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American Theater Company has ended its 33-year run

Written by
Kris Vire

The board of directors of American Theater Company announced Friday morning that the 33-year-old theater has ceased operations, effective immediately.

In a statement delivered to press and first reported this morning by the Chicago Tribune, ATC’s board said the theater’s production of Basil Kreimendahl’s We’re Gonna Be Okay, which closed earlier this month, would be its last. The final production of the current season was to have been the world premiere of Carlos Murillo’s Diagram of a Paper Airplane, set to open in May.

American Theater Company’s last decade has seen some creative triumphs onstage paired with remarkable turmoil behind the scenes. Much of ATC’s original, longstanding ensemble quit the company in 2009 in protest of new artistic director PJ Paparelli’s programming changes and reportedly abrasive managerial style. Many of those previous ensemble members formed a new company under ATC’s original name, American Blues Theater, while Paparelli’s American Theater Company shifted from a diet of smartly produced chestnuts like Born Yesterday and The Dark at the Top of the Stairs to ambitious new works and reimagined classics.

His tenure included, among other things, the world premieres of Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced, which went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and become one of the most-produced plays in the country, and Stephen Karam’s The Humans, which later won the Tony Award for best play and is currently on a national tour. Paparelli also worked with Grease co-creator Jim Jacobs on a revised production that returned that musical to its Chicago roots, and spearheaded The Project(s), an excellent docu-theater look at the Chicago Housing Authority.

Tragically, Paparelli was killed in a car accident in 2015 at the age of 40, and the board’s statement says recovering from that blow “was more daunting than expected.” Will Davis, appointed by the board in February 2016 to succeed Paparelli, took ATC in his own bold new directions, with productions including Jaclyn Backhaus’s Men in Boats and a race– and gender-conscious recasting of William Inge’s Picnic pushing toward a more inclusionary, and perhaps less commercial, vision of the American theater.

Davis, who was one of the first trans artists to lead a theater in the U.S., articulated this vision to me in an interview upon his hiring: “I want to be an artist in the field who cultivates space for other people, who uses a platform like ATC to do good for the field,” he said. That felt like a direct echo of something Paparelli told me in early 2008, during his first season at ATC: “I look at our mission statement—and our name, for fuck’s sake! We’re the American Theater Company. There’s a responsibility there if you’re going to call yourself that.”

The unsigned statement from ATC’s board (which declined interview requests) praised Davis while implying a downturn in ticket sales under his tenure: “Despite the innovative, engaging and inclusive approach to ATC that current artistic director Will Davis brought to our theater, which continued to garner a positive reception for our productions and educational programs, the theater has suffered from a reduction in earned revenue.”

The Tribune’s Chris Jones, citing unnamed sources, reported that the board had decided to fire Davis (who is currently in New York directing Chicago playwright Alex Lubischer’s Bobbie Clearly for its Off Broadway premiere) before ultimately deciding to close the theater altogether. [Update, 2pm: Through a spokesperson, the board has denied that it had decided to let Davis go before deciding to cease operations. The Tribune has removed that assertion from its story.] American Theater Company’s website has already been taken down. The board’s full statement is below.

The Board of the American Theater Company has made the difficult decision to close the theater. We’re Gonna Be Okay will be ATC’s final production.

Ultimately, the challenge to transform the organization in the wake of the tragic and sudden death of former artistic director PJ Paparelli was more daunting than expected. Despite the innovative, engaging and inclusive approach to ATC that current artistic director Will Davis brought to our theater, which continued to garner a positive reception for our productions and educational programs, the theater has suffered from a reduction in earned revenue.

This challenge was particularly acute this year, when despite the enormous success of works that originated at ATC—such as Tony Award winner The Humans and Pulitzer Prize winner Disgraced—our current productions have not been able to reach the audience they deserve. In the theater-rich Chicago community, it is increasingly difficult for a small non-profit organization like ours to thrive.

We express our deep gratitude for the support so many members of the community have provided to ATC over the years, enabling us to produce ground-breaking world premieres, educate thousands of teenagers through drama and provide a home for Chicago's diverse artistic community. This action does not mean that we are walking away from our ideals, but rather that we believe that our ideals are best served only when our mission “to explore stories that ask the question ‘What does it mean to be an American?’” can reach the widest possible audience in a financially prudent manner—a goal that ultimately proved unachievable in the current environment.

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