Stephen J. Albert, who had served as executive director of Chicago’s Court Theatre since 2010, and was a crucial force in enhancing the reputations and stability of several major American regional theaters during the course of his career, died on Friday at the University of Chicago Hospital. He was 66.
The official cause of death was described as “complications from surgery.” Albert, who in November announced he would be leaving his position at Court as of Fall 2018, had been quietly fighting cancer for several years.
A founding partner in Albert Hall & Associates LLC, a leading arts consulting firm, Albert came to Court after leading several of the country’s most prestigious regional theaters, including the Mark Taper Forum/Center Theatre in Los Angeles (where his mentor was the formidable director-producer Gordon Davidson), Houston’s Alley Theatre, and the Hartford Stage Company in Connecticut.
At Court Theatre, where he worked in close collaboration with artistic director Charles Newell, he was instrumental in establishing the Center for Classic Theatre with the University of Chicago, creating a unique model for how a professional theater can interact with a major university.
During his eight-year tenure with Court, the theater added world premieres of new adaptations to its artistic agenda. And Albert was crucial in growing the annual budget of the operation by 50 percent and securing an off-site production site for rehearsals. Perhaps most importantly, he helped expand the theater’s community engagement in the Hyde Park area and beyond.
“Steve’s work transformed Court Theatre as an institution and my own work as an artist,” Newell said. “He was an extraordinary strategic thinker who would often quip that he ‘stood between ambition and reality.’ But he knew how to realize the things we wanted, and he negotiated that process in a beautiful and creative way.
“He had a great ability to organize, amplify and propel things forward — to take a vision and make it manifest,” Newell said. “He knew where to put his energy and how to tap the right resources. His fundraising abilities were nothing short of spectacular. His tireless dedication to Court’s mission, and to our shared belief in theater’s ability to change the world, will be greatly missed.”
For Michael Tiknis, interim executive director of the Miami City Ballet, but whose tenure as executive director of Chicago’s Harris Theater for Music and Dance overlapped with Albert’s time at Court, “Steve was a generous colleague offering support and encouragement in our efforts to bring new work to Chicago.”
“He loved the drama and theatricality of dance,” Tiknis said. “But most of all, he understood the role of the arts administrator to support and nurture the work on stage, and to be an advocate for the artist.”
Born in Kittery, Maine, Albert was a graduate of the University of Southern California, with an MBA from the UCLA Graduate School of Management. He served as president of the League of Regional Theatres (LORT), and as a board member of the Theatre Communications Group (TCG). He also was a Senior Fellow of the American Leadership Forum.
“Theater was his greatest love after my mother, Terri [a specialist in experiential learning] and me,” said Albert’s daughter, Jessica Albert, a lawyer in Miami-Dade County’s Public Defender’s Office. Albert also is survived by a brother, Larry.
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“My dad did community theater in Fresno, California, when he was young and always told the story of getting a review that said he was a terrible actor but had an eye for the theater that should not be ignored,” said Jessica, who described her dad as her biggest fan, role model and hero.
“I guess that was when he switched from working on the front of the stage to behind the scenes. But he always said that when you find the job you love you never really work a day in your life,” she said. “And he certainly felt that way about the theater. He also was completely selfless, and one of the reasons he decided to leave Court was his sense that it was time for a whole new generation to take over the reins.”
Asked if her father had a favorite playwright, Albert’s daughter said: “August Wilson was definitely one of them. He worked closely with him when he helped bring his play, ‘The Piano Lesson’ to Broadway.”
And Newell recalled: “Steve was at a rehearsal of our upcoming production of Arthur Miller’s play ‘All My Sons’ in early December. And I vividly remember how he said that seeing that play when he was still a student was what made him want to make theater his life’s work.”
A celebration of Albert’s life is set to be held Jan. 27 at 10 a.m. at Court Theatre.