Lookingglass Theatre announces a pause in operations, staff layoffs in wake of weakening revenue

“We will be producing less and in different ways in the coming year as we re-imagine our future,” a company statement said.

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Lookingglass Theatre Company makes its home inside the Water Tower Water Works building on North Michigan Avenue.

Lookingglass Theatre Company makes its home inside the Water Tower Water Works building on North Michigan Avenue.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre, one of the most innovative and vibrant members of Chicago’s theater scene, announced Friday that it is pausing operations after a 35-year run. The move includes massive cuts in staffing and no further productions until late spring of 2024.

The news was made public via a letter to donors and supporters from artistic director/ensemble member Heidi Stillman and theater board of directors chair Diane Whatton.

“While the pandemic has been declared over, theatres in our country are still feeling the effects of needing to shut down for so long. Since re-opening, audiences and donations have not returned to 2019 levels, and the American Theatre is struggling to survive,” the statement read, in part. “We are announcing today that we have to take the heavy, but intentional, step of reducing our staff and will be producing less and in different ways in the coming year as we re-imagine our future.”

The theater’s pre-pandemic operating budget was between $5 million and $6 million, Stillman noted when reached by phone Friday, adding “now we’re looking at about $3 million.”

That budget drop required laying off more than half of the company’s full-time employees for the foreseeable future.

“People need to understand that while we had 24 full-time staffers, we hire well outside that number depending on the needs of a particular show,” Stillman said. “We hire seamstresses, carpenters, electricians. That can add up to 250 to 300 jobs for local craftspeople and artisans in the course of a season. So the job opportunities by not just us but all theaters on a local scale is enormous.”

Lookingglass presents three shows each season from fall to spring; next season there will be one, Stillman said.

Friday’s letter also addressed the Tony Award-winning theater company’s Michigan Avenue home at the Water Tower Water Works.

“We have received capital funding from the State of Illinois to re-envision and renovate the outer lobby space in the Water Tower Water Works building in partnership with the Chicago Public Library. We believe this will be both literally and figuratively transformational,” the letter stated.

The theater company also announced a $2.5 million fundraising effort to help secure the future of the theater, which was founded in 1988 by a group of Northwestern University graduates, and eventually became a hub for producing new and cutting-edge works.

Lookingglass ensemble members include “Friends” star David Schwimmer (one of the company’s co-founding members), Joey Slotnick (“Twister”), Kareem Bandealy (“Chicago Fire”), J. Nicole Brooks (“South Side,” “The Chi”) and playwright/director and Goodman Theatre Associate Mary Zimmerman, among others.

Some of the company’s many critically acclaimed productions include Zimmerman’s “Metamorphoses” (which earned her the Tony Award for best direction of a play in 2002), and the circus-centric “Lookingglass Alice” by co-founding ensemble member David Catlin.

Stillman said that all ensemble members were part of the discussions that led to the decision about the theater’s future, including crafting Friday’s letter.

As for what the future will look like for Lookingglass, she said the company is banking on innovative ways to revamp the theater business model in general.

“I think we have to all rethink how we’re doing it,” Stillman said about what it would take to get theaters in Chicago and elsewhere back on solid ground.

“I don’t think any theater can ever go back to the way it was before the pandemic. We’re all looking at the model and trying to figure out if there’s more sustainable away to be fulfilling our missions. ... But [at Lookingglass] we’ve been many versions of ourselves over the years, always fulfilling our mission but in many different ways, in many different sizes. We’ve been itinerate and now we have this wonderful space. So it’s all about putting our brainpower behind what’s going to work post-pandemic.”

In a statement on Friday, Erin Harkey the commissioner for the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, called the theater’s temporary closure another example of the hardship the industry continues to endure as a result of pandemic shutdowns.

“Chicago’s theater scene is one of the greatest in the world. They were hit hard by the pandemic — and they have never fully recovered. Lookingglass Theatre Company is the latest example of a theater having to make a tough choice, which is happening in greater frequency throughout the country,” Harkey said. “... We’re going to continue to encourage our neighbors and visitors to get back in the habit of experiencing live shows, rallying to drive ticket sales, and employ a cohesive strategy that will support all of our theaters, including Lookingglass.”

NOTE: The current production of “Lucy and Charlie’s Honeymoon” will finish out its run on July 16 at the theater. In addition, the theater’s annual “Sunset 1919” remembrance of the Chicago race riots of 1919 and Eugene Williams will go on as scheduled at 7 p.m. July 27 at the Eugene Williams Memorial Marker, 125 Fort Dearborn Drive, Chicago (just north of 31st Street Beach).

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