How does a theatre company stick around for 45 years yet still remain vital? Northlight Theatre seems to have figured out that conundrum, and if the sold-out crowd of 330 supporters at their recent gala is any indication, their audience is clamoring for more. Full disclosure: I’m one of their biggest fans, and co-chaired this year’s gala along with fellow Northlight Board member Susie McMonagle … for the fourth year in a row.
This year’s gala event, “Setting the Stage,” was held Saturday, Nov. 2 at Wilmette’s Michigan Shores Club, and raised north of $230,000 to help underwrite the theatre’s ongoing educational programming. The evening was a celebration of Northlight’s commitment to providing “intensely entertaining theatre,” with Michael Ingersoll (everyone’s favorite “Jersey Boy”) playing the part of emcee and auctioneer, with rousing musical entertainment provided by The Flat Cats. Northlight’s auction items are always special, and this year was no exception. Theatre trips to the Galway Arts Festival and New York City hosted by BJ Jones and Tim Evans in the offing, as well as “sign-up” parties at Board and Gala Committee members’ homes, and numerous items featuring fabulous restaurant meals and tickets to live theatre performances from many of Chicago’s best. A lovely and inspirational video by Teddy Golden, shown just before the paddle raise, captured the essence of Northlight with input from actors Michael Shannon, Jacqueline Williams, Francis Guinan — all of whom have graced Northlight’s stage many times over the years — and many other community stakeholders about “Why Theatre Matters.”
The Gala honorees included former Evanston Mayor Jay Lytle, who received the Leadership Award for his service to the community — he currently volunteers at eight local nonprofits, as well as serving on Northlight’s Advisory Council. The Leadership Award recognizes those who have been extraordinary champions of the theatre, and Lytle more than fits that bill. State Senator Laura Fine, State Representative Robyn Gabel, and State Representative Jennifer Gong-Gershowitz shared the Speak Up! Award for their advocacy with the State of Illinois on behalf of Northlight. Rooted in Northlight’s Speak Up! Program for social change, which engages middle and high school students throughout Chicagoland and encourages them to participate in the arts by making theatre accessible, the award celebrates individuals who take a stand and pursue social action and social justice. Thanks to the hard work and dedication of Fine, Gabel, and Gong-Gershowitz, Northlight has been awarded a very significant arts grant from the state toward their newest goal: bringing the theatre back to Evanston.
Comfortably ensconced for the past 22 years at Skokie’s North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, Northlight Theatre — led by Artistic Director BJ Jones and Executive Director Tim Evans — is returning to their roots in Evanston. Founded 45 years ago as the Evanston Theatre Company in the then-shuttered Kingsley School Auditorium, the theatre has made a name for itself as an incubator for great local talent, both onstage and behind the scenes, and has been an integral part of Chicago’s theatre scene. Northlight is the fourth-largest professional nonprofit theatre in Chicagoland, with over 50,000 tickets sold each season.
Now, thrillingly, Northlight Theatre is moving on to a new stage of development. They have announced a $20 million capital campaign, which will fund a state-of-the-art theatre complex at 1012-1016 Church Street, in the heart of downtown Evanston, with easy access to public transit — the CTA as well as Metra — and downtown parking lots. They have passed all of the City of Evanston zoning and council approval hurdles with ease, and it’s easy to see why, because bringing a world-class theatre to downtown Evanston is a win-win situation for all concerned, from theatre patrons and artists to Evanston’s plethora of downtown restaurants, shops, and other amenities. The new building will incorporate great acoustics, comfortable theatre seating, high-tech stagecraft capabilities, a café-bar, and space for events — and of course, it will be completely accessible to all.
That’s important to Northlight, which has made a real commitment to bringing theatre to everyone in the community, regardless of means. Educational programs like Northlight on Campus, Season Access, and Speak Up! Theatre for Social Change engage students from around Chicagoland. Audience outreach is also an important facet of Northlight’s programming, and they already partner with a number of Evanston community organizations (including Y.O.U., Family Focus, and the Illinois Holocaust Museum) for confidence-building theatre skills classes and addressing community concerns. The Arts for Everyone initiative provides free tickets to partner organizations to enable community members, young and old, to experience live theatre.
Northlight is eager to once again be a vital part of the Evanston community, and to continue the conversation of why theatre matters. Art is light in the darkness. Curtain up!
To learn more about Northlight’s capital campaign and/or make a donation, visit northlightsnextact.org.