Ghostlight Ensemble Theatre: A New Energy in Chicago

According to the League of Chicago Theatres, there are about 200 theatre companies in the city of Chicago. Wikipedia also lists about this many, as well as thirty long-standing companies that are now defunct. And that doesn’t even begin to include the multitudes of companies that have appeared for a show or three only to vanish into the competitive haze of the Chicago theatre community, which is, without doubt, one of the most incredible live theatre markets in the country, but also one of the most unforgiving. Amid this whirl of dramatic achievement and failure, it must take a certain kind of people with a specific kind of audacity to start a whole new company from the ground up, yet that is precisely what Holly Robison and Maria Burnham, late of Strangeloop Theatre, and Chad Wise, founding member of New Millennium Theatre, and seven other founding members including co-artistic director Michael Wagman, are doing with Ghostlight Ensemble Theatre.

“Audacity?” asked Wise, the company’s managing director, when I proffered the word and wondered if it was appropriate. “No, that’s a good word, I think.”

Robison, Burnham, and Wise, as representatives of the company, met me at the Fountainhead at the corner of Montrose and Damen, which was still quite busy and noisy late on a Monday night. Comfortably seated at a window booth, we sipped our drinks and talked about the things that, in their opinions, make this theatre company more likely to succeed than most new ones.

For one thing, said Robison, the other co-artistic director, “We weren’t a bunch of 22-year-olds with no experience.”

Wise cut in. “We were all sufficiently jaded so there weren’t any rose-colored glasses; we knew what we were getting into.”

We were all sufficiently jaded so there weren’t any rose-colored glasses; we knew what we were getting into. — Chad Wise, managing director

“Yes,” Robison responded, “because one of the difficulties with arts is that artists don’t always know how to balance art with administrative responsibility.”

Wise explained his thinking. “You can only survive so long on a roster of four waiters and three Groupon salespeople. When the (founding) people have been around awhile, there’s a little more (potential for) longevity. It’s all about managing the evolution. Most companies that aren’t flash in the pan do that well.”

It was clear, then, that they all felt that the fact that they were older and had experience both in the theatre and outside of it in real life careers was something that would work to their advantage.

Ghostlight marketing director Burnham agreed. “Our day jobs are a real benefit: my day job is marketing/communications. One member does party planning; Chad does promotional products.”

Wise added, “So we can get swag; and there is an actual graphic designer on staff.”

All of this is highly unusual for a new company struggling to figure out how to support itself financially, which of course they acknowledged to be the number one issue hindering any start-up theatre in Chicago or anywhere: procuring finances. They were concerned from the beginning about how they could even show off all of this experience with such a new company.

Wise speculated that, with a lot of younger companies consisting of kids right out of college, “their parents are backing them.” He noted, though, that while that might work for a show or two, it’s not a recipe for long-lasting success. “Track them in the Reader over a three month period. You hear from them once or twice and never again. They come out of the gate and spend all of their money on their first show and don’t realize there needs to be some sustainability to it.”

L»R: Maria Burnham, Chad Wise, Holly Robison

Burnham agreed wholeheartedly. “There seems like hundreds of companies in Chicago but when you see who has produced more than one show, there are a lot fewer...I personally know of about forty companies in that category in the time I’ve been here.

“We wanted to come out of the gate and do theatre,” she noted, “but we had to scale what we can do and do it really well rather than stretching yourself so thin.”

So where does a young company find money if parents aren’t involved? How do they get their product seen and show off their abilities? Robison noted that, especially in the first year, they are not eligible for certain grants, “so balancing artistic vision and finances is important.”

So is finding a space in which to perform. They may all be professionals, but there is no “angel” among them who can donate the thousands needed to secure a viable steady theatrical space.

And donations are very important to the fledgling group. “It’s a lot easier to incorporate as a 501(c)(3) this time, “ said Wise, comparing his twenty-minute internet application to the hoops he had to jump through doing the same thing for New Millennium decades ago. (Burnham was quick to point out that the entire company was “very serious and meticulous about what we were doing” during this process, and “prepared for this to take months, even a year.”) So at least people’s donations to the company’s various fundraisers are tax deductible. Still, they are always wary of the budget.

“We find creative ways to do what we do and do it in a way that meets our standards of quality,” said Wise. For example, he noted their first mainstage show--directed by Burnham--was Six Characters in Search of an Author, Luigi Pirandello's classic metatheatrical play, in which six characters from an unfinished play crash a rehearsal looking for a playwright to give them life, but find the theatre world acutely unable to make them real. Since Ghostlight conceived the play as an examination of the modern Chicago storefront theatre scene and its casting controversies, Burnham cast the characters as people of color “and the actors were the whitest Chicago actors we could find...all the same age. And we said, OK, well, it takes place in a rehearsal space; let’s do it in a rehearsal space.” With An Ideal Husband this spring, they are staging the drawing room comedy in a mansion owned by the Chicago Park District.

