Chicago Dramatists celebrate “Turning 25”

A small group of novice playwrights got together in 1979 to form a collective at the old Organic Theatre. They had little money, but great determination to write, act and produce great theatre.

Although none of the founders are still around, the organization they launched will celebrate “Turning 25” at a July 14 event. Steppenwolf Ensemble member and Dramatist friend Rondi Reed will MC. (She will direct a Dramatist play, “Fall to Earth” by Joel Drake Johnson this fall.)

Following dinner at the Blue Bayou Bar & Grill, the 300 expected guests will walk over the Mercury Theatre to see scenes from two new Chicago Dramatists’ plays, and new plays of other Chicago theatres to be performed during the 2003/04 season.

Resident playwright Rebecca Gilman will be honored for her success, says Dramatists’ managing director Ann Filmer. Gilman was a runner-up for a 2002 Pulitzer Prize in Drama for her 2002 play, “Glory of Living,” which the Dramatists’ helped develop.

Over the years, the Dramatists’ purpose has remained the same, says development director Deborah Stewart: To develop new plays and support the work of the playwrights through two programs. One is the Resident Playwrights program, with 22 presently on board; the other is the International Network of Playwrights, currently with a roster of 140.

Stewart calls Chicago Dramatists “a hidden arts treasure because of the nature of what we do, the nurturing of playwrights.” She also finds it “amazing” that the Dramatists have existed this long.

“The fact that we’ve been able to continue without a huge profile is a remarkable feat,” she adds.

Possibly even more amazing is the Dramatists’ $270,000 operating budget, a David-like sum for their Goliathan activities. They produce two new plays a year, teach five playwrighting and play development classes on a quarterly basis, stage private readings and a Saturday series (43 each year) open to writers, theatre artist and public.

Funds come from earned income: 45% from ticket sales to its two annual plays, fees for classes and a modest fee for the Saturday Series of staged readings. The rest comes from foundations, the Illinois Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts, and individual donors.

All of this activity comes from a tiny, three-person, full-time staff. Artistic director Russ Tuterow has been there for 18 years and is on the board. Managing director Ann Filmer arrived three years ago after owning and running the Aardvark Theatre Company. Stewart joined two years ago as the Dramatists’ first-time-ever director of development and brought funding levels up from $200,000.

The two part-time staffers are Robert Koon, director of playwrights, and Tania Richard, director of the outreach program, which was funded 11 years ago by a Northern Trust Bank grant for playwright programs in public high schools.

Since 1988 the Dramatists have operated out of leased space at 1105 W. Chicago. Last March it was able to expand by 1,100 sq. ft. into a first floor corner storefront. The stage seats 77 and Filmer calls it “the most attractive theatre under 99 seats in the city.”

At the “Turning 25” event, guests will see scenes from “Heat,” by Network member Marsha Estell, and “Soft Target” from newest resident playwright Tom Patrick, both from Chicago.

Tickets are available at $45 per person and various group discounts. Call 312/633-0630. See
– by Louise Brass