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Polarity Ensemble Theatre Closes Its Doors

Polarity Ensemble Theatre Closes Its Doors

Polarity Ensemble Theatre has closed its doors for good. The company, incorporated in 2004, was known for developing and producing new work by local playwrights and for innovative productions of classics. Polarity mounted 22 full length productions, 10 of which were world premiere scripts developed in the company's DIONYSOS CUP FESTIVAL OF NEW PLAYS series. The company also published five books, some of which will remain in print.

The most unique of its projects was a live theatre/publishing hybrid called THE AFTERLIFE TRILOGY, a project that garnered the company national attention in AMERICAN THEATRE magazine. The TRILOLGY included publication of two novels, SHE PLAYS IN DARKNESS by Fern Chertkow and VISIONS OF ANNA by Richard Engling along with the world premiere of Engling's play, ANNA IN THE AFTERLIFE. The Annas in Engling's works were inspired by Chertkow, who took her life in 1988. Each of the three works were written to stand alone. Presented as a trilogy they provided a unique kaleidoscopic view of Chertkow as author and muse. VISIONS OF ANNA will continue to be available in print.

Polarity's dedication to new work was exemplified in its DIONYSOS CUP FESTIVAL OF NEW PLAYS, which offered local playwrights many points of inspiration and opportunities to improve their scripts. Once a play was selected, the playwright was matched with a director and dramaturg for an initial feedback session. After some weeks a table read was held followed by another period for possible revisions. The playwrights were then invited to attend as many rehearsals as they pleased, and the plays were performed twice, a week apart in the festival. Many playwrights took the opportunity to provide new pages for the second performance, trying out a new ending or other changes. The playwrights then had a few months before turning their final script back to Polarity for consideration for a full production. Polarity presented 8 festivals over the years developing 34 scripts, 10 of which went on to full productions at Polarity and a good number more to productions elsewhere.

The company lost some good friends over the years. Polarity Publishing Manager Douglas Tonks died of a sudden heart attack in 2016. In 2015, John Walski, who played one of the leads in the 2010 world premiere of Lisa Rosenthal's THE GOOD HARVEST took his own life. In 2016 Chuck O'Connor, author of the heart-felt MIRACLES IN THE FALL, Polarity's 2014 world premiere, also took his life. In between the 2010 DIONYSOS CUP presentation of KABULITIS and its 2011 world premiere, playwright Keith Anwar died of cancer. We miss them all.

Memorable productions include the popular 2005 MACBETH directed by Richard Engling featuring witches in masks and a corps of drummers that drove the action of the show. The production was restaged in 2014 with an ethnically diverse cast. The 2008 HAMLET directed by Ann Keen featured a live rock and roll score and won Polarity the title of Best Emerging Theatre Company from the CHICAGO READER. The 2009 world premiere of Darren Callahan's THE WHITE AIRPLANE directed by Susan Padveen confounded some audience members and delighted others while leading TIME OUT CHICAGO to congratulate Polarity on "having the balls" to do such a "deliberately disjointed tale." The 2011 world premiere of Bryce Wissel's EPHEMERA featured costumes and set created as an art installation by Chicago artist lewis lain. Directed by Laura Sturm, the show featured Charley Jordan as a talking monkey and Kaelan Strouse as a mariachi-singing robot. In 2011 Polarity went downtown with the Chicago premiere of Robert By's high-energy translation of Ibsen's PEER GYNT at the DCA Storefront Theater on Randolph Street. Polarity's best selling show was the 2013 world premiere of Bill Jepsen's hilarious NEVER THE BRIDESMAID directed by Richard Shavzin, for which Lindsey Pearlman won Best Actress in the Jeffs. Polarity's final production was hailed the "finest play in their history" by at least one critic and many Polarity patrons. The 2016 world premiere of Gail Parrish's LEAVINGS directed by Ashley Honore Roberson was a story of racial reconciliation. The 111 year old Mama Bea (RjW Mays) united the Black and white sides of her family to set to rest the spirits that haunted them.

Polarity productions also featured some remarkable technical work. Charles C. Palia Jr.'s sets for LEAVINGS and GHOST WATCH come especially to mind, as well as Ashley Ann Woods sets for A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE and LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT. Ann Davis's set, Benjamin L. White's lights, Paul Deziel's projections, and Ilya Levinson's music compositions all brought the otherworldly ANNA IN THE AFTERLIFE to remarkable reality. Polarity thanks all the performers, designers, directors, tech people, company members, and staff it has had the privilege to work with over the years.

After leading the company for twelve years, founding artistic director Richard Engling announced he would be stepping down in 2016. The board conducted an informal search for a possible replacement and found two candidates who excited them. However, after having moved to the Greenhouse Theater Center in 2014, the cost of productions had risen precipitously, and the company's savings were nearly wiped out. In the course of the search, most of the board members decided they were ready to step down, as well. In the end, despite the talent of the candidates they had found, the board decided that 12 years had been a good run. They decided to close up Polarity rather than see it struggle and possibly founder under new leadership that would not have the funding or support it would need.

Polarity will be particularly missed for its dedication to supporting local playwrights. However, it is part of the theatrical ecology of Chicago that companies to come and go. Two factors were largely responsible for the company being unable to continue. First, despite years of effort, especially on the part of Chairman Mark Mathyer and Artistic Director Richard Engling, the company was unable to attract new blood onto the board. Without fresh, enthusiastic leadership on the board, the company did not have what was needed to continue. Second, when the price of producing theatre skyrocketed, the company was unable to increase their fundraising accordingly. In addition, a faithful funder changed leadership and cut off one of our regular grants. Government grants dwindled. Ticket sales rose for us at the Greenhouse, but the increase was not substantial. The company was no longer fiscally sustainable as it had been during its years of relatively low rent in its space at the Josephinum Academy. And so Polarity comes to an end.

About Polarity Ensemble Theatre
Founded in 2004, Polarity Ensemble Theatre developed new works and brought new life to the classics through live performance and publishing. For more information, visit

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