Chicago’s storefront theaters find lifeline through Donnelley Foundation Theater grants
“What makes the Donnelley grants different is that they trust you to spend it where you need to most,” says Rivendell Theatre Ensemble founding artistic director Tara Mallen.
When it comes to philanthropy in theater, nameplate lobbies and production underwriters get the lion’s share of the limelight.
Think about it: When was the last time you saw a donor’s name memorialized next to a plumbing bill?
Then there’s the 65-year-old Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation: It isn’t really interested in engraved plaques or namesake greenrooms. Yet since 1952, the Foundation has — sometimes literally — been keeping the lights on in Chicago theaters. And, as it turns out, paying for the occasional manny.
“Last fall, our director had a six-week-old baby when we started rehearsals,” said Rivendell Theatre Ensemble founding artistic director Tara Mallen. “We used Donnelley money to hire a manny, set up a kid’s playroom and build a private space where new moms could breastfeed. What makes the Donnelley grants different is that they trust you to spend it where you need to most. We prioritize hiring women. Donnelley helps us do that,” she said.
Annually, the Chicago- and South Carolina-based GDDF disburses some $1.7 million to about 175 arts organizations in Chicago, roughly half a million to about 65 Chicago theater companies with budgets under $1 million. Most of the theater grants are in the low five figures.
“Most grant organizations won’t even look at you if you’re under $250,000,” said Mallen. “I started Rivendell with my waitressing tips. For theaters like us, having Donnelley resources at a smaller stage is crucial.”
So are the theaters themselves, says foundation CEO David Farren.
“These storefronts are fundamental to who we are as humans,” he said. “They are critical resources in our neighborhoods. They help us talk about the issues of the day — immigration, gender, racism — in a way that other art forms can’t. They wear their hearts on their sleeves. We need them.”
The foundation practices what Farren calls “trust-based philanthropy.” At the core of this philosophy: offering three-year, general operations grants for use at the theater’s discretion, rather than one-year grants earmarked for specific expenses.
The foundation’s largesse is vast but measured. “You don’t want the grant to make or break the budget in any given year. That creates instability. And if you’ve been running a deficit for a few years, we’re probably going to hold off on granting until you stabilize a bit,” Farren said.
Grants are calculated according to a theater’s overall budget, and meticulously reported on the foundation’s website. The website lists 2018 theater grantees ranging from $7,000 (Akvavit Theatre) to $22,500 (Shattered Globe). Dance companies and galleries are also among the recipients.
The three-year grants are a boon: Applying for annual grants can take up as much time as rehearsing a show. “We understand that artists want to spend time making art, not applying for grants,” Farren said. “Three years frees up time for theaters and lets us develop long-term relationships.”
To see the reach of the foundation, you don’t have to look far.
“When we lost our space, they helped us get back on our feet,” says Theatre Y artistic director Melissa Lorraine of the company’s new Ravenswood digs at 4546 N. Western. Donnelley funds also made it possible for Theatre Y to hire two Hungarian choreographers and provide free tickets for “The Camino Project,” a six-hour epic promenade running through Oct. 13. The production uses Bucktown as its “set” and sends audiences on a walking tour through scenes inspired by Spain’s 500-mile Camino de Santiago pilgrimage.
For Silk Road Rising artistic director Jamil Khoury, Donnelley funds will help create a locally sourced festival of new plays in Chicago’s West Rogers Park neighborhood. At the stage-combat corps Babes with Blades, artistic director Hayley Rice is planning fight clubs — lessons in stage battle for trans, non-binary and gender-nonconforming actors — with her grant funding. And at Old Town’s A Red Orchid Theatre, general manager Abigail Madden said Donnelley money is helping to pay a full-time staffer.
Farren estimates the foundation has donated about $8.5 million to storefront theaters since 1991. There’s a 10- to 15 percent turn-over among grantees annually, he added. Some, like TimeLine and the House theaters, graduate beyond the $1 million budget cap. Some go out of business. “It’s an ever-evolving landscape,” Farren said.
Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley started the foundation at their kitchen table, Farren said, “writing checks from their own wealth.” Other than the name, the foundation isn’t linked to the Donnelleys’ business interests, he added. (In 1864, Gaylord’s grandfather Richard Robert Donnelley founded what would become the world’s largest printing operation.) Gaylord Donnelley died in 1992; Dorothy in 2004. Today, their daughter Laura and three grandchildren sit on the foundation board of directors.
“The annual goal is to make 5 percent plus inflation. The IRS requires five percent annual growth for foundations. The rest allows us to continue indefinitely,” Farren said. In addition to the arts, the foundation is dedicated to conservation and land preservation, particularly in South Carolina’s Low Country. Among their local land efforts is the 800-acre Donnelley-DePue Wildlife Area, about 100 miles west of the Chicago Loop.
Increasingly, he added, the foundation is looking at geography: “We want to bring theaters to theater deserts, to neighborhoods where it [doesn’t exist],” Farren said.
That fits with Silk Road’s commitment to West Ridge. “We didn’t want to swoop in, do a show and leave,” said Khoury. “We’re partnering with community organizations to offer workshops, free, and a 10-week playwriting program that will end with a festival of new plays,” he said. In March, Khoury and his husband, Silk Road executive director Malik Gillani, will actually move into West Ridge for a month in order to film a documentary about the process.
“You know, during the [former Illinois governor] Rauner years, theaters waited years for their state grant money,” said Rice. “Having an outlet like the Donnelley behind you means you can still fight back. You can take control.”
Catey Sullivan is a local freelance writer.