JEFFERSON PARK — A longtime union theater company is taking steps to grow and continue serving the community after celebrating two decades on the Far Northwest Side.
The Gift Theatre recently moved out of its home since 2005, a storefront theater at 4802 N. Milwaukee Ave. But it’s secured a nearby spot, said Michael Patrick Thornton, co-founder and artistic director.
“We love 4802 N. Milwaukee Ave. and will remember it so fondly,” Thornton said. “Unfortunately, we had outgrown that space over the past few seasons and had been actively looking for a new home. We felt that the next evolution of The Gift absolutely needed a larger space, not only because the organization was growing but because the audience and actor relationship is so central to who we are.”
Earlier this month, the company launched a campaign to secure funds for the new space, and it’s gotten significant donations from donors and patrons, Thornton said. Architects and theater consultancy firms have been hired, and blueprints have been completed for the company’s new black box theater.
Thornton doesn’t want to share the new location yet, but he hopes the space will be open soon and will be a gathering spot for the community with a lobby, more rehearsal space and more accessibility for everyone.
“We envision the new theater as a community anchor that various groups can use, a lighthouse shining brightly for the people,” he said. “We’re so excited to have more room to play, which opens up an array of plays we simply couldn’t do in the storefront. Among many other awesome features, I think you’re going to experience the most disability-friendly theater in the city of Chicago.”
Thornton, who uses a wheelchair, said the move will help the company grow during the next 20 years and continue its mission of bringing accessible theater to the Far Northwest Side.
The Gift Theatre officially turned 20 years old Dec. 6 with an anniversary party held at The Copernicus Center. The celebration also honored Thornton’s work in the company.
Since 2001, The Gift Theatre has produced more than 70 productions and is regarded as one of the most intimate professional equity theaters in the country, said Thornton, a lifelong Jefferson Park resident.
Thornton plans to step down from the company after The Gift Theatre secures its home; but for now, he will lead the charge in its fundraising efforts.
Taking Thornton’s place will be a trio of co-artistic directors — Brittany Burch, Jennifer Glasse and Emjoy Gavino — who hope to expand the company’s play reading and education programs and foster more partnerships with local businesses and other theater companies. They want to increase diversity and accessibility in the arts community.
Gavino said the goal of the company is to look at ways to reach people by creating productions that showcase people of various physical, emotional and mental abilities.
“Who are the people that think theater is not for them, and how can we make relationships with them, how can we form partnerships [to] amplify the voices we are trying to lift up?” Gavino said. “The Gift started in that spirit. We just want to make it more relevant to more communities.”
Much of that begins at the youth level, said the trio, who met at Steppenwolf’s training program 10 years ago and are longtime ensemble members of The Gift Theatre. Glasse, who is from East Garfield Park, plans to add a branch to the GiftEd program, a two-year apprenticeship for high school students who want to learn about theater arts and start a company.
“We are excited to bring educational theatre arts back to the Northwest Side and to the West Side,” Glasse said. “One of my goals has always been to bring arts education to the West Side [like] Garfield and Humboldt parks.”
As The Gift Theatre prepares for a new home, season and programs to ring in 2022, the ensemble hopes its impact on the Far Northwest Side continues to grow and evolve.
Its upcoming shows will be performed at various North Side theaters while its new space is finalized, Thornton said.
“I know what it feels like to grow up in a neighborhood that doesn’t provide access to professional arts… The Gift changed all that, as well, so for the younger generations growing up on the Northwest Side, The Gift has simply always been part of their reality — a theater,” Thornton said. “That’s a profound generational shift for the better. And we’re going to keep changing that, welcoming and celebrating everyone.”
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