Looks Like Chicago / by R. Sheth

September, 2007
The Joyce Foundation Work in Progress

A leisurely stroll through downtown Chicago on any given afternoon will likely reveal a sampling of ethnic and racial diversity that spans the globe. The richness of cultures is expressed in everything from Chicago's neighborhood restaurants to its world-class entertainment venues. But for reasons not entirely understood, Chicago's theater industry does not fully represent the diversity that is so effortlessly reflected in the rest of the city. "Theater people tend to be open-minded, sensitive, free-thinking individuals, so for us to be so far behind in this area is baffling," says Jamil Khoury, artistic director of the Silk Road Theatre Project. "We have a responsibility to lead the way to change."

Looks Like Chicago, a new project from the Gilloury Institute (creator of the Silk Road Theatre Project), uses a fresh approach to help address this issue. The Joyce-funded effort unites four ethnic theater companies in a collaborative subscription series, the first time ethnically diverse theaters have joined forces in this way. The rotating subscription allows ticket holders to attend shows by the participating theaters at the venue of each. Participants will enjoy a season of plays in which ethnic and racial diversity is demonstrated through the content of plays, the artists involved, and the audiences present.

The collective includes three groups funded by Joyce: Silk Road, Chicago's only theater company showcasing new works by playwrights of Asian, Middle Eastern, and Mediterranean backgrounds; Congo Square Theatre Company, an ensemble of young African American actors committed to presenting the history and voices of the African Diaspora; and Teatro Vista, a bilingual Spanish/English theater company that uses Equity actors. The fourth partner is Remy Bumppo Theatre Company, an Equity theater company founded in 1996 to present classical repertory theater productions of works by Anton Chekhov, George Bernard Shaw, Edward Albee, and Gore Vidal.

"For Looks Like Chicago, we considered theaters that are similar in size, meet the needs of a particular niche market, and are well respected in and out of the theater circle," says Khoury. "And of course, all are on top of their game."

While Chicago's mainstream, Latino, and African American theater scenes are thriving, audiences tend to remain segregated. But Silk Road's leaders are convinced that there is an audience interested in diverse theater experiences and that their challenge is to figure out how to provide access. They were offered a bit of encouragement this summer when Silk Road showcased a staged reading of a play about Arab women, and more than 250 people showed up. Some storefronts don't get that many people during an entire run.

"This project offers an opportunity for diverse audiences to begin a dialogue born out of a shared interest," says Malik Gillani, executive director of the Silk Road Theatre Project. "Overall, we are introducing new audiences to good theater."

Gilloury Institute is planning a promotion strategy for mainstream press, online media, direct mail campaigns, and community-based media and social service outlets. Series subscribers will receive a marketing package that provides background information about the respective theaters; a four-play flex pass priced under $100, which will allow them to attend one show from each of the participating theaters during the spring 2008 season; and a fifth ticket that provides entrance to a town hall meeting at the end of the series with staff from all four theaters. The meeting will serve as a forum for theatergoers to discuss their experiences participating in the Looks Like Chicago initiative, share ideas about how to increase theater diversity, and provide other useful feedback that could be instrumental in helping to replicate the effort.

"In addition to our goals of increased dialogue among diverse audiences, public awareness, and subscription fulfillment, we hope to capture demographic and other key data that will help us understand how best to reach and cultivate diverse theater audiences," notes Gillani. "Our hope is for Looks Like Chicago to become a national model."

Tickets will be available through the League of Chicago Theaters, starting October 2007.