Evanston’s fabled Next Theatre to cease operations

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Evanston’s Next Theatre, an early launching pad for such talents as playwright-actor Tracy Letts, actor Michael Shannon, and directors David Cromer and Dexter Bullard, has announced that it is ceasing operations, effective immediately.

The company, housed in the Noyes Cultural Arts Center, was founded in 1981 by Harriet Spizziri and Brian Finn, and has, for 34 years, produced many award-winning, socially provocative plays including its very early hit, British dramatist Nigel Williams’ “Class Enemy,” and the 1986 Chicago premiere of Larry Kramer’s AIDS play, “The Normal Heart.” In 1993 it staged the debut of Letts’ explosive “Killer Joe,” which eventually catapulted him onto the national stage.

In a prepared statement, Rob Andalman, president of Next’s Board of Directors said: “It is with great sadness that [we] announce that Next Theatre is closing. … We are enormously proud of the legacy Next leaves. The theater has been an important part of the cultural landscape of both Evanston and the Chicago theater communities. For three and a half decades the theater was a canvas for artists whose purpose was not just to entertain, but to touch audiences’ hearts and minds. Next sought to provoke feelings and conversations on some of the really hard questions — and, more often than not, it succeeded.”

He added: “Unfortunately, the theater’s audiences have shrunk dramatically in the past few years and it has not been able to build a contribution base to compensate for that. At this juncture, the Board concluded that it was not responsible to continue operations.”

During the course of its history, Next, whose current artistic director Jennifer Avery worked feverishly to keep the company alive, championed the work of such playwrights as Suzan-Lori Parks and, more recently, Amy Herzog (“After the Revolution”) and Deborah Zoe Laufer (“End Days”), as well as presenting the U.S. premiere of “Everything is Illuminated.”

In addition to Letts’ first play, “Killer Joe,” it presented the world premieres of “Among the Thugs” (the thrilling stage adaptation of Bill Buford’s study of soccer hooliganism), Carson Kreitzer’s “The Lovesong of J. Robert Oppenheimer,” and, in 2007,  the hugely successful musical version of Elmer Rice’s “Adding Machine.” That show (adapted by Next’s former artistic director, Jason Loewith, and directed by David Cromer) went on to have an Off-Broadway run in New York that received six Lucille Lortel Award nominations in the 2008 season and won the Lortel Award for outstanding musical. The show has since been produced around the country and in Australia.

Next intends to seek out other area theaters that might be willing to honor its subscriptions for the remainder of this season. Meanwhile, its planned production of Shakespeare’s “Richard II,” which was to star Michael Patrick Thornton, will not happen.

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