Chicago theater: 1 year after all venues went dark, how is the industry carrying on?

CHICAGO (WLS) -- One of the hardest hit industries during the COVID pandemic has been Chicago's vibrant theater scene, which has been dark for the past year.

"We were the first to close and we will probably be the last to open," said Eileen LaCario, vice president of Broadway in Chicago.

"Broadway was shutting down, we knew it was inevitable, and within about 10 hours the Goodman stopped production," recalled Goodman Theatre Artistic Director Robert Falls.

"We had just opened a production called 'The Healing' and it was about blatant racism and how do we heal from that," remembered Jackie Taylor, founder and CEO of the Black Ensemble Theater. "And three days later we had to close that production, so that was heartbreaking."

"We went from this energized company with a lot of employees to having no potential for any revenue for an unknown period of time," said Walter Stearns, executive director of the Mercury Theater. "With no end in sight, we didn't know when or if we'd ever come back, so we declared the Mercury Theater was closed permanently."

When theaters closed, it didn't just affect the actors but also the set designers, costumers, makeup artists, lighting professionals, musicians and, to a broader extent, commerce.

"Broadway in Chicago alone brings in 1.7 million people into the Loop ever year," LaCario noted. "Hotels, restaurants, the retail, the vibrancy of the street as a whole."

"We decided to pivot and use Zoom," said Wendy Whiteside, artistic director for the American Blues Theater. "Our actors were champs! We gave them costumes that were only waist up. We gave them set pieces they had to assemble behind them so all the backgrounds matched. Half of our rehearsals was figuring out, do I look here, do I look there, you know, trying to figure out how to connect with somebody."

"A friend of mine called me while I was in Chicago and they were in New York, and they were thinking about doing this sort of virtual musical. Virtual musical, what do you mean? Now we all know what that means," said Miguel Cervantes, who plays Alexander Hamilton in "Hamilton" on Broadway and originated the role in Chicago. "For now, most of the events I do are just like this. I'll be sitting right here with a guitar singing some Hamilton tunes until further notice."
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