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Den Theater adds a stage (and Haven nabs it)

The lobby of The Den Theatre in Wicker Park. (Photo: Courtesy of The Den)

The Den Theatre, which began as a single stage in 2010, and has since morphed into a multiplex of stages at 1333 W. Milwaukee in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood, seems to be in a constant state of expansion and enhancement, and has become an ideal home for many theater companies.

Now comes news of The Bookspan Theatre, its newest addition, set to open in September. Named for Janet Bookspan, a respected arts educator, performance coach, director and performer, this new 99-seat, fully adaptable theater will open at 1335 N. Milwaukee, adjacent to The Den’s six other theaters, which include two spaces on the ground floor/street level, three theaters on the second floor, and two additional spaces used primarily for classes and rehearsals on the third floor.

Haven Theatre Company (the company that produced last Fall’s sold-out run of Arlene Hutton’s “Last Train to Nibroc”), will be the head resident company of the The Bookspan. It will inaugurate the space with Idris Goodwin’s play, “How We Got On” (Sept. 29 – Nov. 12), the story of three talented, determined suburban teens coming of age in the 1980s who dream of fame and fortune in the new hip-hop music scene, but must overcome cultural isolation, familial dysfunction, and ruthless rivalries as they make the music that defines their lives. Along the way, a sultry DJ spins their stories with her own meta-theatrical perspective. Jess McLeod will direct.

Other companies expected to produce in the space during the 2016-17 season include Griffin Theatre and Route 66 Theatre Company.

In a prepared statement, Josh Sobel, artistic director of Haven, noted: “When I was approached with the opportunity to suggest a name for Haven Theatre’s new home, the thought process took – without exaggeration – about three seconds. Janet was an influential force in the performing arts as a performer, director and educator, with a life and career embodied by thinking outside the box and nurturing others to reach their full potential. Bestowing the new space with her name is also a significant moment for me personally, as Janet was my aunt as well as one of my biggest artistic influences. As Haven launches this season with a commitment to nurturing the theatrical voices of the future, how fitting it feels to have Janet’s name endowing this new venue with it her spirit, her memory and her legacy.”

A force in the performing arts, particularly in the field of opera, Bookspan sang and narrated work at venues including Lincoln Center, Boston Symphony, New York Philharmonic and the Philadelphia Orchestra. She directed productions around the world, including at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, Mexico’s Cervantino International Music Festival, The Met’s Opera Guild Finalists Concert, Caramoor Festival, Opera Delaware, Opera Columbus, and many others. And she served as head of the Opera Department at S.U.N.Y. Purchase, as well as on the faculties of Juilliard, the Curtis Institute, the Manhattan School of Music, and Mannes.

Bookspan gave master classes at universities across the U.S., and was a visiting professor at the North Carolina School of the Arts, Carnegie Mellon University and the Eastman School of Music. She coached for the New World Symphony in Miami and Florida Grand Opera’s Young Artist Program, and collaborated with legendary theater and opera artists such as Hal Prince and Luciano Pavarotti. Her husband, Martin Bookspan, a critic and music authority, was the voice of “Live from Lincoln Center” for 30 years, from 1976 to 2006. Since her death, the Manhattan School of Music continues to hold a memorial concert for children and families in Janet Bookspan’s name annually, building upon her life-long commitment to the next generation.

“When Josh and Haven’s founder and executive director, Carol Cohen, brought the new name to the table, and I learned about Janet, what she stood for, and how she positively impacted so many artists – it seemed like the perfect fit and the perfect gesture to begin our new relationship with Haven Theatre,” said The Den Theatre’s artistic director, Ryan Martin. “I’m very excited to unveil The Den’s second street-level theater, expanding our imprint as a premier theater destination in Wicker Park. Like The Hypocrites next door in the Heath Main Stage, Haven brings yet another quality new aesthetic to our ever-growing space, and we couldn’t be more excited to have them.”