Chicago’s theater community will gather Monday night at the Drury Lane Oakbrook to honor the best in Chicago-area Equity stage artists and productions at the 48th annual Joseph Jefferson Awards ceremony gala. Receiving a special tribute will be Writers Theatre artistic director Michael Halberstam, being honored for his “outstanding theatrical accomplishments and contributions to Chicagoland theater for the past 25 years.”
Halberstam, who graduated from the University of Illinois, put in motion his Chicago theatrical career with the opening of a small theater in the back room of a north suburban Glencoe book store in 1992. In 2003, a second theater space was added on nearby Tudor Court, and in February 2016, Writers Theatre moved to its new, state-of-the-art, Studio Gang Architects-designed permanent home in downtown Glencoe.
A native of Nottingham, England, Halberstam has directed nearly 40 productions at Writers, including “Arcadia,” “Julius Caesar,” “A Minister’s Wife,” “Crime and Punishment,” “Hamlet” and “Sweet Charity,” to name a few. His regional and national credits boast Chicago Opera Theater, Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Court Theatre, Northlight Theatre, New York’s Lincoln Center Theater, San Jose Repertory and Milwaukee Repertory, among others. He currently also serves on the board of the Arts Club of Chicago.
I recently chatted with Halberstam about the special Jeff Award he is about to receive, the past and the future of Writers Theatre.
Q. What does a lifetime achievement award mean to you?
A. I am so deeply honored and humbled by this. But I suppose one could ask, does that mean it’s all over? [Laughs] If you truly achieve success does that make it a finite experience? You’ve achieved it and now you’re done! It was [George Bernard] Shaw who said: “I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work the more I live.”
I try to eschew any sense of accomplishment because I don’t want to think of my work as ever having a finite capacity. I also recognize that Writers Theatre has succeeded because hundreds of artists have contributed to the work that is presented, both on the stage and behind the scenes. And we have the most dedicated group of trustees that any theater could ask for. Theater is a collaborative artform; I’m just lucky to be the face on the company. When I started the company I thought the artistic director was the guy tasked to steer the ship from point A to point B. [Laughing] I so very quickly learned you need a full team to steer the ship.
Q. Writers Theatre presented so many incredible productions in its two former locales. What was it like to work in such intimate spaces and now walk the boards in this incredible new venue?
A. It was such a privilege to work in both of those theaters. And they truly were so intensely intimate. We worked with the finest artists in the Chicago region to build productions that had such a sense of a community experience about them. What I liked about those two spaces as an actor or director is that they demanded absolute honesty at all moments. You couldn’t phone in your performance. You couldn’t think, “My costumes and set will take care of it.” There was a rawness to the work that helped us focus on the quality of the text. Everything we did, everything we do as stage artists, has to support the text.
Q. So there you are, sitting with architect Jeanne Gang, with this blank canvas before you, which will one day become the new home for Writers Theatre. What was going through your mind at that moment? What were some of the key elements you wanted to see incorporated in the design?
A. When we’re in rehearsals now, I’ll walk across the lobby and I’ll stop to pinch myself just to make sure to breathe in and take into my soul the beautiful surroundings in which we are now able to create. It’s a privilege to work inside this new space. It’s a conscious privilege, that is not taken for granted. We’re trying to live up to the space, to honor the space with our work, to honor the audiences. Honestly, it feels like our previous two spaces in some ways. The smaller [50 to 99-seat Gillian] theater has the feel of the old book store space. The [250-seat] Nichols Theatre has the former Women’s Club Space aesthetic, only larger. We managed to duplicate in essence what we had before but craft a new, beautiful experience. The exterior matches the beauty of what we do on stage. We have functioning plumbing; the actors have showers in their dressing rooms. The work spaces have access to natural light. The acoustics are perfect. Jeanne [Gang] clearly had the artists’ interests in mind with her design.
Q. Was there a moment when the idea of a new venue meant perhaps moving the company to Chicago, to become part of the city’s theater landscape?
A. We explored the option on several occasions with great seriousness. Ultimately we discovered that our environment here was very much a part of our identity. The parklike setting in which our theater sits is very much reflected in the new theater’s design. Steppenwolf, for example, is very much an urban theater company that exists in the bustle of a metropolis. When Jeanne started designing our building she said it’s nestled in a park, and so she wanted to make a theater in the park. That’s truly part of the experience here: It’s about coming to theater in the park. The artistry is metropolitan, the aim of the theater is international, and the setting of the theater company is truly enhanced by its suburban location.
