This is the English version of a blog post previously released in French called The Gift Theatre - Compagnie et Theatre de Chicago.

We've wanted to write about Chicago's Gift Theatre for a long time. A gift is both a present and a talent. And this theatre truly is both!

Logo du Gift Theatre (une main ouverte, côté intérieur, tendue vers le bas)
The Gift's new logo, still an open and extended hand

The Gift's motto : Great stories onstage with Honesty and Simplicity

Plays staged at and by the Gift have resonated with us for a long time, at least on the scale of this blog's existence. Last february, we finally had the opportunity to visit this ambitious storefront theatre. We got to see Unseen (you will find the press kit in appendix), to meet and speak with Jay Worthington, visually impaired actor/teacher and member of the company, and to exchange via email with Michael Patrick Thornton, the co-founder and artistic director, about the first fifteen years of this outstanding ensemble and about its future.

Beginnings

We asked Michael Patrick Thornton (MPT) to tell us about the key moments in the development and the life of this ensemble as well as the venue.

MPT: "We wanted to build an ensemble first. The concern wasn't even about producing plays when we first started. The original idea was simply forming an ensemble and training together since I was very much inspired by the work of Jerzy Grotowski in which I was trained at the University of Iowa. So starting the company with an ensemble spirit was central and bedrock. I also think the fact that as a young company we got to experience the path of many young theaters starting out - renting theater spaces when they became available and only thinking about what plays to program in those spaces once we knew where we were going to be perform - and eventually feeling like that way of producing theatre was bullshit. As an itinerant company, we felt in her bones that that simply wasn't what the Gift was or aspired to be. So after four years of operating that way, cofounder William Nedved and I sat around my parents' kitchen table and basically decided to shut the company down until we found a space of our own. Moving into our storefront space in 2004 was a major highlight because what it augured was an institutional seriousness. Now that rent was due and bills had to be paid the company changed very quickly to one that did plays whenever spaces became available to one that could do any play anytime we wanted. The next major highlight after acquiring our own space was the decision to join Actors Equity Association which is the professionally union for actors and stage managers in the United States. This brought a dizzying level of institutional seriousness to the gift because it put us on a track to eventually be paying into our ensemble members health insurance and pension. If the thinking was we are to be an ensemble and we wish to take care of each other then we should do that literally as well as metaphorically. After I got sick in 2003 (ed : two spinal strokes within a few months), my insurance from Actors Equity was an absolute godsend and so why wouldn't I want my dearest collaborators at the theater I cofounded to have the exact same kind insurance and opportunities? I think the launching of our education program for young adults which we call GiftED will prove itself to be a highlight when we look back on it in the future and I also believe our new play program 4802 is going to be quite revolutionary as well in terms of making the Gift Theatre one of the most exciting places in the world to experience new plays and nurture them as well. Finally, our ten minute play festival TEN is another highlight because it forces us to begin each season by returning to the original spirit of the gift, long before concerns over budgets and growth plans, when it was simply people in a room who loved working with each other, loved each other, and wanted to say something."

The Gift Theatre - TEN 2017 - Becca Savoy et Jay Worthington
2017 TEN Festival - Becca Savoy and Jay Worthington (photo by Claire Demos)

To learn more about the 2017 TEN edition, read these articles from the Chicago Suntimes or Perform Ink.

The Venue

The Gift Theatre is located in the Jefferson Park area and it was a deliberate choice to settle it in an artistically underserved area. Both MPT and William Nedved grew up in similar neighborhoods, on the northwest side of Chicago for the former and in Northwest Iowa for the latter, and they sought to create a place with links to the community.

The photos below were taken last february. The front windows celebrate the Gift's fifteenth anniversary which took place last season. The interior photo shows the set for Unseen, the play that was presented at the Gift last february, set mostly in an Istanbul apartment.

Devanture du Gift Theatre - Chicago

Salle du Gift Theatre - décors pour Unseen, pièce de Mona Mansour - février 2017

The 40-seat Gift Theatre is a storefront theatre, and Chicago has nearly fifty of them. If Jay Worthington is to be believed - and we trust him blindly ! (Yes, this is an easy one) - it is the smallest and the best Equity Theatre in the Windy City. When we attended a performance of Unseen, a play by Mona Mansour, the audience was seated in two rows on the left side of the room. There are other plays, like Good for Otto, where spectators are seated on both side of the room, as is pointed out in this New York Times article in which we also learn that the location used to be a shoe store.

The Gift Ensemble

The newest member of the ensemble who joined in February 2017 and thus is not on the photo below, is the playwright David Rabe, a major figure of the American Theatre scene since the beginning of the seventies, author notably of Good for Otto whose premiere took place at the Gift in 2015 (read this review from the Chicago Tribune). The ensemble now counts thirty-two members, comprising actors, directors and playwrights...

The Gift Theatre - vitrine - trombinoscope des membres de la troupe

We asked Michael Patrick Thornton, co-founder and artistic director, how the ensemble became what it is today. He didn't so much delve on the plays produced over the past fifteen years as highlight specific moments that embody what it means to be a company.

MPT: "Choosing certain plays over 16 years is kind of like choosing children so I won't do that. But what I will say that there are moments that have exemplified what were really asking of our ensemble. When we talk about the Gift, we are talking about a stratospheric height of emotional bravery and vulnerability that almost seems superhuman. We have had ensemble members go on stage in the evening who spent the morning burying their parent. We have had ensemble members take horrific phone calls in the dressing room about the state of their parent's health and seconds later make an entrance on stage. We have had ensemble members do three hour plays while spending their offstage life battling painful cancer. We have an ensemble member who navigates our stage with a dancer's grace and who is legally blind (ed: Jay Worthington!) - every entrance for him is a literal act of faith. We have an ensemble members who, through the protective veneer of dialogue and character, have shared the most sacred and private corridors of their hearts with those noble strangers sitting in the dark, the audience, all in an effort that perhaps by experiencing this play together we may also somehow heal together."

