Article originally published on the Chicago Cultural Plan blog on August 27, 2012.
Growing up in Jefferson Park, I believed the only place art happened was in large buildings downtown. Grammar school entailed trips to the Art Institute and in high school we were bused to Shakespeare Rep & Steppenwolf. These trips were beyond exciting—it was if I had been granted a one-day passport to a village to which I so desperately wished to be a full-time citizen. But eventually the curtain would come down and that magical village receded as our bus drove home.
After becoming a professional actor, I was fortunate to be working and playing in those magical villages with which I was so enamored as a kid, my passport now stamped for longer than just a day as I performed Shakespeare in Lakeview or improv in Old Town.
But now, strangely, that wistfulness was happening as I left Jefferson Park to perform and my neighborhood receded in the rear view mirror. Why, I thought, could my artistic home not also be my home?
And so in December 2005, the company of which I serve as co-founder and Artistic Director, The Gift Theatre, decided to make our home in an abandoned shoe store in a Jefferson Park storefront. Over 30 productions later, The Gift is Chicago’s most intimate Equity theatre and an artistic beacon for the next generation of artists thru our education program, giftED.
The Gift is proof of the economic impact an arts organization can have on a neighborhood. The Gale Street Inn restaurant first welcomed us by creating a dinner/theatre subscription package for our subscribers and playing gracious host for our opening nights. After a few years of successfully collaborating, the owner of Gale Street, George Karzas, stepped up to become Board Chair of The Gift. We are a stronger company because of this relationship.
The tavern a few doors down from us—Fischman’s—has rebranded itself as a craft beer emporium, partly because the foot traffic The Gift brings in offered a new demographic of a beer-adventurous crowd. We tour our improv show, Natural Gas, to local high schools whose students then come to The Gift to see it every Wednesday.
Driving to work at The Gift, I pass the Jefferson Park park district. My dreams these days are about using local public spaces as performance spaces and assisting the park district to be seen as more than just a great place to play, but also a great place to see great plays. The proposed 2013 season of The Gift includes an outdoor production of Chekhov’s “The Seagull” in Jefferson Park directed by our ensemble member and Chicago legend Sheldon Patinkin.
There is an appetite here for great theatre. I also believe that appetite is everywhere.
The Gift started construction with the Field of Dreams ethos of “if you build it, they will come” and we supported that ethos through hard work. But we are interested in building more than a theatre. We are interested in building a community. We are interested in building a home. A defining moment in my life was in Dublin, getting ready to see a play at The Abbey. I asked my cousin Martin—a devout subscriber of The Abbey--what was playing. “Oh, I’m not sure, but it’s the new play at The Abbey.” The specific play didn’t matter, but just the fact that there was a new play by the theatre with which he felt community.
That is the kind of theatre I am interested in building. Judging from the feedback we heard from our recent subscription drive, that is the theatre The Gift is becoming.
And as The Gift continues to thrive and expansion becomes necessary, we will look to additional spaces in Jefferson Park, similarly discarded shaggy dog architecture that has been surrendered to Time that thru a lot of love & hard work will create a new cultural district from which everyone benefits.
The act of pioneering into underserved neighborhoods should be less unique. For the arts to thrive in a newly-energized way, I believe art needs to be democratized; supporting the arts must be seen as on the same level of buying groceries: something nutritive that is done regularly. One way to ignite this democratization is to consider building your utopia where you are.
Recently, other theatrical “Lewis & Clarks” have made their own expeditions to the northwest side of Chicago wilds of empty storefronts. The devised theatre company Genesis Ensemble (full disclosure: the artistic director is my wife Lindsey Barlag Thornton) recently transformed three empty storefronts on Lawrence west of Milwaukee into whimsical, gorgeous performance spaces for their production of The Rest Unknown. Most recently, Filament Theatre laid their roots in a Six Corners Portage Park storefront. Both endeavors were supported and assisted by 45th Ward Alderman John Arena and Arts Alive 45’s Cyd Smilie who have proven to be kind, vocal, and genuine champions of the arts.
I grew up in Jefferson Park wondering if the things I loved would ever be where I loved. The fact that Alderman Arena and Arts Live 45 share the same love for art, recognition that art creates commerce (and at its best, community) and that a kid from Jefferson Park gets to serve on Mayor Emanuel’s Cultural Advisory Council and share my voice to Chicago’s Cultural Plan and here with you...this feels magical. This feels like home.
My village is here, in no danger of receding.
Yours can be where you are, too.
Passports to both come free of expiration.
Michael Patrick Thornton is an actor, director, writer, and improviser. He is the co-founder/artistic director of The Gift Theatre, and lives in Jefferson Park. Mr. Thornton is also a member of the Chicago Advisory Council on Cultural Affairs and Special Events.
This article orinally appeared on the blog for the Chicago Cultural Plan 2012 and is reprinted with kind permission of the author.