In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the survival of Chicago’s theater community may still be in danger. In a study recently released by Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE), theaters continue to suffer from dwindling ticket sales, increased costs, and private donations that failed to keep pace with inflation. 

This study, Navigating Recovery: Arts and Culture Financial and Operating Trends in Chicago, comes shortly after DCASE’s Chicago Arts Recovery Program dispersed $16.5 million to 77 organizations that support the arts in Chicago. 

On May 9, 2023, former Chicago Mayo Lori E. Lightfoot and DCASE announced these 77 grantees for the Chicago Arts Recovery Program. A last act from the Lightfoot administration, as Mayor Johnson took office on May 15. 

Although a lot of large theaters are reportedly struggling, many Black and culturally-specific organizations were able to get access to funding that helped grow and sustain their work in impactful ways. Apprehensive about ticket sales, independent theater funding has decreased, making government funding programs — such as the Chicago Arts Recovery Program — more pivotal than ever.

This program, and others like it, has helped to sustain institutions like the Black Ensemble Theater, a thriving theater company committed to eradicating racism. Like most of the world, these organizations were no exception to the digital pivot that was necessary to survive. For many organizations, that meant changing existing classes, performances, and outreach programs to a digital platform.

Lyle Miller, marketing manager and IT coordinator for the Black Ensemble Theater, spoke about how its founder and CEO, Jackie Taylor, always knew they would bounce back after COVID-19, and continued to move the business forward during the pandemic. 

“So after a few months, we embraced the digital realm, and people started getting used to it. We kept our audience engaged, because they’re not just our audience, they’re community,” Miller said. 

Founding the Black Ensemble Theater in 1976, Jackie Taylor is a distinguished director, producer, actress, educator, singer, and playwright. When asked about surviving during the pandemic she told The TRiiBE, “The pivot was simply transitioning programming to the screen. How we stayed alive was we continued to offer our programs, but we had to market them a different way.” 

She continued, “Schools were closed, businesses were closed and theaters were closed. So things had to be restructured, but it was important to stay in front of our community. And that’s what we did,” she said. 

Since receiving $150,000 from the Chicago Recovery Arts Program, the organization has now been able to build on its outreach programs, like the Strengthening the School Through Theater Arts program. Now, the program offers in-person sessions to enhance, empower, and equip students and teachers, improving the quality of learning through theater arts. 

“The funds went into our programming, they went to enhancing and strengthening the School to The Arts programming, it enabled us to train more teachers. It went into our Plays With a Purpose Programming,” Taylor said. 

Designed to teach elementary and high school students positive life lessons, Plays With a Purpose is a series of interactive musical plays, another outreach program offered by The Black Ensemble Theatre.

 

 

Photo of Charlique C. Rolle
Charlique C. Rolle, executive director of Congo Square Theatre Company, and a 2023 Chicago Urban League IMPACT Fellow. She was also recently named the new president of the Black Arts & Culture Alliance of Chicago. Photo by John R. Boehm

Being able to connect and relate to your community has proven to be a major advantage for small to midsize theater companies. “When you have that community support, that very clear voice, for the people, with the people, they will be with you at all times, versus this is just something that’s entertainment,” Charlique Rolle told The TRiiBE. 

Charlique C. Rolle is an arts administrator and interdisciplinary artist, executive director of Congo Square Theatre Company, and a 2023 Chicago Urban League IMPACT Fellow. She was also recently named the new president of the Black Arts & Culture Alliance of Chicago, recently known as the African American Arts Alliance of Chicago, succeeding Taylor. 

Taking over as executive director for the Congo Square Theatre Company in the spring of 2020, Rolle inherited every issue the pandemic presented for the theater community. Heavily relying on contractors and part-time artists, she was also the organization’s only full-time employee. 

Now, with three full-time employees and numerous part-time employees, the theater has experienced growth. 

“Small and midsize theaters, particularly, and especially the culturally specific ones, have seen a lot of growth throughout COVID,” Rolle told The TRiiBE. “Yes, there was a lot of funding directed towards us, but also, there’s a different model. Even beyond race, those that really spend time building community and doing work that is rooted in community, that’s something that’s innate to culturally specific institutions.”

An example of this would be Congo Square Theatre’s Radical Generosity Model, where they offer up to 30% of their tickets either for free or heavily subsidized for community members. The model has proven useful in times where subscription ticket sales have taken a substantial hit.

Meanwhile, more prominent theaters are reportedly struggling to maintain their pre-pandemic level audience attendance, according to an article by Crain’s Chicago Business. One of those theaters is Chicago’s Tony Award-winning Lookingglass Theatre, which has taken a pause from producing shows until spring 2024, while also laying off a majority of their staff — a move that shook Chicago’s theater community. 

According to Rolle, about 85% of Congo Square’s audience has returned to the theater when comparing numbers to pre-COVID. Without a brick-and-mortar location, the organization has been able to save on costs associated with building maintenance and other overhead costs.

Through DCASE, the Black Arts and Culture Alliance received $180,000. Both organizations, associated with Rolle, have received funds from the program, and plan on using them for sustainability, to bring in additional staff, help support the expansion of community outreach efforts, and build a strong financial infrastructure. 

Pay equity and stability is a main priority when building that infrastructure. For Kia S. Smith, the founder and executive artistic director of the South Chicago Dance Theatre, the grant has helped her provide a salary as well as health and dental insurance for her artists. 

“I think in our city, there are a number of companies that offer health benefits, [or] that offer a salary for the dancer, or dancers are making a living wage,” she explained. “Most of those companies are on the city’s North Side, or in the Loop. I believe we’re bringing the same kind of work to our community that is being brought to the Loop and the North Side.”

Smith founded the South Chicago Dance Theatre in 2017. After being granted $150,000 from the Chicago Arts Recovery Program, the South Side native has grown the organization from nothing, to having a budget of $800,000 in its seventh season. 

“When you look at the Loop, or you look at the North side, there’s so much art, there’s so much culture, so many institutions. That’s what draws people to those places and makes them want to be there because there’s so much life. We bring that life to the South Side,” Smith told The TRiiBE.

is a culture correspondent with The TRiiBE.