Still Connected: How an Arts and Community Organization Responds to the Moment

Photo by Frank Ishman
By Daryn Robinson

In the last several months, Goodman Theatre has remained connected to its community through live in-person programming across Chicago and virtually. One of the most important branches of this programming comes from community engagement, the efforts that encourage an interaction. After all, community engagement is “in our mission and in our DNA,” says Willa J. Taylor, the Goodman’s Walter Director of Education and Engagement, as she continues to mobilize her team to reach individuals and communities in Chicago and beyond.

Taylor believes that the how of what the Goodman does as an arts and community organization—how it navigates complex issues in rehearsal, how it builds ensembles, how it analyzes texts—are all tools that can be employed in communities to lift marginalized voices, develop creative solutions to problems and instigate community change.

Chicago Public Schools CEO Dr. Janice K. Jackson (right) enjoys the closing performance of Cheryl L. West’s Fannie Lou Hamer, Speak On It! with (L-R) Anna Vila-Nardi, Les Coney (former Goodman Chairman and Life Trustee), Kimbra Walter (Goodman Trustee) and director Henry Godinez, Goodman Resident Artistic Associate. Photo by Frank Ishman

Such a change was seen earlier this fall when, in an unprecedented collaboration with the Chicago Park District, the Goodman presented a free, three-week, nine-location, outdoor production of Cheryl L. West’s electrifying play Fannie Lou Hamer, Speak On It! The one-act play, part of a work commissioned by the Goodman, told the true story of civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer and her struggle to bring voting rights to African Americans in 1950’s Mississippi—a story that remains especially relevant now.

While audiences enjoyed actress E. Faye Butler’s powerhouse performances across ten shows, they also had the opportunity to register to vote, thanks to partnerships that the Goodman forged with the League of Women Voters and Zeta Phi Beta. From Englewood to Rogers Park and beyond, the neighborhoods chosen for this special engagement represented a wide and diverse population of the city, furthering Goodman Theatre’s commitment to making arts accessible in all Chicago communities.

More recently, in a collaboration with Showtime and The Actors Fund, the Goodman presented a free stream of the Tony Award-winning Broadway production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, starring Brian Dennehy and directed by Goodman Artistic Director Robert Falls. This special presentation served as a fundraiser for The Actors Fund, an organization that supports performers and behind-the-scenes workers in performing arts, helping more than 17,000 people directly each year.

The Goodman’s flagship education program, the School Matinee Series, introduced (or in some cases, reintroduced) Chicago Public School students and teachers to this landmark play. The schools that are a part of this program represent underserved populations and are mostly located in neighborhoods with largely BIPOC populations. With CPS students continuing school remotely, Taylor says that it is especially important to “to help teachers transform their teaching and delivery so that students are more engaged when working remotely.” Although the program has traditionally occurred in person, Taylor believes that this new digital realm has sparked inspiration for her team. “Watching how teachers are using the resources and materials we provide has been very educational for us,” she says. “We are learning lessons that we will incorporate into how we work now and when we are able to work together in person again.” By providing students and teachers with access to streaming productions and an array of study materials, Goodman Theatre is helping build a broader and more diverse generation of theatregoers and theater lovers right here at home.

Of course, the varied slate of Goodman Education and Engagement programming extends beyond the School Matinee Series. Intended for adults aged 55 and over, GeNarrations is a program that explores narrative storytelling through the power of theater—and, right now, through Zoom. Hear three recent GeNarrations stories here. Taylor has been “particularly inspired by our GeNs folks,” she says, especially considering that they are not digital natives. She is thrilled with their growth, explaining that once they figured out the technology, “they have embraced this online environment, not just as a way to connect, but they have produced some incredible stories and performances. That has been a real discovered joy for me.”

In a brand new program, high school students are learning the basics of playwriting from Alex Lubischer, a member of our 2019/2020 Playwrights Unit. Between these two programs, participants from ages 14 to 94 are encouraged to speak out and use their voices to both entertain and empower their communities.

Although plays in the parks and online programming have opened doors, Taylor still wonders if the digital divide might leave some potential participants out. “Because engagement is really about building sustainable mutual relationships, much of the work, which is usually done in person, is now just being done online,” she says. “But it is a double-edged sword. It has allowed us to expand our reach and connect with people who never would’ve come to the theater because now they can join from wherever they are. The flipside of that is, who do we miss because we are only functioning in an online environment? Who do we leave out of the conversations because they have unstable broadband or because they are working only from cell phones?”

Still, the Education and Engagement team works hard to expand existing programs, and develop new ones, to keep reaching more audiences in need of the healing power of art. Of course, these programs would not be possible without external support. The Goodman’s community engagement is made possible through benefit events, including an upcoming virtual education event on February 9, 2021, and by generous donations from institutions and individuals alike. By supporting our fall campaign, Still Connected, you can help the Goodman connect communities during these tumultuous times. Taylor firmly believes that “the work on our stages, and the assets and habits of mind we use to create that work, are essential tools in fomenting discussion about who we are and the world we live in.” The Goodman can continue to discover and better understand that world through these programs, in our parks, on our computer screens, and when it is safe once again, back on Dearborn Street.

From online streams of signature productions like Until the Flood, to virtual programs for youth and beyond, Goodman Theatre strives to be a “theater for all” wherever you are this fall. Help us to stay connected with you by supporting our Fall Campaign, Still Connected.

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