Michael Halberstam: From Writers’ Theatre To Lincoln Center

Writers’ Theatre Artistic Director Michael Halberstam seduces you intellectually.

He does this with his exquisite manners, British accent, vast knowledge about and articulate analysis of theater throughout the ages, style, and enthusiasm for his craft. His impish grin and blue eyes that twinkle behind fashion-forward rectangular glasses help.

If all that wit, wisdom and passion fail to impress, though, his accomplishments will. Halberstam launched Glencoe’s Writers’ Theatre in the back of a bookstore, and grew it into a cultural jewel, winning acclaim from the likes of The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. The theater has more than 5,000 subscribers and a $3.4 million budget, including money to commission world premiere plays. He is directing one of them, “A Minister’s Wife,” in New York City’s vaunted Lincoln Center beginning this month.

“Lincoln Center is the champagne experience of theater,” Halberstam says. “It’s the most exciting thing that’s ever happened to me.”

How has this young-looking University of Illinois graduate accomplished so much? By relentlessly pursuing artistic excellence, nurturing collaboration and honoring a painful childhood with his art.

“Writers’ Theatre is part of a community that supports us and enjoys a considerable aesthetic intelligence,” Halberstam explains. “Our audience will only come if there is artistic excellence. We hold a unique and intimate place in the Chicago pantheon. Our subscribers also frequent Chicago Shakespeare, Steppenwolf, Goodman and the Lyric Opera.”

He is committed to producing a “healthy balance of provocative, challenging plays, as well as pleasing, effervescent shows that send you out on a high.”

He says, “Simply producing shows written by dead, white, male, European playwrights would be immoral. We need playwrights today to create the classics of tomorrow that address the great issues without lecturing. Hopefully we push everyone out of their comfort zone from time to time, and stimulate thought.” Those thoughts can lead to answers that will make the world better.

Halberstam prides himself on hiring the most talented staff and artists, nurturing their talents and fostering collaboration. “A Minister’s Wife” is an excellent example. Halberstam commissioned “genius” talent to “lift” George Bernard Shaw’s “Candida” into a musical. The New York production will feature two of the original cast members from the show’s Glencoe premiere in summer 2009.

Halberstam explains his unhappy childhood quickly—as though mindful that his story could cause the listener pain. He was born in Nottingham, England, the only son, with three sisters, of a Czechoslovakian father and British mother. When he was 5 years old, his family was in a car crash in southern France that killed his mother.

After his father remarried, Halberstam moved with part of his family to Champaign-Urbana, Ill., where his dad became the head of the University of Illinois Mathematics Department when Halberstam was 14. He was unprepared for the changes between the British and American education system, however, and quickly completed high school, graduating in only two years. Though he is definitely more Royal Academy of the Arts than Big Ten, Halberstam stayed close to home and was accepted into the University of Illinois’ Theatre Department, where he earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts.

That unhappy childhood has been replaced by a brilliant, and apparently happy, present. And what about his future?

“I’m continuing the journey I started 20 years ago and building a new theater to replace the one we use in the Glencoe Women’s Club that will fully represent the sophistication of our work and mission,” he says. He also hopes to grow the theater’s community outreach and education programs.

But he seems most excited about continuing to create great new plays. “I know that when I ask for money for a great playwright, I’m asking for money to change the world,” he says. And he knows that he’s asking the right audience: “We are only a few degrees removed here from global leadership.”

Our community has nurtured a remarkable talent in Michael Halberstam; in turn, he nurtures great art in our midst. We predict that he will seduce even more of us into greater support, too.