Q. What was the greatest obstacle you had to overcome in your steering of the Writers ship?
A. I would say the greatest obstacle we all have as artists is always ourselves. I had to convince myself that I was worthy of this thing, of leading this ship. I consistently experienced self-doubt. As the old saying goes, you get 10 good reviews and one bad one and you obsess for 10 weeks over the bad one. [Laughs] You have to maintain a sense of humility as an artist. Most artists I know are organically and intrinsically humble. But humility can become as self-destructive as self-doubt. I still experience self-doubt.
Q. Does it disturb your world greatly if you or one of your shows gets a less than favorable review?
A. It’s a matter of making sure of understanding that you can’t please everybody all the time. Ultimately the proof of the pudding is in the tasting, for an artist. If you get a slew of fantastic reviews and no one comes to see the show, you have to ask some questions. Alternatively, if you get terrible reviews and the theater is packed, you also have to ask questions. Did I sell out? Am I audience pleasing? The answers can be found in the material you’re choosing. If you’re doing “Arcadia” or “Julius Caesar” and you have taken risks and have a good cast and solid source material, it’s a worthwhile endeavor. That’s really the ultimate review, isn’t it? Awards are lovely and they usually are put into place by people who passionately care about the work. But you can’t base your self worth on external manifestations. Your true lift has to come from within.
Q. Do you ever look out and see the faces in the audience and they are completely blank, like they are just not getting it?
A. [Laughing] I’m not a religious person but I am a spiritual person. And I do believe there are those occasions, yes. If the play is not working it’s in the control of the actor. Even when there’s the occasion that an audience has come collectively not to get you, every actor will tell you that you can find one person in the house for whom you are making a difference. You can see it on his or her face. Here’s the other thing, and it goes back to the insecurity issue. Sometimes you look out into the theater and you think you’re not reaching the audience and you get despondent because they’re not laughing at your most comical moment, or they seem disinterested. And then you get to the end of the play and they cheer you. I would say more often than not this is the case of the collective audience. For the most part, people who come to the theater have already made a big, willing commitment for the evening.
Q. In a perfect world, what would your “dream season” at Writers include?
A. The good news is it already is a perfect world. I feel like that’s an ongoing conversation here. I can talk about some of the pieces that have always been meaningful to me. “Julius Caesar” was one of them. Some of my favorite playwrights are Shakespeare and [Tom] Stoppard. I’m a huge fan of Lydia Diamond [“Stick Fly”]. I’ve just fallen in love with her words of late. Her work is something I’d very much like to engage with.
I feel like there’s a whole generation of women writers who are finally being noticed. When I look out into the audience and see that women make up 60 to 70 percent of the house, I think of the audacity that so many of our playwrights and characters are male. That’s one of my passion projects, to really bring a stronger group of female voices to our stage. We are a canon-based theater so that is a bit more difficult in many ways. But when our mission statement is to revise canon-based plays and show them in a refreshed light, one of the most wonderful challenges becomes finding ways to bring playwrights of color and women directors to our stage. It’s finding ways to dance with the traditional canon and bring it to a fresh light. Ike Holter [“Exit Strategy”] is another playwright I’m crazy about.
Theater programmers have a mythology that they don’t want to burst their programming for fear of making their audience nervous. It’s just not true. When we did our first all-black cast [for “The Old Settler,” directed by Ron OJ Parson in 2010], for example. It was just a beautiful play about an older woman having an affair with a younger man in Harlem during World War II. And our audiences, which are predominantly white, gave the show a standing ovation every night. They were excited to be included in that conversation every night. We sometimes forget that our audiences have limitless imaginations and trust us and come to the theater because they want to be challenged, and not just sit back and be entertained. I want to create new works and include fresh voices alongside the canons of Shakespeare and Chekhov.
… In my dream world, I would like to believe that as our programming diversifies, our community will more truly diversify.
Q. What do you want the legacy of Writers Theatre to be?
A. You know, I was lucky enough to be honored with an achievement award from the League of Chicago Theaters a while back and [former longtime Steppenwolf artistic director] Martha Lavey presented it to me. And in her remarks, she noted that I had made a theater company that somebody else would want. I have worked very hard to make a space that artists want to come and work. They know they’re respected here. And people know this is a place where great plays are made.