January 8th, 2019 4:24 PM
Future home of 16th Street Theater on Harlem Avenue with (L to R) Marissa McKown, managing director; Ann Filmer, artistic director; Joseph Vallez, executive director, North Berwyn Park District: Rohina Malik, artistic associate and playwright. | Photo by Anthony Aicardi
Shadows and Light. It's more than the theme of Season 12 at 16th Street Theater. It represents the company itself, founded by Ann Filmer, whose vision shines through today. The theater company is likely launching the last production in its unassuming 60-seat basement burrow in Berwyn. They have a building of their own, with room to spread their wings on bustling Harlem Avenue.
"This new space allows us to offer more opportunities to all levels of engagement," said Artstic Director Filmer.
The feeling of closeness between actors and theater-goers will continue at the new venue, with seating capacity increasing to 84. Reaching a bigger audience was one of Filmer's original goals.
"We want to be a theater of engagement," she said, "reflecting the times we're in and the things we grapple with right now, and to be for all in the community, telling diverse stories, not just one point of view."
Other goals set by Filmer were making this a professional, equity company where artists are paid fairly, while keeping tickets affordable. The theater offers the most affordable prices in the state, she says, with discounts given to Berwyn residents, as well as military and low-income families. The maximum ticket price is $22.
Helping make this happen was Joe Vallez, executive director of the North Berwyn Park District (NBPD). When Filmer moved to Berwyn, she had been working in theater in Chicago. Filmer and her husband decided to dedicate themselves to their new community by doing art where they lived. She joined the Berwyn Arts Council and discovered the park district had just built a small theater to provide arts space for kids. Having experience, she proposed working with NBPD to create 16th Street Theater. They now operate as a nonprofit theater, offering classes to youth through NBPD. Last fall, they added IMPACT, a teen arts outreach program.
The new building, purchased by NBPD, will occupy a former VFW hall built in 1959. Upgraded dressing rooms and a scene shop will occupy backstage space, greatly needed after making do for the past 11 years, according to Filmer. Today, boards are laid across theater seats as Steven Hill, technical director, works his magic, building a set on the small stage. There will be two bars, which may be used for future programming, such as cabaret-style shows. IMPACT will hold open mics. Educational programming, such as adult classes and writing courses will be offered for the first time.
The new location, at 1529 S. Harlem, is scheduled to open for the Season's second show in March, Good Enough.
Meanwhile, the first show of Season 12, Small Jokes About Monsters, opens Jan. 10. Three brothers come together after their father dies. They use humor to cope, but the jokes soon reach their limits, Filmer said.
Choosing plays each season is one of her main responsibilities, one she relishes.
"I choose what I think is not being talked about onstage or things that we're struggling with as a people," she said. "And I want to have a wide range of storytelling, aesthetic and tone."
Of the new season's theme, she said, "It won't be dark or light all the time. It's a nice reminder when things are bad and challenging, and when humans or our leaders are acting poorly, there is light and hope."
16th Street Theater was built to engage with the community, holding talk-backs on Thursdays and Fridays after the performances. Data collected by the theater shows approximately one-third of the audience is from Berwyn, one-third from Oak Park and a third from Chicago and beyond.
Filmer spotlights thought-provoking works and audiences have increasingly filled seats and responded. So it's only fitting that 16th Street Theater should emerge from the shadows into the light of a permanent home.
See "Small Jokes About Monsters," Thursdays and Fridays, 7:30 p.m.; Saturdays, 4 and 8 p.m. and some Sundays, 3 p.m., through Feb. 16. Tickets/more: 16thstreettheater.org/season-twelve-2019. 6420 16th St., Berwyn.