DEFINITION OF “ENSEMBLE” An Ensemble theater is a group of individuals dedicated to collaborative creation and committed to consistently working together over years to develop a distinctive body of work and practices. Ensemble members, both artists and administrators, are empowered to help shape their theater’s artistic direction and organizational structure. *
*Excerpt from the National Network of Ensemble Theaters, member since 2009
ABT’s multi-generational and inter-disciplined Ensemble & Artistic Affiliates comprise all aspects of theater, television, and film. We are producers, writers, directors, actors, designers, educators, and technicians. As of 2012, we’ve individually received over 120 Joseph Jefferson Awards celebrating excellence in Chicago theater, 2 Pulitzer Prize nominations, 2 Academy Award and nominations, 3 Golden Globe Awards and nominations, 12 Emmy Awards and nominations, 6 Writers’ Guild Awards, 19 Black Theatre Alliance Awards and nominations, 21 After Dark Awards, and multiple Regional theater awards from New York, Los Angeles, Washington D.C., and Florida. ABT is the second-oldest Equity Ensemble theater in Chicago. Our 36-member Ensemble has over 418 combined years of collaboration on stage.
American Blues Theater (ABT) was founded in July 1985 by Ed Blatchford, Rick Cleveland, James Leaming, and William Payne. The company dedicated itself to new and classic American plays. From 1985-1990, William Payne served as Artistic director. ABT produced critically-acclaimed productions of Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape, Desire Under the Elms, and the world premieres of Cleveland’s Dogman’s Last Stand & Bad Moon. From 1991-1993, the Ensemble (led by Kate Buddeke, Andrea Dymond, James Leaming, and Carmen Roman) launched the Monsters Series, designed by Rick Cleveland. The three annual productions drew over thirty commissioned playwrights including David Mamet, Keith Huff, Douglas Post, S.L. Daniels, Dwight Okita, and Cleveland himself. Richard Christiansen of the Chicago Tribune cited ABT as one of three companies in his editorial “Chicago Theater Forges New Standards of Glory.”
In August of 1993, the company leased a warehouse on Byron and Lincoln. In 38 days, James Leaming led a community-based 90+ volunteer crew to transform the space into an intimate 134-seat theater. From 1994-1997, Carmen Roman served as Artistic Director overseeing lauded productions: On the Waterfront, Toys in the Attic (After Dark Award for Original Music-Dawn Bach), Stalag 17 (Joseph Jefferson Citation for Best Ensemble, After Dark Award for Best Ensemble), Keely and Du (Joseph Jefferson Citation nomination for Actress-Kate Buddeke), and the world premieres of Flight of the Phoenix (Joseph Jefferson Citation for New Adaptation-Tim Hendrickson & Carmen Roman) and Tom & Jerry (Joseph Jefferson Citation nomination for Best New Work-Rick Cleveland). ABT won the After Dark Award for Outstanding Season 1996-1997.
From 1997-2009, the company was led by Artistic Directors from outside of the Ensemble.
During 1997-2002, Brian Russell brought fiscal and programmatic growth. He increased the budget five-fold, created a four-play subscription season, and hired three full-time staff positions. The organization changed its name to American Theater Company (ATC). Mr. Russell resigned to pursue freelance writing and directing opportunities. Notable productions and our ABT artists’ honors include: American Buffalo, Catch-22, The Threepenny Opera, Working, A Stone Carver (Joseph Jefferson Award nomination for Best Actor-John Mohrlein, After Dark Award for Outstanding Performance-John Mohrlein), Bus Stop (After Dark Award for Best Ensemble), Below the Belt (After Dark Award for Best Ensemble), A Lie of the Mind (Joseph Jefferson nomination for Original Incidental Music-Marty Higginbotham) and Medea (Joseph Jefferson Award nomination for Best Actress-Carmen Roman).
