By Christopher Sich
Lights, Camera, Action. Director Ann Filmer enters stage right to the applause of the crowd. A spotlight shines on Filmer as she adjusts her microphone and prepares to speak. This moment marks the beginning of the history making tenth season of 16th Street Theater, a new personal achievement that Filmer will always cherish.
It all began in 2007 as a simple dream, and with help from Joe Vallez, executive director of the North Berwyn Park District, Filmer’s dream became a reality and the 16th Street Theater was opened in the basement of the Berwyn Cultural Center.
Ten years and 48 plays later, Filmer’s vision continues as strong as ever.
“When Joe Vallez of North Berwyn Park District and I met in 2007 about starting a theater, I felt strongly that every community should have a theater that reflects stories of its residents,” Filmer said. “And now for 10 years we are doing what we set out to do: to be a professional theater for the community; telling the stories of all and for all in our neighborhood.”
Filmer, along with the rest of the cast and staff of 16th Street Theater, kicked off this historical season on Saturday, Dec. 3, celebrating their 10 year anniversary with a warm-up event at the Wire, a music venue and bar on Roosevelt Rd. in Berwyn. The theater presented excerpts from the upcoming 2017 season to a crowd of roughly 250 people, along with two musical guests, Luna Blues Machine and Matthew Scharpf’s Strangers and Saints, which welcomed guests as they entered the venue.
J.D. Caudill, who was the assistant director of two plays with 16th Street the past two years, was present at Wire and said, “I feel ‘home’ at 16th Street.”
“It feels like a safe place to explore hard themes that other theaters don’t pursue,” Caudill said.
An example of a play that 16th Street performed in 2015 that explored a hard theme is Merchild, a story of a trans-child faced with figuring out his gender identity.
“It was a very risky show, and being a transgender myself, I know firsthand that it is very hard to relate to us,” Caudill said. “The audience enjoys the difficult themes that 16th Street pursues. The amazing audience participation is a testament to how Berwyn has accepted 16th Street Theater.”
The hard themes that 16th Street pursues are a staple of its identity, and the audience feedback and participation is one of the aspects of her job that Filmer is most proud of.
“I am most proud of our audiences and our talk-backs after the plays. I love to hear different perspectives, and how a play impacts people,” Filmer said. “When actors perform here, they are blown away with how engaged our audiences are. It is a different feeling experiencing a play at 16th Street. It really is like no other theater.”
The wonderful audience of 16th Street Theater is not the only thing that Filmer is proud of. Throughout the past 10 years the theater has garnered several awards and has been recognized nationally.
“I don’t think anyone 10 years ago would have expected Berwyn to have our own nationally recognized theater,” Filmer said. “16th Street has twice been awarded a National Theatre Grant from American Theatre Wing –the group who runs the Tony Awards– we are one of only five theaters across the country to get this award twice. “
According to Filmer, 16th Street was also named Best Emerging Theatre in Chicago in 2013. The theater has built an incredible reputation as a small, but mighty theater that develops new plays.
“People from all over Chicagoland come to Berwyn to see a play. That fills me with pride,” Filmer said.
The theater has a slate of new plays for its tenth season that includes Blizzard ’67 by Jon Steinhagen, Into the Beautiful North by Karen Zacarias and Muthaland by Minita Gandhi. Along with these three plays, 16th Street will also present Pop-Up Performances of plays from their past nine years throughout Berwyn – in churches, at schools, and other venues
Filmer is very excited for this season and urges those that have yet to attend a play at 16th Street, especially Berwyn residents, to come out and see a live play.
“Tickets cost only $18 for Berwyn residents, we do that purposefully so people with limited incomes can still come and enjoy a play,” Filmer said. “If you have never been before, 2017 would be a great time to try us out. Pick up the phone and give us a call, we welcome all who walk through our door. We know you will have a great time, there is nothing like live theater.”