In conclusion, he stressed that the ensemble was built around love, a "pioneering spirit, and emotional bravery" that make up a foundation that can whithstand the test of time.

Focus on Richard III and the Grapes of Wrath

To mark its fifteen anniversary, the Gift Theatre put on Richard III and Grapes of Wrath in a decidedly innovative perspective. Let's give you a little flavor of these two plays that say a lot about the Gift...

Richard III
We recently got to see different productions of Richard III but none quite like that put on at the Gift. MPT, who played the lead character, used an exoskeleton on stage. Questioned about the use of this prop in the production, MPT answered that "there's a fantastic, robust, and absolutely vital debate about inclusion and diversity on Chicago stages happening right now in our community, and Richard III was one way to course-correct a long arc of that play being performed by able-bodied actors."

To learn more about how MPT prepared himself physically for the role, about how the exosqueleton was used in the production to illustrate Richard's character, take a look at this video and this article from the Daily Herald , both quite enlightening.
Richard III was produced at the Steppenwolf Garage. Read this article from the Daily Herald .

Richard III - Michael Patrick Thornton, Martel Manning et Jay Worthington - photo de Claire Demos
From left to right, Michael Patrick Thornton (Richard III), Martel Manning and Jay Worthington (photo: Claire Demos)

The Grapes of Wrath
John Steinbeck's classic novel The Grapes of Wrath, also a classic film directed by John Ford starring Henri Fonda, was put on at the Gift, which chose the Frank Galati adaptation (which premiered at the Steppenwolf in 1988). Erica Weiss' direction provides a radically new take as she chose an interracial family and a blind Uncle John. But this stance was by no means a chance decision.
Questioned on this point, MPT said that the Grapes of Wrath felt so terribly timely when he read it over a year before they announced their season.

MPT : "I had the image in my head of a GRAPES unlike any that we had seen before with respect to diversity. And dialogue from the 40s about the struggle of our poorest American brothers and sisters and their clashes with authority felt electrifyingly relevant as a citizen of Chicago. But just like the exoskeleton and Richard III these considerations have to be thought through very very carefully, especially when you account for the fact that The Gift, while diverse with respect to ability, sexuality, gender, age, education, socio-economic background, is still, for the time being, embarrassingly, shamefully all-white. So the decision to program a production like GRAPES better damn well flow from a genuine artistic, curatorial concern about American society as well as the inner life and wants of the characters.Otherwise it's simply pandering. Otherwise, it's just bullshit. So we dug in deep and had a dramaturg go back and look at common law/de facto families in Oklahoma during the dustbowl and we found that there was solid historical basis for the Joad family that we presented."

Jay Worthington, who played Uncle John's character, said that, as Uncle John was an alcoholic and moonshiner, he could well have become blind. And director Erica Weiss wished to raise the issue of oppressed people in general and show the audience how much a blind person can achieve. (Jay Worthington, who is legally blind, keeps his eyes shut during the entire play and wanders all over the stage, even climbing stairs and walking along a platform twelve feet in the air, without any handrail).

Grapes of Wrath (les Raisins de la Colère) au Gift Theatre mis en scène par Erica Weiss
On the photo above, from left to right, Michael Turrentine, Jay Worthington, Tim Martin, Emily Marso, Mesiyah Oduro, Paul D'Addario, Namir Smallwood, Alexandra Main et Jerre Dye (photo: Claire Demos)

This production of the Grapes of Wrath was critically-acclaimed. Here are a few links to reviews:
- LA Splash
- Chicago Tribune
- Chicago Suntimes
- ...

Looking forward...

Asked to look back on the first fifteen years of the Gift and to look ahead to the future, MPT has a very clear vision.

MPT : " For 16 years the Gift has been committed to telling great stories on stage with honesty and simplicity and while I would fight to my death defending any of the pieces we produced and the reasons for which we produced them, the fact of the matter is these great stories have until only recently been told from one default perspective, which is the white perspective. This is wrong. And the buck stops with me. I was wrong. And so while we will continue to tell great stories, I have re-investigated and redefined what 'great' stories are - stories which reflect a multiplicity of experiences and backgrounds, stories which celebrate and reflect the rich diversity of our neighborhood, city, and world. Stories simultaneously universal and specific. The Gift has no desire to only remain a storefront forever. Our goals are to emerge as the next great American Ensemble and to be one of the most exciting destinations on the planet for new work. The first 15 years taught us what The Gift is, isn't, and, most importantly, ought to be. The next 15 will be spent manifesting this in stone and wood, flesh and bone, ink and paper, body and blood."

On our modest part, we'll keep following the work of the Gift and its ensemble. With the hope and desire to go back to see them. To see Jay Worthington or Michael Patrick Thornton on stage or directing. To witness how a "small" theatre manages to thrive alongside bigger outfits thanks to talent, to commited and well thought-out artistic choices, to its profound humanity...

Lastly

We would like to thank Frederic Grellier warmly for his invaluable help for this English version and the Gift members we met last february : John Gawlik who made this possible, Alexandra Main, Brittany Burch, Jay Worthington and Ashley Agbay (who played Derya in Unseen) for their time and their warm welcome. And, last but not least, Michael Patrick Thornton for his time, his kindness and his answers that live up to the Gift's motto : simple and honest!
Thank you all!

You can read this Know a theatre: the Gift Theatre of Chicago in American Theatre and learn about the next season of the Gift Theatre.