It’s a fool’s exercise, listing the Chicago theaters that have come and gone over the past quarter century. I tried but gave up when I hit 24 at 17 years in. From Angel Island to Zebra Crossing, it’s a list that speaks to the ephemeral nature of both the art form and the waves of artists that come and go in a brutal business.
Then there’s Northlight Theatre, launched in 1974 by Northwestern grad student Gregory Kandel, whose final thesis—as Northlight’s artistic director BJ Jones remembers it—essentially required him to create an Equity theater from scratch.
Actor Mike Nussbaum (please take a moment to google if you do not know this name) served as artistic director in the early days of the then-named Evanston Theatre, which found a home at Evanston’s Coronet movie theater.
But the Coronet was razed years ago, and for the past 25 years, Northlight Theater (recollections vary as to when the name changed) has been a tenant in Skokie’s North Shore Center for the Performing Arts. Its next 25 years are hinged on its pending move back to downtown Evanston.
After five years in the works, plans seem to be falling together. This summer saw the demolition of a long-vacant Thai restaurant on the 87,500-square-foot parcel at 1012-16 Church Street where Jones plans to build the new Northlight, a three-story building slated to start construction in October 2023.
But new construction is hardly the only building driving Northlight’s Evanston-based endeavors. The theater’s teaching artists and educators have spent years building connections with Evanston, tending the theater’s local roots even as its brick-and-mortar presence remained out of town.
“We don’t have a conservatory. We don’t teach acting to professionals. Our programming is about helping people use theater in everyday life,” says Christina Lepri-Stringer, Northlight’s director of education and community engagement.
By the theater’s count, outreach efforts engaged some 4,000 people in 2021, including hundreds of students from Evanston’s public schools through programs ranging from playmaking workshops in elementary school classrooms to creative writing classes for grandparents.
“If you’re not engaging with your community as a theater, you’re a tourist attraction. And those are great, but that’s not who we are,” says Jones, an Evanston resident of over 30 years who took on the artistic director’s position in 1998, just as the theater moved to Skokie. “Theater as civic engagement. It’s a concept that goes back to the Greeks.”
Meeting the ideals of ancient Greece will be easier when your theater is within a block of the el and the Metra stations, something Northlight has lacked since it moved to Skokie. From the Loop, you’d need at least an hour and a transfer to get close enough to the North Shore Center to walk the final blocks, which include a heavily trafficked intersection that has proven extremely hazardous for pedestrians in the past.
“We’re looking at a time when the next generation doesn’t have, doesn’t want, cars. So moving right next to the el is a big, big deal in making theater more accessible to more people,” says Jones.
He’s also keen to run his own box office and autonomously schedule the season’s programming. Northlight is the Center’s official resident company, but its schedule must accommodate other North Shore Center tenants who use the same space the theater does.
But frustrations with scheduling and box office transit haven’t dimmed Northlight’s attempts to engage. The company is now in its fourth year working with the Evanston Scholars program, wherein Evanston Township High School juniors apply to join a multiyear program aimed at helping them navigate the process of applying to college, then college itself, and ultimately the transition to the working world.
Northlight’s teaching artists have been crucial toward helping students succeed in college and beyond, says program director Demisha Lee.
“Folks might wonder how a theater artist can help with the college process. They can help with everything—how to use your voice in an admission interview. How to meet new people, how to deal with roommates,” Lee says.
“I’ve seen students on the quieter side realize they could speak up, talk loudly, even talk to a stranger, and get through it. We’re about to launch these students into a whole new world, and the teaching artists make a space where they prepare for that in a way,” Lee adds.
It’s a two-way street, says Lepri-Stringer, who began her career with Evanston’s Mudlark Theater. Some of her work at Northlight involved the Grandmothers Raising Grandchildren group, which is offered through the Levy Senior Center in Evanston.
“When I taught that class—no, taught isn’t the right word. When I facilitated that class I remember being intimate walking in, wondering what I could possibly teach people who had so much more life experience than me,” Lepri-Stringer says.
“I was humbled by the life stories these individuals were willing to share. And it wasn’t about crafting a perfect scene or plot. It was more about opening a room where they could write and thankfully present feedback to each other.”
Northlight artistic director BJ Jones (left) and executive director Timothy Evans. Courtesy of Northlight Theatre
On Church Street, Jones and Northlight executive director Timothy Evans envisions a home where classroom space is available for seniors and students alike, where concerts and TED talks light up dark nights, and meeting rooms turn the place into a community hub.
The theater will reportedly generate an eye-popping $56 million within five years of completion, according to a financial study done by Hunden Strategic Partners. That figure includes everything from a year’s worth of construction work to an uptick in nearby dining, Evans says. The city stands to benefit as well, to the tune of some $644,000 in increased local tax revenues, according to the dog study.
Northlight has raised roughly half of the $25 million capital campaign it needs to complete construction, but the theater’s opening isn’t projected until 2024. Before the pandemic, community resistance derailed initial plans for a theater inside a 37-story building on Sherman Avenue. Northlight returned in 2019 with plans for the Church Street address.
The building designed by Eckenhoff Saunders includes rehearsal rooms, community rooms, a 300-seat thrust theater, and no condos. (The Barn Steakhouse, an upscale eatery located on an alley that borders the property’s southern edge, remains in place.) Evanston’s city council signed off in April 2019. Everything was on track—until it wasn’t.
“When the pandemic hit, of course, we put all that on the back burner. The priority became surviving,” Evans says. Now, the focus is expanding back to include building. In April, Evanston awarded Northlight $2 million toward the move from its $43 million in federal pandemic relief money.
Lee has high hopes as well for the future of her young scholars.
“I see the difference the teaching artists can make. You see the scholars at the beginning of the day and the end, and you can tell something’s been shaken loose. They’re more open. We get a lot of tickets for them too, and that’s wonderful. Having a building right here where they can access that theater—that’s going to make a difference.”