New Leaf Theatre to cease operations

  • Photograph: Tom McGrath

    Billy Fenderson in Arcadia at New Leaf Theatre (2012)

  • Photograph: Tom McGrath

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  • Photograph: John W. Sisson Jr.

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  • Photograph: Tom McGrath

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  • Photograph: Tom McGrath

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  • Photograph: Marni Keenan

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  • Photograph: Lindsay Theo

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  • Photograph: Lindsay Theo

    Six Years (2008)

  • The Girl in the Goldfish Bowl (2008)

  • The Dining Room(2007)

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Photograph: Tom McGrath

Billy Fenderson in Arcadia at New Leaf Theatre (2012)

The producing ensemble of New Leaf Theatre has decided to dissolve the company following its current production of Tom Stoppard's Arcadia. "We want it to be a positive thing, not a tragedy, not a loss," says artistic director Jessica Hutchinson.

Sitting around the large wooden table that serves as the center of Michelle Lilly's scenic design for Arcadia, the day before the show's opening last week in New Leaf's longtime home inside the Chicago Park District's Lincoln Park Cultural Center, the current ensemble members—Hutchinson, Lilly, managing director Eleanor Hyde, actor and business manager Marsha Harman, production manager Marni Keenan, sound designer Nick Keenan and lighting designer Jared Moore—talk to me about their decision. "The aesthetic model that I was thinking of when we were talking about the decision to close was the last frame of Calvin and Hobbes," Nick Keenan says. "That way of ending a mission and completing a body of work…so the work will always have integrity and it won't seep away or we won't try and change it into something else."

Embedded in the company's name and mission are themes of renewal; indeed, none of the current company members were around for its founding in 2001. But in conversations beginning last year, they say, they began to come to the consensus that their self-managed administrative model was unsustainable. "In some ways, the decision that we came to is a way of living out our production mission on a company level," Harman says. "For me, the process started with a personal feeling of not knowing how much more [administrative] work I had in me, and no longer feeling renewed by that part of it."

"The fact is that we all have other ways that we pay our bills, and we've always prioritized production [expenditures] over administrative salaries," Hutchinson says. The time the company members have to give to New Leaf has gone into the work onstage, she says, rather than into growing the organization to an institutional level.

New Leaf's relationship with the park district, Harman adds, "allowed us to operate with a much looser infrastructure for a longer time" than other theaters New Leaf's age, "which created this culture of focusing on the work, but I think has implications for the long-term sustainability of that."

"It's like, the wild college days are over," says Moore. "And this happens to every ensemble theater company," Nick Keenan adds. "Some of them then transform into something else—Steppenwolf being the example."

"But I think we were wholly different in the way we approached that, where we didn't go for the acting ensemble but instead for a producing ensemble," Moore says. "It's kind of a bummer, but this is growing up, I think."

"The consensus we found was to release ourselves," Nick Keenan says. "It wasn't that we didn't want to work with each other anymore. It was that we needed to release ourselves from the responsibilities that come with running a company in addition to creating work."

"The artistic side was doing fine," Marni Keenan adds. "It was the administrative side that was shutting down. Having all of us right now is not enough to handle the administrative side. We just never found a way forward with that."

Since making the decision to wind down, some New Leaf members have had other life-altering events come along; Hutchinson will be departing for grad school this fall at the University of Texas–Austin, while the Keenans are expecting their first child this fall.

The company plans to have what Hyde says she's calling a "wrap party" for New Leaf's friends and family at some point after the close of Arcadia—a play that Harman says felt like an appropriate note on which to end. "There's so many lines that support it, about being at the end versus being at the beginning. Septimus has that line about—'When we have solved all the mysteries and lost all the meaning, we will be alone on an empty shore. And then we will dance.'"

Arcadia continues through June 16. For more on New Leaf Theatre, read my January 2009 profile of the company.

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Laura Baginski, Editor (@TimeOutChicago)