LINCOLN PARK — The more things change, the more they stay the same, especially at Theater on the Lake.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel led the way earlier this month in groundbreaking on a $6 million renovation of the longtime lakefront theater at 2401 N. Lake Shore Drive. It will turn the theater from an open-air, summer-only facility into a year-round, 330-seat venue, while adding a restaurant that will also make it an attractive dining destination and rental property for special events.
But when Theater on the Lake returns with a new season next summer after the rehab is complete, tentatively set for Memorial Day, it will have the same sharp focus on small, vibrant theater companies, "primarily storefronts," said Isaac Gomez, who was selected by the Chicago Park District this week to serve as curator of the rehabbed theater.
Gomez is also the director of new play development at Victory Gardens Theater and said the duties dovetail "almost seamlessly."
Gomez said that puts him in "a unique position," adding, "Because of my job at Victory Gardens, I'm already seeing a lot of shows pretty regularly."
While the actual theater will be open year-round, Theater on the Lake will retain its summer focus, reviving plays that have stirred interest in the year before at small companies. Gomez said the emphasis is not so much on a "best-of," but on "shows I think have garnered a lot of interest in the community, that speak to and for the community, shows that are exciting and bold and unique, and shows that folks would get excited about the opportunity to see them again."
He said he expects to rely on the cornerstones of Chicago theater.
"I really want to showcase work I feel is reflective of what Chicagoans love to see in their theater and what they pride themselves on in the creation of theater," Gomez added. He described those hallmarks as an ensemble approach, "visceral acting" and "really compelling, bold, controversial storytelling."
In spite of the new glitz factor at Theater on the Lake, the emphasis for the actual summer productions will be on the same small and often overlooked companies in the neighborhoods and away from the Loop.
"There are theater companies I think are doing really bold and exciting work on the South and the West Side of the city that have been doing their work 20, 30, 40 years and don't get as much exposure and whose work is exceptional," Gomez said, citing Free Street Theater and the Aguijon Theatre Company as just two examples.
The idea of Theater on the Lake has always been to cross-pollinate audiences.
"The intention of it is to really give a theater company an opportunity to showcase their work to a new audience," Gomez said. "Theater on the Lake has a huge subscriber list of folks who come regularly," and the basic idea is to bring audiences from the neighborhoods in to the central location, then send that enlarged central audience back out to the neighborhoods to see the companies again.
Gomez will be thinking back on what he's seen this year as he works his way toward selecting four productions in March to be revived for next summer.
"It's a true test of what resonates," he said. "You don't have to think so hard to remember the shows that stick with you."
There will also be a fifth production, a reading of a play being written specifically for the series under the theme "Theater on the Lake in the Works." Meghan Beals, artistic director of Chicago Dramatists, which is taking a guiding role in the project, raved about it at the groundbreaking, saying it would lead to four readings across the city this summer as it's workshopped toward performance as a finished play during the 2018 summer season.
"We really want to make this feel like Chicago's play and Chicago's playwright," Gomez said.
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