Your NPR news source
Kasey Foster

Lookingglass Theatre company has a fresh path forward steered in part by its new artistic director, Kasey Foster.

Manuel Martinez

After ceasing operations and canceling shows, Chicago’s Lookingglass stages a second act

If you haven’t walked in the lobby of Lookingglass Theater Company lately, things might look a little different.

The enormous and exposed pipes are still there, a symbol that the historic Waterworks building the theater calls home is still functional and serving as a water source for the Chicago Fire Department. The Chicago Public Library still has a mini branch in the lobby — which is a unique sighting in a theater.

What you won’t see: people. The building is eerily quiet as the Chicago theater undergoes renovations in preparation for the company’s reopening this fall.

View this post on Instagram A post shared by Lookingglass Theatre (@lookingglasstheatre)

Lookingglass has arrived at this moment after a rollercoaster of events. First, the ensemble theater company was hit by the COVID-19 pandemic that rocked the arts world, shuttering venues and cutting off critical revenue from paying audiences. After emerging from a temporary pandemic-induced shutdown, the theater made a surprising announcement last summer: It was laying off staff and canceling productions due to financial struggles.

Now, after reconfiguring the board, creating a new business plan and raising a whopping $2.5 million in funding — from past donors, new supporters and COVID relief funding from various government agencies — Lookingglass has a fresh path forward steered in part by a new artistic director, Kasey Foster. And with an upcoming renovation that will equip the company with the capacity to expand education programs and community events, Lookingglass’s Fall 2024 return will come with more than just a new show, said Foster, who sat down with WBEZ to describe the company’s new business plan. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Exterior of Lookingglass

New ticketing strategies, a board reconfiguration and an upcoming renovation are all parts of Lookingglass’s reopening.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

You all have a strong reputation. What was it like for you having to shut down last summer? Can you walk me through that?

It was just tremendously sad and frustrating. And we weren’t alone. A lot of companies had to shut down or reduce what they were able to put out. It’s kind of a miracle that some never had to [shut down]. I wasn’t on staff at that time. I was part of the ensemble, so we would receive some updates, but it was hard to fully understand, without being in it, how bad it actually was.

So when the decision was made, it all made sense because we couldn’t go in debt and not pay the people that had been putting in the work. So it was an important move to make. And also, I think that that decision was made in advance so that we could take this time that we’ve had these past six or seven months, to really think about how to address [our financial struggles] and make the right moves moving forward so that it wouldn’t happen again. And that’s where we came up with this plan to reduce how many productions we do each year and and allow that to become more of a sustainable model so that we don’t have to find ourselves in that place again.

What was the situation like for Lookingglass pre-pandemic?

I think it was still not sustainable. And again, I wasn’t part of the staff, so I don’t know the numbers exactly. But I think over time, our budget increased, but we weren’t able to get that money from ticket sales because of the size of our theater and all the various reasons, like the audience capped under 200. So, I think that the costs kept going up and this led us to really think about what shows are going to draw what we need.

We rely so heavily on these productions bringing in as many people as possible, so it also kind of affected our ability to select new works that nobody had ever heard of — it was a trickier thing to choose than something that everybody was already familiar with. We knew we could count on that.

I think it was problematic in that way too, where we felt restricted in both our creative potential and just kind of like white knuckling it all the time and worried about [finances]. But I think it has just become more expensive. And that meant we had to fundraise more. And the demand on our development team has gone up as well. And, I don’t know, is that just the state of theater in the country? There’s no real funding. You have to seek it out. And if you don’t find it, then you’re in trouble.

I think everyone in the industry is trying to figure that out right now. But your physical location is interesting to me. You are smack in the middle of a high-end shopping, tourist area. But walking around, I see some storefronts are still vacant. Does less foot traffic in the area affect your audience size?

I actually think it’s a great opportunity for the city to transform this location. And I feel like Lookingglass can be a catalyst in this. It can represent a Chicago arts and culture scene here rather than becoming that Mag Mile that has been historically here with high-end shopping and retail.