From 2002-2007, Damon Kiely served as the Artistic Director. He revised the mission statement to ask, “What does it mean to be an American?” and focused on American stories. Mr. Kiely resigned after accepting a full-time teaching position at DePaul University. Notable productions and our ABT artists’ honors include: It’s a Wonderful Life, Living Out (named Top 10 Shows of 2005 by Time Out Chicago), Kid Simple (Joseph Jefferson Award for Sound Design-Lindsay Jones, Chicago Stage Talk Award for Sound Design-Lindsay Jones), A View from the Bridge (Joseph Jefferson Award nominations for Best Actor-John Sterchi & Best Supporting Actor-Matthew Brumlow), St. Scarlet (Joseph Jefferson Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress-Gwendolyn Whiteside), Orpheus Descending (named Top 10 Shows of 2006 by Chicago Tribune and Copley News Service, After Dark Award for Outstanding Performance-Carmen Roman, After Dark Award for Overall Technical Design-Keith Pitts), Oklahoma! (6 Joseph Jefferson Award nominations including Best Production, Best Actor-Matthew Brumlow & Best Supporting Actor-Casey Campbell, named Top 10 Shows of 2007 by Chicago Sun Times), The Dark at the Top of the Stairs (named Top 10 Shows of 2007 by Chicago Tribune).
From November 2007 – March 2009, the Ensemble was led by P.J. Paparelli. Paparelli dismantled the infrastructure and artistic operation of the Ensemble theater practice. Citing “major administrative and artistic differences” all four Founders and every Ensemble member prior to Paparelli’s tenure chose to leave the ATC organization.
In March of 2009, the Ensemble reformed under its original name American Blues Theater and recommitted to its working-class roots. Founding Board members reconstituted the Board, giving tremendous support and guidance. In November 2009, the
Ensemble hosted the Rebirth of Blues gala with guest artists Olympia Dukakis, Dennis Zacek, and original written work by Rick Cleveland. Later that month, American Blues Theater produced its holiday tradition It’s a Wonderful Life at Victory Gardens Theater—the same theater that supported its inaugural 1985 production of Rick Cleveland’s Dogman’s Last Stand with Dennis Zacek.
ABT Ensemble member Gwendolyn Whiteside became the Producing Artistic Director.
Drawing from the Ensemble’s 25-year commitment to new work and community outreach (Veterans’ Nights, student matinees, staged-readings, workshops, teaching residencies, and summer camps), Producing Artistic Director Gwendolyn Whiteside implemented Blue Ink (an annual playwriting contest), Blueprint (new work development), and community service as central to the company’s mission. Every ABT production must partner with social and service organizations to raise awareness and support.
In Spring 2010, ABT presented the critically-acclaimed production of Tobacco Road, earning 2 Joseph Jefferson Awards for Midsized Play: Scenic Design-James Leaming and Costume Design-Sarah E. Ross & Kristin DeiTos and a nomination for Midsize Production.
In July 2010, ABT hosted a free-community 25th Anniversary party, thanking Chicago patrons and artists for their decades of support. Some distinguished artists who’ve worked with the ABT Ensemble & Artistic Affiliates throughout the 25-years include: Dexter Bullard, Cheryl Lynn Bruce, Robert Brueler, Daniel Bryant, E. Faye Butler, David Cromer, Joe Dempsey, Kristopher Diaz, Lisa Dillman, Richard Dresser, Olympia Dukakis, Deanna Dunagan, Leigh Fondakowski, Maureen Gallagher, Gary Griffin, Stephen Louis Grush, Francis Guinan, Michael Halberstam, Jordan Harrison, Keith Huff, B.J. Jones, Heidi Kettering, Amy Landecker, Justina Machado, David Mamet, Melanie Marnich, Sandra Marquez, Mia McCullough, Brett Neveu, Mike Nussbaum, Susan Nussbaum, Yasen Peyankov, Jeremy Piven, Shira Piven, Erin Quigley, Leonard Roberts, Mark Roberts, Kim Rubenstein, Nicholas Rudall, Malcolm Ruhl, Derrick Sanders, Art Shay, Ed Sobel, Jeff Still, MaryAnn Thebus, Mike Tutaj, Penelope Walker, Michael Weber, Ann Whitney, Alan Wilder, Cedric Young, and Dennis Zacek.
Of ABT’s first season back, Chris Jones of the Chicago Tribune wrote, “commitment to truth and depiction of the working person’s perennial plight is what makes this powerful and worthwhile.“ Hedy Weiss of Chicago Sun-Times commented, “American Blues Theater gets its groove back,” and Ruth Smerling of Theatre World Internet Magazine noted, “American Blues is back and even better than before.”
Welcome to the American Blues family!
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