missed us as much as we had missed them. We now look forward with excited anticipation as our full season unfolds to enjoy the regular sound of live applause once again.”

Music of the Baroque also launched their season early in September with a similar wave of excitement and emotion. “I was fully expecting to be moved by performing at last to live audiences again,” explains Dame Jane Glover, music director for the ensemble. “But I was completely bowled over by the experience of walking out and welcoming them back, and then indulging in that precious two-way communication that is the very essence of live performance. The warmth that emanated from both stage and auditorium was truly priceless. Long may it continue!” 

Declan McGovern, executive director of Music of the Baroque, adds, “Everyone was ecstatic—our audience applauded our musicians, and our musicians applauded our audience! The circle between music-makers and listeners is once again complete.”

Eddie Sugarman, executive artistic director of The Theatre of Western Springs, concurs. “It’s wonderful to be welcoming (limited) audiences back into our spaces. It’s also really hard work. The sounds of dialogue and laughter and the electricity of live performance are very much alive!”

Sugarman mentions a component of reopening that many audiences may not consider: it is a significant amount of work to get a season up and running during a pandemic—much more than was required prior to the shutdown. Venues are taking extraordinary efforts to keep theater artists and theatregoers safe as the COVID-19 pandemic drags on. The rehearsal process is tricky because of safety protocols. The challenges of the audience services staff are new, different, and vital to keeping patrons safe. Even the people who assist with facilities maintenance have a more challenging workload now that they’re also maintaining HVAC and air-handling systems that are responsible for minimizing the risk of spreading COVID and other airborne illnesses. 

Despite the new challenges plus all of the usual ones associated with mounting a live show, Chicago arts organizations are nothing if not strong, resourceful, and nimble. They’ve been waiting for this moment for the last year and a half, and mask mandates, vaccine requirements, and new HVAC systems are well-worth the reward of performing for live audiences again.