Why This? Why Now?

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Last year, when the American Blues Theater was formed as a breakaway group by most of the ensemble members of American Theatre Company, I cheered loudly and enthusiastically.  Here was the triumph of the committed ensemble, long an invaluable element of what makes Chicago theater great, over authoritarian Artistic Directors.  As a passionate audience member, I was very excited for the not-so-new theater company and the ambitious heights it would achieve.  So I’m pretty puzzled and quite disappointed that a group so distinguished and so fervent about its art would stage as part of its 25th year celebration a play so overwrought, so broadly-written, so, do I dare say it, irrelevant to a 21st century theater audience as Jack Kirkland’s 1933 adaptation of Erskine Caldwell’s best-selling novel Tobacco Road, the second-longest running play in Broadway history (running for 3,182 performances over 8 years, from 1933 to 1941).  In this case, longevity was not an indication of quality.

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…to the American Blues Theater, the new company that is immediately being formed by 23 of the 28 ensemble members of the American Theater Company, who is leaving their artistic home due to irreconcilable “artistic and administrative” differences with Artistic Director, PJ Paparelli.  It has been the big news in Chicago theater since late last week, with more than 110 comments on Chris Jones’  blog entry alone.  As an audience member, I should ultimately judge a theater company based on the quality of its product, and not on its internal workings, but this time, I felt that I personally should put my money where artistic integrity lies.  One of the things that has been justly celebrated about Chicago theater in the performing arts worlds, both national and international, and which I am particularly proud of, is our ability to build and nurture theatrical ensembles – it’s one of our differentiating trademarks.  So I can’t really support a person or an organization that tries to undo one that has stood strong for 25 years.  I’ve written on this blog about Paparelli’s significant achievements in his short stint here in Chicago – last year’s wonderful Speech and Debate, this year’s searing True West.  Unfortunately, those achievements seemed to have come at a tremendous cost to the ATC ensemble, many of them stalwarts of the Chicago theater community.  And I don’t think I, as an audience member passionate for our town’s theater-how it works, why it sustains, can stand for that.