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Performink on Circle Theatre's Special Award



By Carrie L. Kaufman | Theatre      


May 21, 2010.  Sometimes memories just stick out. It was 1991, and PerformInk was a fledgling newspaper in the back of Act One Bookstore. The Jeff Committee had just announced that they were not going to travel to the suburbs for non-Equity theatre and I got a frantic call from Karen Skinner.

Circle Theatre , she said, was fighting for its Jeff eligibility. The Forest Park theatre was already six years old and had gotten some Jeff recognition. How could they possibly just toss them out? Forest Park was only 20 minutes away. It was practically in the city. And besides, a lot of Jeff members lived right next door in Oak Park.

I don’t remember much about the story, which is buried in some box somewhere. But I clearly remember sitting in the stark, white office in the back of the bookstore, talking to this woman whose energy shot through the telephone and thinking, “I think she’s gonna get what she wants.”

Now, 19 years after Circle Theatre was grandfathered into the non-Equity Jeffs geographical eligibility zone, the Jeff Committee is giving it a special award. And I can’t help but think of the irony.

Of course, the Jeff Committee didn’t fight Skinner’s request. They liked Circle, and continued to like it over the years, nominating it 88 times and giving it 39 awards. This year, Circle has 10 nominations and will likely be walking home with more awards than their special recognition one.

Skinner, whose co-founders Wayne Buidens and Joseph Bass left the theatre when they were diagnosed with AIDS (and died in 1993 and 2001, respectively) handed the reigns over to other people in the mid-’90s. The theatre went through a few leadership incarnations, but for much of the last decade, it has been helmed by Kevin Bellie and Bob Knuth. They just added Lori Willis as managing director.

The Jeff Awards is recognizing both the theatre and its “formidable” ensemble. They also point out how many times critics have praised Circle as one of the best theatres in Chicago.

Skinner says the Jeffs can say that because they helped to make it so. Back in the late ’80s, she says, “There wasn’t recognition from peers and critics and being Jeff eligible gave us some credibility.”

More importantly, she said, “It raised the bar for us, too.

“It gave actors and directors more impetus,” she said. “When the recommendations came out, there would always be a little extra energy” because they knew Jeff people would be coming to see the show.

And after 25 years, that energy has not slacked off. Circle long ago got recognition from their peers and attracts some of the best actors and directors in Chicago theatre. Audiences are good, and critics make a point of reviewing their shows. Now, the Jeffs are giving them an extra, and well-deserved, nod.

“I think their faith in grandfathering us was not misplaced,” Skinner said.


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