Chicago — I’ve named this column An Artistic Director Prepares. The title is a nod to two books that have shaped who I am: the seminal acting text by Stanislavski, An Actor Prepares, and a book by one of the leading directors and thinkers in the American theatre today, Anne Bogart, A Director Prepares. I don’t presume to put myself on the level of these two great thinkers of the modern theatre, but like those books, my writing this column is in the spirit of investigating one’s artistic process. An Actor Prepares is a fictional book about a student learning to act from a great teacher; seen through the young actor’s eyes, we experience with him what he is learning as he learns it. A Director Prepares is a series of essays, each investigating a different kind of challenge one approaches in art making.
I expect that this column will be a little of both: my learning new things and reflecting as I experience them, and my thoughts on the kind of challenges I find myself facing and reflecting on how to creatively use these challenges. I know as little about how this column will unfold as I know about how my new positon will unfold.
So what’s the new position? I’ve recently been appointed Artistic Director of WaterTower Theatre in Addison. Over the next few months, I’m moving from my long-time home in Chicago to lead this organization, a life-change that is as exciting as it is terrifying. After years of freelance directing and teaching, a few years ago I realized that what I really wanted was an artistic home. Somewhere that I could plant roots and develop something bigger than one play. I sought out the mentorship of Chay Yew, Artistic Director of Victory Gardens Theater, and together we applied for the Leadership U One-on-One Fellowship through TCG (the national theatre organization). After a long process I was, indeed, awarded the fellowship and worked closely with Chay for close to two years as a member of the artistic staff. The training I received through TCG and at Victory Gardens was life-changing. Not only did I learn hands-on theatre management skills, I learned a multitude about myself and what kind of leader I am/want to be. And here I am, less than a year after the fellowship ended, packing my boxes and hitting the road for a new adventure in DFW.
That’s about all I’ll say for now about who I am. I’d like to start with a little about where I’m from.
The short answer: Chicago. I’ve lived in Chicago since 1996, when I moved there to attend Columbia College. I thought, as many young people do, that I was headed for Broadway. What I had no way of knowing at 18-years-old when I arrived from Colorado was that I was going to find a community and home in a place that has a massive amount of theatre (250-300 theatres depending on who you ask), and a community of theatre people with who really care about the work and each other.
When people talk about “Chicago theatre” there’s a vague sense of what that means. I’m going to dare to try to define it here—knowing that I’m just one artist, and that other Chicagoans might disagree with how I break this down. However, my thesis is that three core values permeate the Chicago theater scene. You can see evidence of these values at every theatre in Chicago, no matter the play or genre or size or Equity/non-Equity status:
1. Ensemble: This could also be called “collaboration,” but the concept of the ensemble is so deeply tied to Chicago that I stuck with that word. Many of our theatre companies are “ensemble theatres,” built by actors who work together on show after show. But ensemble is also a philosophy that every person’s point of view and position is as important as the other. That we should share ideas, fervently disagree, and find creative solutions together. We value the ideas that happen in a room with other people over the individual genius, just as we value the ensemble over the star. The most successful plays in Chicago are all about the spark of seeing amazing people work together to create an electric show.
2. Honesty: This includes creating productions that the artists are truly speaking through, and also being honest with each other and ourselves about the work. We hold the bar for excellence high in Chicago. We applaud each other’s efforts, respect each other’s work, and cheer on each other’s successes; but we also know the importance of having a critical eye and expecting more. We don’t settle. We don’t pat ourselves on the back easily. We raise the bar for each other by continuing to work hard on our own crafts individually and bringing a lot to the table each time we do a show. We won’t lie to each other about the work, but will be kindly truthful to each other and ourselves about what worked and what didn’t work. (Hopefully after the show closes.)
3. Commitment: Our productions tend towards is a level of commitment that is fearless, and this is what makes Chicago theatre so fierce. In the best realism, actors become their characters and live truthfully within them, and in the best non-realism the actors are playing the actions with focus and intention that makes you never question what is happening. And this is what, in one artist’s opinion, truly is the “brand” of Chicago theatre—unflinching commitment onstage. And this is true offstage as well. The artists I have worked with in Chicago are some of the most committed I know. Whether it pays their bills, they are at rehearsal and meetings prepared and ready to work hard. They’re at each other’s plays ready to be attentive audience members. They’re at parties, events, fundraisers. The theatre is a way of life. It’s not a job, or a hobby, it’s something that one commits themselves to wholeheartedly. We all do that in the theatre, but I think that the self-sacrifice for the sake of theatre is especially intense in Chicago. For better or worse, this is a core value of our community. We honor it in each other and feel pride when we fulfill it ourselves.
These three values are etched in my theatrical DNA from my 20 years as a Chicago theatre artist. I carry them with me to every city I work in, every process I participate in, they are part of who I am, how I work, and what I value. I’m grateful for them. And even when I leave Chicago, I know I have Chicago with me, not just because of the people I keep in touch with, but because of the way I live my life and do my work. I’m looking forward to sharing that with my new community in DFW.
I’m also excited to learn about a new community and the values here, both artistic and otherwise. There’s so much I know I’ll be learning and exploring, especially in this first year, as I pack up my bags and move myself to Dallas. I expect that there will be many exciting discoveries along the way and I will be writing about them every month in this column. Selfishly, I expect this will be a helpful touchstone to reflect on what I’ve encountered that month in my new positon, new city, and new life; but I also hope that it sparks thoughts and conversation. I look forward to your thoughts and comments as I unpack my experience as the new Artistic Director of WaterTower Theatre.
» Joanie Schultz was named Artistic Director of WaterTower Theatre in December. In February, she'll spend three weeks here, and then return to Chicago to direct the premiere of Madhuri Shekar's Queen at Victory Gardens Theater. Then she and her husband, opera conductor Francesco Milioto, will move to Texas in April. She'll select the 2017-18 season for WaterTower, which should be announced in May.
» Her column An Artistic Director Prepares will run on the fourth Friday of the month in TheaterJones.