The Beverly Arts Center (BAC) is currently in the middle of its first professional theater season. With funding from the Chicago Community Trust, several Chicago theater companies have been invited to perform in the state-of the-art venue on the South Side to round out the season of productions by BAC’s resident company.
Originally founded in 1968, the multi-disciplinary Beverly Arts Center moved into a brand-new building in 2002 that includes a 400-seat proscenium theater, a 75-seat black box and a dance studio. BAC has an extensive education program, including a wide range of classes in theater, music, dance and visual art; arts programs in local schools; and several fully staged youth productions every year (all of which create quite a few jobs for artists as instructors). While BAC has always programmed a strong slate of concerts in its main auditorium, initial attempts to bring professional theater to BAC were phased out. Recently BAC’s Theater and Dance Coordinator Shellee Frazee has been trying to rebuild that program. As she explains, “We have this wonderful facility—this wonderful space—and there’s so much we can offer here. So last year we decided to expand a little bit.”
In the past year, BAC produced two shows with professional actors under Ms. Frazee’s direction. Having held open auditions for those initial productions, BAC’s Theater now has six actors who have performed with them repeatedly, and Ms. Frazee hopes this develops into a resident company with a diverse group of permanent members at its core. “We’re looking to have a really diverse group here. That’s something we want to focus on: diversity and reaching out to all the different groups of people in our neighborhood.”
Ms. Frazee describes the residents of the Beverly neighborhood on the southwestern edge of the city as a robust, ethnically diverse and strong community with a clear sense of local pride. BAC works to engage the immediate area with its programs, but the organization also wants to expand its reach to draw in more people from the surrounding neighborhoods.
The $60,000 grant from the Chicago Community Trust is allowing BAC to bring Profiles Theatre’s Midwest premiere of After by Chad Beckim to Beverly this February (tickets available here), to be followed by Porchlight Music Theatre’s production of Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill and the Guild Literary Complex’s original work Tour Guides. The shows are being transferred to BAC after concluding their runs at their home venues. The companies are getting “a week to get set up, rehearse, and do whatever they need to do in the space” before opening at BAC for a three-night run. Asked how the partnering organizations for the first season were selected, Ms. Frazee admits, “the previous grantwriter and the past executive director made those decisions for the grant application … I was looking to develop partnerships with companies that we hoped would develop a new and more diverse audience.” The BAC will produce They’re Playing Our Song as the final show of this year’s professional series.
Regarding the decision to bring in other Chicago theaters to supplement the three productions by BAC’s resident company this season, Ms. Frazee says, “We knew we wanted to build our professional program and we wanted to expand out of our neighborhood and into other areas. We knew that was the direction we wanted to move in and this seemed like the obvious way to do it. By bringing in these companies we’re bringing new people into our venue, it’s giving our neighborhood opportunities to see things that maybe we aren’t able to do yet. It just broadens the horizons of what we can offer.”
While the commute north to the Loop doesn’t discourage Beverly’s theater enthusiasts from enjoying the occasional show there, the patrons nonetheless appreciate being able to experience professional shows locally. Ms. Frazee recalls a recent encounter with a couple that said, “We’ve gone downtown in the past, but we have young children and it’s becoming more difficult for us to do so. We love that we have this kind of quality theater in our backyard.” In addition to enriching the cultural life of the neighborhood with professional productions from acclaimed Chicago theaters, Ms. Frazee hopes that the visiting companies will also benefit from the exposure to new audiences. “We have a really strong cultural icon here on the South Side and we want to expand that presence. By bringing in these groups hopefully their audiences will come to us and our audiences will reach out to them and it will be a win-win situation for everyone.”
While the grant from the Chicago Community Trust is only funding the first year of BAC’s collaborations with other theaters, Ms. Frazee hopes to continue the program in the future. “Our intent is to move forward with this.,” she explains. “We’re really excited about it and we think it has a lot to offer and we’re hopeful that we can continue partnering with these groups and continue to do a full series of shows every year. So our intent is to continue with it whether we have [outside] funding or not.”
In part, the partners for the first season were invited to perform at BAC based on prior relationships between the companies, but Ms. Frazee welcomes proposals from other theaters in years to come. She is also open to the idea of collaborating with smaller companies that are looking for a place to perform their work. As she states, “We are definitely able to offer that. I would love it if people would come to us and say ‘Hey, we’re interested, what can we do?’ I’d definitely be open to speaking to any group that has an interest in coming to the South Side and being part of this.”
Shellee Frazee is the Artistic Director of Theatre and Dance at the Beverly Arts Center in Chicago, IL. She is a teaching artist and a freelance director/choreographer. She received her BA in theatre from St. Ambrose University. Shellee served as Manager Director for Redtwist Theatre in Chicago, was owner and Artistic Director of Center Stage Performing Arts Academy in the Quad Cities, and served as an adjunct teacher for the theatre department at St. Ambrose University.
Shellee has performed, toured, directed and choreographed professionally for many years. Some of her favorite shows include WEST SIDE STORY, CRAZY FOR YOU, SCHOOLHOUSE ROCK, LIVE, FAME, GODSPELL, URINETOWN (Kennedy Center Award), PIPPIN, and A CHORUS LINE.
Beverly Art Center