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Does Edgewater Have What it Takes to be the City's Next Theater District?

By Linze Rice | January 13, 2016 9:46am
 Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark St., is one of at least 16 theaters in the neighborhood.
Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark St., is one of at least 16 theaters in the neighborhood.
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Facebook/Raven Theatre

EDGEWATER — Edgewater's theater scene is ready to step into the spotlight — and a group of business and community leaders are gearing up to help set the stage.

In recent years, the neighborhood's theater scene has boomed: there are roughly 16 storefront theaters and companies in Edgewater that drew in 32,000 attendees across 900 performances in 2015 alone, according to Ally Brisbin, marketing coordinator for the Edgewater Chamber of Commerce.

Jackalope, Steep and Raven theaters all brought home prestigious Jeff Awards, last year as well.

"Edgewater has a lot of high quality theater here, and because of that I think we're attracting more and more," Brisbin said.

Last fall the chamber partnered with local theater groups to create the Edgewater Theater Committee to further advance the theater scene and bring more companies — and audiences — into the neighborhood.

"It's really exciting. We're realizing the theater is a big part of our economy in Edgewater ... it has a wider impact than just supporting the theaters themselves."

This year, her group is boosting its efforts to connect new and existing business owners with the community's thriving theater industry to re-brand the neighborhood in its entirety as a theater district.

On Thursday, the chamber will hold a theater and business mixer from 5-7 p.m. at Uncommon Ground, 1401 W. Devon Ave., where theaters can "tell their stories" and identify what makes each group unique.

The idea is to cement Edgewater's status as a theater destination and draw people, performers, theater companies, businesses and residents from across the city into Edgewater.

The demand is there, Brisbin said. Her office gets calls regularly from theaters looking for a place to stage a production or even move in permanently.

Recent successes include the expansion of Redtwist Theatre along Bryn Mawr Avenue, Neo-Futurist Theater's new $10,000 grant, and the anticipated opening of North Broadway's Edge Theatre, home to Li'l Buds Theatre Company.

Brisbin cites the ease of transportation in and out of the neighborhood — thanks to Red Line stations from Berwyn to Thorndale and easy access off Lake Shore Drive — as one of the main reasons Edgewater is primed to for a possible influx of new visitors.

Partnerships between theaters and local businesses are crucial to the success and sustainability of a booming local economy and theater industry, Brisbin said. Some ideas her group has floated include offering discounts for theater patrons, posting show flyers, sharing the use of parking lot space and directing theater-goers to local businesses before and after shows.

Kate Piatt-Eckert, the executive director of Steep Theatre Company in Edgewater, said she'd like to see the neighborhood evolve into a place where theater-lovers can hop off at any of the three CTA stops and grab a show and a meal on the fly because there's such a strong selection of both to choose from.

Brisbin and Eckert say Edgewater is ready to compete with the Downtown theater scene thanks to the neighborhood's already strong commitment to the arts.

Eckert pointed to Edgewater's melting pot of cultures as being "crucial for the development of the performing arts," in addition to the neighborhood's legacy of strong working relationships between independent entrepreneurs, local businesses and creatives.

The cast of Jackalope Theatre's "Exit Strategy" on opening night in May 2014. The show drew in actor William H. Macy and Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis. [Facebook/Jackalope Theatre]

In all, Eckert said the neighborhood embodied the "spirit" of how a theater district should feel.

"Edgewater really embodies the spirit of collaborative innovation that often fuels the performing arts," Eckert said. "Collective work is really valued here. And I think both among residents and the business community you can really see that permeating throughout the neighborhood ... and that culture is really vibrant."

In 2014, Jackalope Theatre received critical praise for their production of Ike Holter's "Exit Strategy," the tale of a Chicago public school closing. Among the show's attendees were Karen Lewis of the Chicago Teachers Union and actor William H. Macy.

The future of theater in Edgewater looks bright, both women said.

"There is this love of making something new here, and making an impact in your very hyper-local neighborhood and really being a part of the culture of your community — I see that more here than anywhere else I've ever lived," Eckert said. "Theater is what we do in Edgewater ... people in the neighborhood really have that pride about being credible, world class assets."

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