Court Theatre celebrates 50 years of producing fresh, textured interpretations of classic playsBy Jennifer Carnig
Charles Newell, Court Theatre’s Artistic Director, describes a classic play as a work that is at once timely and timeless, “art that consistently helps us understand ourselves better and in more profound ways.”
According to that definition, Court Theatre may itself be a classic. Now celebrating its 50th anniversary, an extraordinary accomplishment in the theatre world, the University’s professional theatre company is still producing fresh, textured interpretations of classic plays, work that critics and audience members alike applaud for their enduring, thought-provoking qualities.
To produce stimulating, challenging work has been the theatre company’s mission since its inception in 1955 by a small group of artists who came together to produce three Molière plays under the stars in the Hutchinson Courtyard. Over the years, Court Theatre has consistently offered provocative productions of classic theatre. One of the secrets to Court’s long success—it is the second oldest company in Chicago, only one year younger than the Goodman Theatre—is to have a broad definition of what a “classic” is, Newell said.
“When I read a play, the question I ask is, ‘How do I connect?’” Newell said. “I’m looking for a strong emotional response, that very intuitive gut emotional response,” he explained.
The theatre company’s canon has included everything from Shakespeare’s King Henry IV to the American musical Guys and Dolls .
“I want people to question what a ‘classic’ is,” Newell said. “One possibility we would propose is that it is a work that will withstand the test of time.”
Next season’s lineup continues that tradition. So far, three of the company’s five shows have been announced: Man of La Mancha, a musical rendering of Cervantes’ Don Quixote, which Newell said is a classic because “given today’s reality, we all need to create dreams to survive;” Mabou Mines Dollhouse , an avant-garde retelling of Ibsen’s A Doll House that casts Nora and Kristine as 6-feet tall and the male characters as “little people,” with the parts played by actors between 3-foot-4-inches tall and 4-foot-5-inches tall; and Lettice and Lovage , a Tony award-winning comedy that tells the story of an idealistic tour guide who gets fired because she starts to embellish the truth about the buildings she discusses on tours.
Though all wildly different, each is a powerful and provocative classic that honors the company’s mission and artistry, Newell said. “All of these productions give us insight into what it means to be human.”
To support that mission, the management at Court has embarked on a search for a new Executive Director. The national hunt is now nearing its final stages, and Newell said the announcement of his new leadership partner is expected to come by Friday, July 1.
In the meantime, the company has much to celebrate. As its 50th anniversary season comes to a close, Court has produced more than 200 productions, and today the company plays to an annual audience of more than 40,000 people, a far cry from its early days outside in the Hutchinson Courtyard. A gala party is planned to celebrate the company’s achievements Friday, May 20, at the Four Seasons Hotel.
The event is intended to honor several major supporters who have helped make Court the Chicago institution it is today, said the company’s Director of Development, Melodee DuBois. Among the guests will be President Randel, and the gala’s honorary co-chairs will be Mayor Richard Daley and his wife Maggie Daley. The gala will honor Hope Abelson, Marion Lloyd, and Stanley and Joan Freehling for their longstanding support of Court Theatre and its mission.
More than 300 guests are expected to attend, DuBois said, and the highlight of the evening will be a special collaborative performance by Court Theatre and the Second City comedy troupe, another University original. The performance will be based on Court’s 50-year history at the University.
For more information about the 50th anniversary gala, Court Theatre or any of its upcoming productions, visit http://www.courttheatre.org or call (773) 834-5293.