The evolution of Court Theatre

Charles Newell Photo by Joe Mazza

Theater Critic

When Charles Newell came to Court Theatre to direct Marivaux’s “The Triumph of Love” during the 1993-1994 season, he had no idea he’d still be around a quarter-of-a-century later. A freelancer and resident director at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis to whom Chicago meant Steppenwolf and contemporary plays, he was just very excited to find that Court was a home for the classics and that artistic director Nicholas Rudall was a kindred spirit. Little did he know that Rudall would leave in a year, and the board would ask him to be his replacement.

Fast forward to 2018, and Newell, who has become known for wide-ranging programming, has put together a season that’s more diverse than ever. Court also has a new executive director, Angel Ysaguirre, due to the recent death of Stephen J. Albert. He and Newell plan to strengthen the vision of the theater and integrate it even more with the University of Chicago and South Side community.

The current lineup kicked off with August Wilson’s “Radio Golf” and includes Ntozake Shange’s “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf” and contemporary American playwright Anna Ziegler’s “Photograph 51” plus two world premieres, Manual Cinema’s “Frankenstein” and David Auburn’s “The Adventures of Augie March,” the first-ever adaptation of a novel by Saul Bellow, who taught at the university.

This is a far cry from the season of Newell’s arrival, which offered works by Oscar Wilde, Edward Albee and Caryl Churchill, as well as the Marivaux and Donna Blue Lachman’s one-woman show about Frida Kahlo. And that was adventurous compared to the theater’s initial summer, 1955, which consisted of three comedies by Molière. In fact, Court’s first fifteen years or so were mainly devoted to plays by Shakespeare and other “dead white guys,” as some theatergoers quipped.

Newell sees the diversity not as an abandonment of the theater’s mission to stage classic theater but rather as an expansion of what that means. “The idea of classic work, often in rotating repertory, was very traditional when I started, but it has been evolving,” he says. “One pivotal change was when I invited nationally known experimental director JoAnne Akalaitis here to direct several productions beginning with ‘The Iphigenia Cycle’ in 1997-1998.” He also thought classic musicals should be part of the repertoire and started adding them in 1997 with Stephen Sondheim’s “Putting It Together.”

A third goal was to incorporate classics of the African American canon. “I like new challenges and ways of thinking about and directing theater,” he says. “I also thought about what the Hyde Park community, which is predominantly African American, might be interested in and challenged by. Although we had cast African American actors in leading roles, we hadn’t produced a play by an African American playwright until August Wilson’s ‘Fences’ in 2006.”

More than half-a-dozen other Wilson plays have followed, along with original adaptations of Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” and Richard Wright’s “Native Son,” Plear Cleage’s “Blues for an Alabama Sky,” “The Mountaintop,” “Satchmo at the Waldorf,” “Man in the Ring,” “Five Guys Named Moe,” and many more.

Newell counts the 2011 production of “Porgy and Bess” as one of the highlights of his tenure so far. “It  combined African American and musical classics, the artistic elements all came together, and it served all the audiences we have attracted to Court,” he explains. “It also made me realize that maybe there was something unique about the kind of work it’s possible for me to do.”

He says that “Porgy and Bess” was the best-selling show in Court’s history – by 300 percent. In addition, the audiences have been evolving with the programming. Newell estimates that in the last dozen-or-so years, persons of color have increased from five percent to more than 30 percent of the audience for all plays, not just black ones. The theater expects that 35 to 40 percent of the viewers for “Radio Golf” will be African American.

Although there has been a significant shift from subscribers to single ticket buyers in the last 10 or 15 years, from more than half down to a third subscribers, that trend may be abating. Subscriptions grew 40 percent in 2017 to 18 (to 2428) over 2016 to 17, and the renewal rate was 85 percent compared to 77 percent. As of Aug. 21 this year, there were 2361 subscribers, a figure expected to grow by 200 to 250 by the time subscription sales close in early Feb. 2019.

Other high points for Newell have been Shakespeare’s “Titus Andronicus,” because it was the riskiest adaptation of a classic he’s done and led to the heralded “An Iliad,”; “Caroline, or Change,” because of the way it spoke to its audience, and “All My Sons,” because his wife, Kate Collins, played the mother.

The key he says is always thinking of what’s next.

“If you have a hit – as I did early on with the Jeff Award-winning ‘The Triumph  of Love’ – the  temptation is to try to repeat it. But I resist that, because I don’t want to get stuck in a narrow position, and if I try to repeat, the work won’t have the same potential spark or creativity.” he explains. “So I’m always thinking about how to grow and do more. The more challenged I feel, the more excited I get, and the better the work tends to be.”

This is part of the reason Newell says he’s really looking forward to working with Ysaguirre, who served for five years as executive director of Illinois Humanities, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to strengthening the state’s social, political, and economic fabric through constructive conversation and community engagement. “I can’t wait to implement some of the plans we discussed during the search process,” Newell says. “His focus on how the the partnership of Court, the university, and the South Side can be more of a part of the definition of classic theater fits with my desire to commission more new works based on classic texts, such as “The Adventures of Augie March.”

Ysaguirre, responding by email, says he hopes he and Newell can take what Court has done so far a number of steps further. “I plan to spend much of my first year helping to shape an intensive community-engagement process so that the future of the theater, specifically as a classic theater company, is determined through conversations among the South Side community, the theater, and the university,” he says. “I’m confident that the vision created will lead the way for all classic theater companies across the country and even globally.”