When a theater company is endowed with the descriptor “innovative,” it is a blessing and a curse.
Such was the case with The House Theatre of Chicago. Founded 20 years ago by Nathan Allen and an ensemble of friends, it exploded on the scene with an expansive interpretation of theater with “Death and Harry Houdini,” and has repeatedly pulled hit after hit out of its magic hat, with new takes on beloved classics such as “The Nutcracker,” and its wildly popular sleight-of-hand show, “The Magic Parlour.”
Yet the same insularity that created success prevented its largely white creatives to understand that any innovation that doesn’t include the diversity of the city that created it — is simply an illusion.
The curtain was abruptly pulled back after fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests. In August 2020, The House issued a mea culpa apologizing for repeated instances of racial insensitivity and yellowface during productions such as “The Curse of the Crying Heart,” “The Terrible Tragedy of Peter Pan,” “San Valentino and the Melancholy Kid,” and “Death and Harry Houdini.” In October 2020, artistic director Nathan Allen stepped aside, and made way for the theater’s next act: Black Girl Magic.
On March 4, The House announced the appointment of a new artistic director: Lanise Antoine Shelley — a multi-hyphenate artist, director, playwright, educator and visual artist whose artistic expression is deeply informed by her identity and upbringing.
Says Shelley, “I was born in Haiti in a small town called San Michele and I was put in an orphanage at 2 and adopted at 4 years old, and my family — save my adopted sister — are all white. ... I found my way to Cornish, British American Drama Academy and Harvard. … I went to Senegal twice and studied [African dance]. It allowed me to lead from self, which was a place hard for me to do, because growing up in a predominantly white culture and environment, I didn’t quite know who the self was. ... When I first came to the states I was fluent in Creole. I lost it all in the pursuit of learning English, so my entire adult life has been reclaiming my narrative.”
Stepping into role of the company’s artistic director signaled the bravery to take on the baggage of The House’s social justice missteps. When asked about this challenge, Shelley said: “It’s unfortunate that I have to be charged with that because that wouldn’t have ever happened under my leadership. I’m launching an initiative that gets me out into the community more, gets the House affiliates out into the community — not asking for donations, not pushing an agenda, but just listening.”
Historically, many predominantly white institutions have hired BIPOC leaders as powerless symbols, while the power structure of the board remained resistant to change. Shelley has no intention of allowing that to happen.
“I told [the House board] at my first interview that I will not be a puppet. ...I am going to implement that it is mandatory that every affiliate of The House goes through anti-racism training and conflict resolution training. ...The board has expressed that they are eager and open to diversifying because they are aware that they are all white, and they are open to me bringing in fresh board members who are representative to who I am as an artist.”
Institutions under the spotlight often publicly know the correct thing to say to turn down the heat of scrutiny, but privately express fears of losing their core (white) audience and funders. “I think they are underestimating their audience and their donors,” Shelley says. “For any evolution, any upleveling, you are going to lose people, and that is a risk worth taking in some regard.”
Another hurdle is filling the large shoes of a beloved 20-year predecessor. Change is inevitable and some will always fear the unknown. Shelley has a sensitive approach to all of this.
“You come into it delicately. Every day I prioritize meeting with every single one of the company members. I have set up surveys for the company members and for friends and fans of the House.”
However, even the most gentle manner runs up against hard reality.
“I can only be who I am,” Shelley says. “And if they thought they would get a modicum of what Nathan is in me, they should have at least gotten a man,” she jokes. “I have asked that those within the company who are fans of The House, friends of The House, that they exact grace in this situation, because I will not try to replicate Nathan at all. ...I am focused right now on the survival of the theater.”
Shelley’s vision of progress hews closely to the legacy of innovation that put the House on the map two decades ago.
“The House has been very insular, a very exclusive club for the last 20 years — and very cis-male-driven. We are going to get rid of mmmm ... all of that” she laughs, “and we are bringing in international and national collaborations. I have a lot of friends who are AD’s all over the continent and I am talking to them about virtual collaborations. This coming season will be a nice medley of things that people have seen before, and things that will blow their mind because... it’s rarely produced. I [also] want to commission a work by an indigenous female or any BIPOC artists here in Chicago.