2011 has been a crowning year for Signal Ensemble Theatre, both on stage and off.
The year began with the closing of our biggest hit to date, Aftermath, and is now ending with a rival success in the double bill of East of Berlin and The Russian Play. In between, we have also developed the Ensemble Project as a way for our artists to continue their growth outside of the established season. Behind the scenes, we have developed the beginnings of a strong board of directors, hired a new publicist and established a subscriber program that is creating a closer relationship with our audience.
Artistically, Signal has gone through a true renaissance this year by solidifying our new direction. In January, we closed Co-Artistic Director Ronan Marra’s new play, Aftermath, after its second remount and third extension. The end was slightly bittersweet as it was forced upon us by ABKCO, the company that still owns the rights to the early Rolling Stones catalogue. In putting up the play initially, we believed we had done our due diligence in obtaining a performing license much like the one that cover bands require. However, as more and more press came out about Aftermath, word finally reached New York and they reacted quickly. Fortunately, they allowed us to finish the final extension that we had planned, so no cancellations were necessary. However, interest continues to be generated from the likes of New York producers, so perhaps the play will again see the light of day. Because of all of this, we look back on Aftermath with great pride and gratitude. We were able to increase our patronage dramatically by tapping into the baby boomer market, share with them our new home in the North Center neighborhood during the remount and strengthen the Signal brand throughout the theatre community of Chicago. The success of Aftermath led directly to the new direction mentioned above. We are now focusing our play choices around works that have not been seen in Chicago, whether they are new plays that are fostered in our ensemble or Chicago premieres that had a first life elsewhere.
Our second show of the season was an example of the latter with a new translation of Dario Fo’s Accidental Death of an Anarchist. This production, directed by ensemble member Anthony Ingram, provided our ensemble an opportunity to work with guest artists from celebrated ensembles across the city (Lifeline, Factory, Strange Tree and Backstage). Timeout declared the show a Critics’ Pick, writing: "Joseph Stearns...breathless, dynamic performance...keeps this Accidental Death worth watching." Finally, Aces, which closed the season, was born three years ago as a love letter to Signal from ensemble member Jon Steinhagen. An accomplished playwright and actor, Steinhagen based his characters on his fellow ensemble members, placing them in Las Vegas during the 1970’s. Over the years, what began as a slapstick comedy evolved into a meditation on loneliness, while still maintaining every bit of its hilarity. Much like Marra had done with Aftermath, Steinhagen was able to tailor the characters to the actors, which made the process a true ensemble effort. The Chicago Tribune gave Aces three and a half stars, calling it: “[A] terrific little play that deserves to run all summer.” This experience further solidified our new direction, while we announced the most anticipated season in our history.
Our ninth season is focused around the theme of politics. However, in keeping with our personality, we have chosen three very different pieces with which to explore this subject. The first piece is a double bill of East of Berlin and The Russian Play by Canadian playwright Hannah Moscovitch. Our literary manager, Bries Vannon, who is charged with uncovering the plays that fit into our new direction, brought East of Berlin to our Artistic Directors, who in turn gave it a slot in our monthly play reading series. The reading went wonderfully and provoked stimulating conversation within the ensemble. Serendipitously, Melanie Keller, a long time ensemble member who has spent time working at Stratford in Canada with the Fellowship program, brought The Russian Play to the table at the same time. It was not long before both plays became the first piece to go on the season docket. It is running currently in a sold out month-long extension due to selling out the initial run in under a week. Chris Jones of the Chicago Tribune gave it three and a half stars while calling it “Riveting and deeply affecting...It nearly pulls you all the way out of your seat.” He went on to call Signal Ensemble Theatre, “a small but high- quality company that operates in its own intimate space in the North Center neighborhood.” To further our conversation with the playwright, we invited Moscovitch to Chicago to see our production and participate in a talkback with the audience. Not only was the evening a marvelous success, but we were able to develop a more personal relationship with her that may translate into future projects. We are proud to have given her profile in both Chicago and the US a boost, while she has certainly done the same for us. Due to the show’s popularity, the Toronto paper, The Globe and Mail, paid us a visit and gave the show a rave review. Needless to say, we are off to a stellar start in our ninth season and we intend to keep the momentum going. Our next show will be Motion, Ronan Marra’s follow up to Aftermath, which deals with the behind-the-scenes politics of the professional football league during a labor strike. By opening the week before the Super Bowl, we hope to capitalize on the time of year when football fanaticism is at its peak. Finally, we will end the season with the Chicago premiere of Hostage Song, an indie- rock musical about two hostages in a war torn country that the New Yorker called "A high-decibel romantic comedy with a seriously unnerving edge.”
