2017 Company of the Year: American Theater Company

2017 Company of the Year: American Theater Company

By Jason Epperson

Will Davis’s tenure as artistic director at American Theater Company was off to a rocky start when the company announced in the summer of 2016 that it would reduce the footprint of its upcoming season. In fact, ATC would not produce at all in the fall of that year. Alongside its high-profile hits in the last several years, the company has also been known for its precarious financial position, which Davis seemed intent to correct before a single show was produced, saying “as the incoming artistic director, it is my job and privilege to shepherd ATC into its next chapter, which must be defined not just by virtuosic artistry but also by fiscal responsibility. It is imperative that I consider this moment of transition carefully to ensure that the work being made in our small but mighty warehouse continues to grow over my tenure, and this season that means we will reimagine our producing footprint. I intend for ATC to be a thriving non-profit and a home base for powerful new works for the American Theater.”

If 2017 is any indication, the gamble paid off in spades. Davis launched ATC — and to a larger extent, the entire Chicago theater community — into 2017 with a remounting of his Off-Broadway hit production of Jacyln Bauhaus’s MEN ON BOATS. More than a recreation, however, Chicago’s MEN ON BOATS was made for its city, and it was a clear statement by Davis — that would only become more clear throughout the year —to reclaim patriotism from those that would think they own it. Erin Shea Brady wrote in her review that the genderfluid production “powerfully exposes our complicated, contradictory national identity. The ‘men’ seem more engaged in the naming of things than the fact that the land they’re naming has already been discovered. And yet, among them, there is heart and ambition. These ‘men’ are played with complexity — they aren’t simply a parody of privilege, though some of their behavior is ridiculous. In the end, this journey takes us somewhere powerful.”

In March, Davis would helm ATCs best outing of the year, a meticulous meditation of William Inge’s 1940s classic PICNIC. “Throughout this production, Davis experiments with the idea of ritual; moments of synchronized activity ground the work. The ritual of folding laundry, of frosting a cake, of taking the scenic route, of placing tiny paper houses. These rituals root the show, but also bring to question the ritual of gender expression, a driving facet of Davis’ iteration,” Kelsey McGrath wrote in her review. “Hal, the fresh-faced, bad boy, man’s man newcomer is played smoothly by Molly Brennan. She enraptures the townspeople and the audience with her wildness and charm. This casting decision lifts the text up in an almost ironic way; whenever Brennan refers to herself as a “man” or discusses gender, we are reminded of the play’s original casting. Otherwise, we sink into Brennan’s storytelling to a point where the gender play no longer matters. Hal’s story is her story is his story is our story. It is an exploration of human fragility and shared experience.”

(l-r) Malic White and Molly Brennan in ATC’s PICNIC. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

A new play exploring the desperation of Tonya Harding was a miss in the summer by most accounts, but it mattered little.  The fall brought Janine Nabers’ WELCOME TO JESUS, a world premiere with impeccable timing. In the play, a small, prejudiced texas town makes a black player its hero, but not as a person — more as a horse is to a horse race. The player doesn’t even get a name. Just “him.” At the same time, a national conversation asked the same questions. Conor McShane wrote “with the recent controversy surrounding football players kneeling for the national anthem, one particular counterargument has emerged. There are those who would argue that protest has no place in sports, that players are being paid handsomely and should just shut up and do what they’re told. Don’t speak up, don’t make waves. Know your place. WELCOME TO JESUS explores this idea through an eerie, Southern Gothic lens. Set in the fictional burg of Hallelujah, Texas, Nabers examines the terrifying history of racial violence that’s well known in the south, but perpetuated in subtler ways throughout our culture as a whole.”

In an in-depth conversation with PerformInk’s Kyle Whelan earlier this year, Davis said “we’re all trying to live the ethics of this theatre. This company is here to do the most good for the artistic community. An artist coming into this building leaves with more than they brought. Because it feels like our little way of homesteading our little corner of the American theatre, of having a positive impact on the rehearsal room that person goes into next. If this season is any indication, Chicago is incredibly lucky to have Davis, and hopefully his impact will radiate across the community from rehearsal room to rehearsal room.

Three exquisite productions and a thrilling new exploratory aesthetic, led by a new artistic director with a laser-focused vision makes American Theater Company PerformInk’s 2017 Theater of the Year.

About author

Jason Epperson

Jason is a producer, manager, and designer with 17 years of experience in Chicago, New York, and in the touring market. In 2015, he founded Lotus Theatricals - the publisher of Performink, and an independent commercial producing company - with Abigail Trabue.