2019 is the Year of Chicago Theatre! Small theatres across Chicago are evolving their company thanks in part to the Chicago-based Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation which supports more than 50 Chicago small theatre companies with annual budgets below $1 million. These funds help theatres strengthen operations and focus on producing works and furthering initiatives that are relevant to both the artists and their neighborhood audiences. One of those Theaters is The Congo Square Theatre, an African American Equity Company.
I sat down with Christopher Audain, Congo Square Board Chair; Luther Goins, Interim Executive Director for Congo Square; and Ellen Wadey, Senior Program Officer for arts and collections at the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley foundation, to find out all about this wonderful program.
Luther let’s start with who Congo Square is. How did the Company begin?
Luther Goins: It was a group of folks coming together and formed the company and they got the name from Congo Square based on the actual Congo square in New Orleans. It’s an area, small patch of land where our folks came to meet and congregate and share and talk and enjoy each other. So that’s where the name comes from. Come to the square, Congo square. And I always thought, Bonnie, “Oh my God, this is a gigantic place and it’s a little square”. It’s a little square, but it’s still there and it’s a piece of our history, which is fantastic. So, I love that the name is that “Come to the square. Come where we can share our stories and our thoughts. Come to the square”. It’s wonderful. And it was Derek Sanders who was one of the founders and Artistic Director.
I remember when it first started because all of us were excited about a new black theater company coming to Chicago.
Chris Audain: When Congo Square started, how I understand it, there weren’t a lot of opportunities for black actors. So, having a theater professional equity theater that gives them an opportunity to perform, to direct, to create the program and to have a vision was something the city needed. It was something the arts needed, and it was a really, good opportunity. And it’s proven to be successful and continue to be successful.
Luther Goins: And to add to what Chris said and… another place to tell our stories, to bring our stories and let us tell them because we do it better than anybody else.
So, the whole idea of Congo Square being equity. It takes money and it takes support. How did Congo square get there?
Luther Goins: Well, we’re fortunate again, because Derek Sanders, the founding artistic director, he knew a lot of the history. Before they got here, he looked into Chicago and knew these things that you were talking about. Chicago Theatre Company, X-Bag, Lamont Zeno and others. Derek researched that and he knew though that these really were pretty much community theaters except Chuck Smith and Douglas Allen Mann made Chicago Theatre Company equity. So, at that time it was Chicago Theatre Company and Black Ensemble being equity, and Derek wanted to jump into that. He said, “Douglas Allen Mann Jackie Taylor are showing me how to do it”, which was great. So that’s why it’s equity. Derrick would say, “We had people Douglas Allen Mann, Jackie Taylor, Clarence Taylor, Val Gray Ward and Chuck Smith, that paved the way. So, let me follow what they did and go higher”.
Ellen why would the Gaylord Donnelley foundation want to help small theater companies is such a big way.
Ellen Wadey: The vision of it comes from our board, but it’s because we really believe that it’s the network of small arts organizations that are the bedrock of a city’s creativity. This is the place where when you’re just emerging as an artist, that you are going to practice your craft. And if you’re someone wants to continue to live in Chicago and be, whether it’s a lighting designer or a sound designer or an actor, it’s the small theater companies that are the most. I mean I think the League of Chicago Theaters supports I maybe 250 theaters. So, there’s this whole network. In addition to that, it’s the small arts organizations that move folks out into the communities, out into the neighborhoods. The big theatre companies are great, and they provide wonderful theater. But to be able to walk three blocks and go to a theater is important to us.
Chris Audain: I do want to talk a little bit about how important some of these grants are, particularly from the Donnelley Foundation and others, including Driehaus, Alphawood Foundation, Logan Foundation, Joyce Foundation. With Donnelley, we are on a two-year cycle. So, we’ve had some staff transitions. And when you have those transitions, you have different folks coming in and you talk to different program officers to different foundations. We’re in the middle of a two year grant, and so we know we have another grant coming and so instead of having to do a whole another application and wondering, where might some dollars come from for to keep the organization going; we know through this program it helps us plan and it helps us keep going and it helps us look to the future and keep bringing quality programming to Chicago.
Ellen, why a two-year grant instead of one?
Ellen Wadey: I should say we’re moving everybody to three-year grants. Donnelley remains in relationships with organizations that we support. We know them over time, so that’s part of it. It’s a partnership. Oftentimes small theater companies may not have a paid staff person. So, this is a second full time job for a lot of these folks. And then on our end, it also helps us because we know groups well. We’re out seeing the work all the time. But the other thing really has to do with stability. If you can plug a number into your budget for three years that you know that money’s going to come because arts organizations pretty much have to raise every dollar every year. It just helps. We want the organizations to be stable. So that’s one of the ways that we can encourage that stability.
What are some of the qualifications that are needed to apply for the grant?
Luther Goins: Well, we are unusual in that we fund all the way down to the smallest of organizations. I think the smallest we have right now has a budget of about $9,000 and then we fund up to organizations with budgets of a million dollars. At that point we graduate them because there are other foundations in town who kind of pick up there. At this point, we’re looking at organizations that have a 5O1c3, so they have nonprofit status. Though we might be looking to expand to fiscally sponsored organizations, so they don’t have to have that designation. And for us, it’s that we just want them to be producing work, so not presenting organizations. The example that’s probably easier is from the music field. Rather than funding the festival, we fund the groups that perform in the festival. We also give general operating money, so it’s not a project grant. We know orgs are really smart about what they do, so we’re just going to give them the money and it’s whether it’s paying an actor or paying the light bill, that’s fine with us.
That is so amazing because that’s what’s needed. Because of the foundation these organizations can breathe, and they can bring more things to the community, and I just want to make sure that people understand that black theater or small theater is not dead. Look in your communities and in your neighborhoods.
Until next time, keep your EYE to the Sky!