Lookingglass Theatre Company snags 2011 Tony Award

May 3, 2011

Chicago's Lookingglass Theatre Company has won the 2011 Tony Award for Excellence in Regional Theatre, making it the fifth Chicago Off-Loop troupe to win the coveted award.

The announcement was made Tuesday morning (May 3) in New York City by the American Theatre Wing and the League of American Theaters and Producers, the joint bestowers of American theater's highest honor.

The award acknowledges the dedication of Lookingglass to a common theatrical vision of strong storytelling, physical theatre, literary pedigree and collaborative process.

The majority of Tony Awards celebrate the successes of individual Broadway-generated commercial theater productions, but the Regional Theatre Tony Award is reserved for a deserving non-profit company outside New York.

The Lookingglass win convincingly cements Chicago's global reputation as America's finest theater town. No other city comes close to five Tony Awards for Regional Theatre. Previous Chicago winners include Steppenwolf Theatre Company (1985), the Goodman Theatre (1992), Victory Gardens Theater (2001) and Chicago Shakespeare Theater (2008).

Lookingglass began life in 1988 as a small ensemble of Northwestern University theater graduates. Since then, the company has expanded to 22 ensemble members and 15 affiliates among whom are company co-founder David Schwimmer and Tony Award winning director/adapter Mary Zimmerman.

For its stories Lookingglass frequently has drawn on classical literature such as Greek, Persian and Hindu legends (Hephaestus, The Odyssey, The Arabian Nights, Sita Ram), Charles Dickens (Hard Times, The Old Curiosity Shop) and Russian author Feodor Dostoyevsky (The Idiot, The Brothers Karamazov).

The company also has approached modern authors such as Chicago icons Nelson Algren (For Keeps and a Single Day) and Studs Terkel (Race), and Upton Sinclair (The Jungle, in which the young actors hung themselves upside down on meat hooks as sides of beef). The variety of source material was as astonishing as the troupe's physical feats.

In 2003, Lookingglass moved into a permanent home in Chicago's historic Water Tower Pumping Station on Michigan Avenue, with the support of the State of Illinois and the City of Chicago.

The state-of-the-art, 240-seat flexible space has been used in arena, three-quarter, proscenium, alley and L-shaped configurations with equal success.

Fully rigged and trapped, the house can accommodate any of the frequent physical staging requirements of this daring troupe, several of whose current members/associates are professionally-trained circus performers.

To date, Lookingglass has produced 50 world premieres and received 42 Joseph Jefferson Awards or Citations. With an annual budget approaching $5 million, the company is under the leadership of executive director Rachel E. Kraft, artistic director Andrew White, producing artistic director Philip R. Smith and artistic director of new work Heidi Stillman. White, Smith and Stillman are company co-founders.

The company name derives from Lewis Carroll's Through the Lookingglass, which the founding members first developed as a stage work (Lookingglass Alice) when they were at Northwestern. Over the years they have enlarged and deepened their signature work, taking it on tour around the country.

Indeed, Lookingglass unknowingly helped secure its Tony Award through its frequent tours to other regional theaters around the country, thereby giving theater critics across America an opportunity to become familiar with the company's work.

The Tony Award for Regional Theatre is determined by a recommendation from the American Theatre Critics Association, which generates and votes upon a list of potential winners.

The Critics' recommendation is passed along to the American Theatre Wing and the League of American Theaters and Producers, which may accept or reject it (although in more than 30 years, the Tony Awards have not rejected a recommendation).

Typically, the initial recommendation of a theater company is written and organized by local critics. Currently, Illinois has 14 members of the American Theatre Critics Association, this writer among them (as well as Kelly Kleiman, my Dueling Critics colleague on Chicago Public Media).

Lookingglass will receive its Tony Award during live ceremonies Sunday, June 12, from the Beacon Theatre in New York, telecast on CBS.

The troupe recently closed a world premiere adaptation of Edith Wharton's Ethan Frome.

Its next production is another world premiere, The Last Act of Lilka Kadison, an ensemble-generated work about a World War II refugee. It begins previews June 1 and runs June 11 -July 24.