Marissa Lynn Ford takes the wheel at the League of Chicago Theatres

Amid the tidal wave of turnovers at theaters large and small in Chicago the last two years, we also learned this past February that Deb Clapp, the longtime executive director for the League of Chicago Theatres, was stepping away from her job in June. Last week, the League announced her successor: Marissa Lynn Ford, recently the associate managing director for Goodman Theatre, where she spearheaded IDEAA (Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, Access, Anti-Racism) initiatives among other projects. (Ford was also apparently the top staff choice for the executive director’s position at Victory Gardens Theater before the board decided to fire artistic director Ken-Matt Martin and the rest of the staff; the latest news there is that VG will no longer be a producing entity, but a presenting/rental facility.)

Ford is coming into the League job at an interesting time: in addition to the aforementioned changes at Victory Gardens, there’s a new artistic director starting at the Goodman (Susan V. Booth), and Chicago Shakespeare will be looking for new talent to fill the roles of artistic director and executive director soon to be vacated by Barbara Gaines and Criss Henderson, respectively. Other theaters that have seen top leadership change over the past couple of years include Steppenwolf; Writers in Glencoe; Metropolis Performing Arts Centre in Arlington Heights; Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire; TimeLine; and more recently, Second City and Steep Theatre, as noted below. (That’s just a short list. There truly have been more changes in artistic administrative staff in the past 24 months or so than at any time I can remember in Chicago theater.)

Theaters are also struggling to regain audiences after the long COVID-19 shutdown. The nationwide protests against racial injustice in 2020 and the release of the demands from We See You White American Theatre (We See You W.A.T.) shined a light on long-simmering dissatisfaction in the industry with the way systemic racism is fostered by old models of season selection, casting, and production (among other issues). Theater workers also are demanding pay equity and better working conditions across the board, as exemplified by On Our Team’s development of the Chicago Pay Equity Standards.

So Ford will undoubtedly be expected to address all of that. But when I talked to her earlier this week, she sounded energized, rather than daunted, as she listed some of the priorities she has for the League, which was founded in 1979 as the Off Loop Producers Association and has grown to represent around 200 companies throughout the region during most of the past couple of decades. 

“I definitely think audience development is huge. How do we get our audiences back, and what does that mean for onstage and behind the stage?” Ford tells me. “What does that look like in this new generation, post-COVID? Employers definitely are making changes with the burnout in the industry right now, and people are reprioritizing their lives around different things. So we definitely want to collect data and do research, but also talk to our theaters, our artists, and make sure that we’re supporting them in the best way possible.”

The League offers career-development programs for theater professionals, as well as services for audiences (the latter is perhaps best exemplified by the Hot Tix discount tickets program). Unlike New York, where Broadway’s commercial producers tend to dominate (hence the trade association, the Broadway League), Chicago theater is mostly about nonprofits. But obviously there can be big differences in what a large LORT house like the Goodman and the scrappy itinerant non-Equity companies look for the League to provide.

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