A Tale of Two Men

The artistic director of a theater company is like the captain of a ship. A captain can’t do everything but must be sure everything gets done. Tasks include overseeing the budget, choosing the repertoire, hiring actors, set designers, costumers and directors.

The men at the helm of two important North Shore theaters—BJ Jones, now in his 12th season as artistic director of Northlight Theatre in Skokie and Michael Halberstam, co-founder and artistic director of Writers’ Theatre in Glencoe—recently spoke to Make It Better about the challenge of weathering inevitable storms and keeping their estimable institutions on course.

Northlight is celebrating its 35th anniversary, while Writers’ was established in 1992. Both have annual operating budgets of $3.2 million, and the artistic directors have each sent one of their shows on to New York City.

Even though the two theatres have been enjoying success, both had modest—and sometimes rocky—beginnings. Northlight opened as Evanston Theatre Company in the auditorium of Kingsley Elementary School on Green Bay Road in Evanston. Writers’ opened in a 50-seat theater space at the back of Books on Vernon.

Now Northlight has happily settled into the 342-seat North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie and Writers’ has opened a second 108-seat theater at the Woman’s Library Club in Glencoe. Both enjoy a healthy subscriber list, and much of it is due to the men at the helm.

When Jones took over as artistic director the theater had about 4,500 subscribers.

“And falling,” Jones adds. “But by the end of my first season subscriptions were up to 8,900. The theater was ripe for a change, and the North Shore Center is such a lovely place.”

In its relatively brief tenure, Writers’ has presented more than 70 productions, including 10 world premieres, with Halberstam directing more than 30 plays and performing in several high-profile productions.

Halberstam co-founded his theater company with Marilyn Campbell after spending two years as an actor at the Stratford Festival in Canada. He set three goals for Writers’: To value text as a source of inspiration, to present intimate performances, and to pay the actors standard industry compensation.

“Actors are the lifeblood of the theater and yet they have the quietest voice in the decision-making process,” he says. “When you have a 50-seat theater and pay the actors the same as a theater with hundreds of seats, you are making a very definite statement about how valuable they are to the company.”

And it’s just this kind of attitude that has brought a successful theatre culture to the North Shore of Chicago.

“When I took over Northlight, I had seen so many Chicago theaters closing,” says Jones, ticking off the names of once-thriving venues such as Remains, Wisdom Bridge, Body Politic and Candlelight.

“Chicago gave me an acting career, allowed me to stay here, make my home in Evanston and raise a family,” he continues. “If there is work, our actors can stay here, have children and experience a good quality of life.”

In addition to forging bonds with actors, Jones is keen on connecting with his audience.

“Our subscribers are vocal and responsive,” he says.

This was clearly exemplified during an interview with Jones at Panera across from the North Shore Center. Three separate subscriber came up and talked to him about the play running at the time and Northlight in general.

“They let me know what they like and don’t like,” Jones says, smiling.

Halberstam sees the relationship between audience and performance often influenced by what he called the “weight of the moment globally.”

“When you plan a season, you don’t really know what will happen in the world,” he says. “Who could have predicted 9/11…. But we try to be spontaneous enough to seize an opportunity. I believe that if you are tuned in, your work won’t stand outside the times.”

Running a theater takes money, more money than ticket sales can generate. Jones observed that Northlight operates on 70 percent earned income and about 30 percent donations, while Halberstam estimated that at least half of his subscribers also support the theater with donations. Both have highly engaged board of directors and hold annual benefits.

So as on ocean liners, both men must even occasionally don black-tie and graciously welcome guests to their captain’s table.