In addition to our regular season, we have also instituted a new program this year called the Ensemble Project. This has been created to provide our ensemble members and associates with an outlet for their individual projects. These are not limited to the theatrical medium and can be proposed at any time. Upon approval, Signal provides the space, certain marketing opportunities and other help, which is determined on a case-by-case basis. The individual is the primary producer on this venture and assumes the remaining production responsibilities. The first installment of this program was a four-week run of Krapp’s Last Tape, directed by- ensemble member Aaron Snook and starring ensemble member Vincent Lonergan. Kerry Reid of the Chicago Tribune gave it three stars, calling it “an admirable take on the piece.” Our second installment was a one-night-only private reading of the theatrical version of Casino Royale, the first book of the James Bond series. With the playwright in attendance, Nick Sandys led an all-star cast in a deliciously fun reading. With some very diverse ideas being thrown around, we hope there will be many more chapters of the Ensemble Project in the future.
While we are extremely proud of our work on the stage, our work behind the scenes has been equally fulfilling. Following our early year goals, we have established what we believe is a strong foundation for our board of directors. Prior to this year, our board was comprised of our two Artistic Directors, Ronan Marra and Joseph Stearns, and our Managing Director, Stephanie Ingram. Working with Development Director, Aaron Snook, they set out to evolve the board into a true asset for the company. Through a workshop with the Arts and Business Council and meetings with peers such as Elizabeth Auman, the Managing Director at Timeline Theatre, they created an introductory packet for potential board members. Once completed, three candidates were selected and meetings were scheduled. We are happy to announce that, as of right now, three new board members have been joining us in bimonthly meetings since the start of summer. It is our aim to continue to build the board with two to three new members over the next two years.
We have also added a new publicist to the Signal team by hiring the firm, Shout. Having worked in a long distance relationship with our publicist for the past two seasons, we targeted this as an area that needed immediate improvement. We signed with Shout because of their locality and familiarity with similar companies, their ability to handle more of the administrative workload and their willingness to customize their fees to what we can afford. Thus far, we could not be happier with the final product. This is indicative of what we would like to see more of in the future, which is to outsource more staff positions. Taking the administrative load off of our artists is one of our most important long-term goals.
Finally, we have established a season subscriber program that has already exceeded our initial expectations. As soon as we opened our new theatre last season, we discussed the possibility of season subscriptions, but our infrastructure was not quite at the point of being able to support it. However, in conjunction with our board development, we readdressed the situation over the summer. We are now happy to report that the initial release of subscriptions has been a success with nearly thirty sold. While a relatively small number, it exceeded our initial expectations and, with the help of our first show’s success, it continues to grow every week. As we continue forward, we are always thinking of new ways to reach out to our neighborhood, our patrons and our subscribers. Among our present programs are “first look” evenings where our subscribers are invited to our space to share in our rehearsal process and neighborhood previews where our closest neighbors are invited to our pre-opening previews for a free sneak peek.
We could not be prouder of the year we have had thus far. On the stage, we continue to define what Signal Ensemble Theatre is by challenging our ensemble and bringing new and engaging theatre to our audience. Behind the scenes, our organization has evolved dramatically with additions to our board, staff and audience support. While we need to continue to grow in each area, we are ecstatic with our progress, and we owe a great deal of that to the support of all of our patrons.