They know that it would be an advantage to have a dedicated space or a residency. However, as Robison said, “We need to establish ourselves before looking for (one). But it is a goal because when people know where you are they know they are coming to that space and you build your audience, so it’s something we’d like to accomplish. Just purely for financial reasons, it will probably be a few years before we get there.”

Still, she added, “If your work is strong enough, people will find you, but finding a residency and a space is a good thing for company growth because you know the space, you’re building a relationship with the’s important to your company’s stability.”

"If your work is strong enough, people will find you" — Holly Robison, co-artistic director

Stability is important to all three of the founders. Unlike the young people who think they’ll be in a company forever, they have begun their troupe with meticulous attention to the fact that someone can follow them when they leave. Everyone in the company can do more than one thing. In addition to administrative duties, Robison acts and directs; Burnham writes, acts and directs. Only four people in the company are “primarily actors.”

Wise adds that “finding out what they (Ghostlight's current and potential members) want to do and finding a way to do that benefits the company. That’s always a challenge in any business. Like our literary manager. She is passionate about storytelling and loves reading new scripts and attending table and staged readings of new works, finding new scripts to read. That was something she did even before we formed this company. So the position was a natural fit with her interests and skill sets.

Putting in a strong structure from the start is critical, says Burnham.

“People have a lot of life events that make managing a company difficult; storefront theatre tends to be a few people on top running everything, and if something happens in their lives...those leaders leave and there’s no one internal left.”

It’s essential, they all agreed, to establish a foundation, a strong company that will survive beyond its founders, and to that end they have focused on creating one geared to its entire ensemble, evenly distributing the work, but also giving everyone a chance to shine.

Wise noted an example. “We have this live reading series. A fund raiser/recruitment tool. Maria loves the Spice Girls and wanted to put Spice World on stage. So she got the script and did it in back of a bar.”

Burnham laughed. “I wasn’t sure anyone would actually come to it but these guys were all, yeah, sure, do it if you want to. We were looking for unique ways to fundraise. Part of the reason also we wanted to start the company was we felt safe enough to suggest things like let’s do Spice World onstage. People here would do this if I asked seriously: Let’s do King Lear where King Lear is a dog. We reinforce each other’s crazy ideas.”

People here would do this if I asked seriously: Let’s do King Lear where King Lear is a dog. — Maria Burnham, marketing director

Robison said that this is one of the keys to their success: the simple joy of working together and knowing they all have each other’s backs. “Any artist who is trying to make it in theatre is really at the mercy of someone ready to give you a shot and if you have a group of people that know you’re capable of doing good work, that’s ten steps ahead.”

Burnham agreed. “With our group I feel their first response is ‘how can you do something?’ instead of ‘you can’t do that.’”

“The trick,” Wise added, “is not to say we can’t do this but let’s find a way to make it financially viable--doing the children’s show in the park, etc. Where there’s a will there’s a way.”

I understood now what gave them the “audacity” to think they could make it, but why “Ghostlight”? A ghostlight is the lone, usually uncovered, light bulb that is left onstage when the theatre would otherwise be completely dark. It’s a way of keeping the place energized, keeping a sense of the light of theatre always present. Here, Wise pointed out, it wasn’t only a means of lighting the stage when no one’s there but also bringing actors to the stage and shining a light on what’s happening on the stage.

The founders spent a long time just hashing out a name and a mission statement. In the end, they came up with Ghostlight Ensemble Theatre and the notion that, as Wise put it, “We wanted to not only tell a story but create a dialogue that will last beyond the stage. Putting the story first, no matter how you tell it, that became our mission statement.” Getting people to talk about the show, “even just to say what a good time they had,” is critically important to that mission: the long-lasting energy of the ghostlight always shining.

“The shows strive to have people leaving still talking about them,” Robison offered, “even the silly ones; we have varied interests and we wanted everyone to be able to bring their passion projects to the table. What we have in common is that we want people to think.”

As the evening ended and the three founders of Ghostlight left to go back to their lives, I pondered the time I’d just spent. They were all certainly older and wiser than the barely-out-of-college crews that often start companies. Some of these youngsters do catch lightning in a bottle, and the Ghostlight group noted that, but even these kids don’t always make it, not realizing that there has to be a Show #2 and 3 and 4. With the lack of “rose-colored glasses” and the experience they bring to the table, perhaps these three can make Ghostlight one of the next players on the Chicago theatre scene. I know I’ll be watching.


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