Maybe this is a time for us to really look at that. I mean, we’re right next to the Museum of Contemporary Art, which is another wonderful museum here in Chicago. And this could become a center for arts in Chicago history. So I’m hoping that that can be a shift. Who knows, maybe Ghiradelli and these places will come back where they had been before when everything picks back up, and it might just return the way it was. But what I hope is that we make some changes and move more into a celebration of Chicago here rather than a place that features stores that you could find in other parts of the country.

View this post on Instagram A post shared by Lookingglass Theatre (@lookingglasstheatre)

Who do you see right now, creatively, as your competition? Is it other theaters? Or is it Netflix and streaming that are cheaper options for families? Where do you see the competition, and are rising ticket prices even a thing that theaters are able to change?

I think that we have to find another way to make money in order to reduce those ticket prices and cover the costs of production. So as much as we all want to make tickets cheaper, we also have to pay everybody.

There are a bunch of really exciting ticketing strategies that we’d like to do. And this is all stuff we’re exploring right now with our systems, but there are other theater companies doing this and it seems really effective — the first block of tickets released is like $35 a ticket, and then the second block is $50. So if you want to get a better deal, you buy early. And then if you wait until the last minute, that’s when it’ll be at that higher ticket price. That’s one thing we’re looking into. And there are other things that I’ve found really interesting, like where you buy one [ticket] for yourself, and then you can buy one for another person in the city, so it’s buy one, give one. We’re still looking at that.

[With] Netflix, [I’m] speaking as a person who loves being able to just sit down on the couch and watch a show. I myself want to flake all the time when I’ve made a commitment to go see my friends. But then the end of the week comes, and I really wanted to stay here and watch the show. It’s hard. And I think we’re all really busy. And maybe humanity’s big crisis right now is that we are just overworked and overbooked.

But what makes coming out to see live theater an experience versus staying at home watching Netflix, is not just the show that you’re seeing, but the experience of being in the room with people. I think that those moments of connection are how we are more successful than Netflix. The more people do it, the more they realize, ‘Oh, that’s totally worth my time.’ But maybe people have fallen out of the habit and don’t remember what kind of gift it is to be social together.

Kasey Foster

Kasey Foster said the thing Lookingglass values most is putting on new and original works.

Manuel Martinez/Manuel Martinez/WBEZ

Through the process [of hitting pause on operations] from June until now, what has Lookingglass learned that other cultural organizations should know?

We’ve learned a lot. I think, as a collective, our board, ensemble members and staff, we’ve learned that the thing we value most about this company is putting on new and original works. And there are many elements that we love about the company. But that seems like something we all were in complete agreement about.

And because we learned that, when we came up with this new business plan with amplified leadership, we knew we needed to feature our new and original works. So part of the plan is to put on two shows a year for the next three years (previously, a Lookingglass season was typically three or four shows). And then ideally, we’re able to do more after that. And we wanted to make sure that we’re really highlighting our education department more. And then we’ve also learned that because new and original works are top priority, we want to invest more in that development process with all of our artists and creators.

The idea of doing two shows per season: How did you land on that? Was that a financial decision or creative decision?

Financial. We are not able to do more than that as we’re ramping up. We’re taking it in this three-year phase so that by the time we get to fiscal year 2027-2028, we can possibly add another one on, but we just want to be safe. We don’t want to get back to the place where we were last June. We’re really trying to make sure that we’re doing this in a sustainable way where everybody is paid and everybody has their time respected. Nobody’s getting burnt out, exhausted or overwhelmed. We were trying to do it in a smart way. Hopefully, that happens.

Mike Davis is WBEZ’s theater reporter.

The Latest
The city’s teen-driven, underground scene is so prolific there’s now a festival dedicated to it.

WBEZ’s annual list of 80-plus markets across the metro Chicago area, including this season’s programming and available prepared food offerings.
These are the best ways to stay cool right now without spending too much or going too far.
This summer, brush up on your local history with tours that highlight everything from architectural styles to underground critters.

With legal troubles behind him, the Chicago native will play the Lyrical Lemonade Summer Smash Festival on Sunday — his first performance in the area in over 10 years.