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After PlayMakers Laboratory Board Votes To Close, Staff Launches Fundraiser To Save Children’s Theater Organization

PlayMakers Laboratory teaches theater and other arts in Chicago public schools. The pandemic forced it to cease some operations, hurting its finances.

PlayMakers Laboratory helps teach arts in Chicago schools.
Courtesy PlayMakers Laboratory
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UPTOWN — PlayMakers Laboratory has been providing theater and arts instruction to under-served Chicago kids for 25 years.

The pandemic hurt PlayMakers Laboratory’s finances and ability to teach in schools. The nonprofit’s board voted in January to close the organization, a move that devastated company members and alumni.

Now, staff and supporters are trying to revive the arts education nonprofit. The company’s new leadership has launched an emergency fundraiser as it seeks to get back on its feet.

“Arts programming has been in dire straits due to the lockdown, and we were no different,” said Deanna Myers, PlayMakers’ interim board president. “It’s important now more than ever to empower young voices. I just couldn’t fathom letting that go without a fight.”

PlayMakers is trying to raise $60,000 and is already halfway to its goal as of Friday. For more on the GoFundMe, click here.

PlayMakers Laboratory started in 1997 — with the name Barrel of Monkeys — as a nonprofit organization dedicated to arts education. Founders Erica Halverson and Halena Kays began by teaching kids creative writing and artistic expression, and the program was offered at 60 Chicago public schools. Its name was changed in 2019.

In August, PlayMakers celebrated the 20th anniversary of its flagship show, “That’s Weird, Grandma,” which sees professional stage actors put on plays written by children.

The pandemic has been especially brutal for PlayMakers, which receives funding through in-person instruction in schools and live performances, which were restricted during pandemic shutdowns.

Credit: PlayMakers Laboratory
PlayMaker’s Laboratory’s “That’s Weird, Grandma!” celebrates 20 years with a free livestream on Aug. 5, 2021.

As it endured its second full school year of canceled partnerships with schools, PlayMakers’ board voted to dissolve the nonprofit.

That hit staff and company members hard, especially after all the work they put in to keep PlayMakers afloat during the pandemic, said Artistic Director Brandon Cloyd.

Instead of giving up, the staff, performers and emeritus company members banded together to save the organization.

A new board was formed with current and past performers, Myers said. It’s in the process of restructuring. It will likely shed its Uptown office space and will cut down on the planned live performances of “That’s Weird, Grandma,” which typically is put on at The Neo-Futurists’ venue in Andersonville.

There are four staff members right now, but the employees are aware some jobs might have to be shed to help PlayMakers survive. The employees are OK with that, knowing the goal is to preserve arts education for kids, Cloyd said.

“Everyone has rallied together in support of the mission,” he said. “There’s no ego. We’re all working together to figure how to protect this work on behalf of students.”

The $60,000 fundraising goal will help PlayMakers retire a small amount of debt it carries and keep it afloat until in-person arts instruction can happen again. The company already has four partnerships with schools and arts organizations in the works for this spring and summer.

The hope is PlayMakers can make it through the winter and carry on its efforts to provide arts education in schools where such programs are rare.

“It’s feasible,” Myers said. “We have a group of very optimistic people. It’s an opportunity to move the company forward in a sustainable way.”

To donate to PlayMakers Laboratory’s fundraiser, click here.

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