Since its inception in 1985 Circle Theatre, located for most of its history on Madison Street, just off Circle Avenue, has been providing Forest Park with riveting, dramatic performances and cutting-edge productions. For this they have received numerous awards and, often, rave reviews.

On March 16 the company will add to their list of honors this year’s Joseph Randall Shapiro Award from the Oak Park Area Arts Council.

“The Joseph Randall Shapiro is awarded every year at our annual meeting in March to the individual or business that has made an exceptional contribution to the arts,” said Charity Piet, spokesperson with the

“The award truly goes to people who embody the arts,” she said. “[Recipients] have made exceptional contributions to the arts throughout their life.”

Circle Theatre joins Jonathan Miller, artistic director of Chicago a cappella (2004), noted sculptor Geraldine McCullogh (2000) and Harrison Street Art Studios (1998), among others, on the list of winners.

The Forest Park theater group was one of three finalists considered for this year’s award and was selected for being a model of local and community theater anywhere, Piet said.

However, Circle is not “community theater” in the way many may think, said Kevin Bellie, co-director of Circle Theatre.

“We are a professional company, with strong ties to the community,” he said.

In addition to the street that gives the organization its name, Circle signifies the infinity concept within theatre, said Kevin Bellie, co-artistic director.

“Theatre and the arts in general have a sense of infinity. Even though we do many new works, we also like to harken back to the classics; it has this infinity cycle, where we see new people and the same people again and again,” Bellie said.

Circle Theatre runs three main programs, according to Bellie:”The Main Stage series, producing six professional shows a year; a youth program, Emerging Young Artists, which runs three productions a year; and a New Plays Festival, which is getting ready to open in a few weeks, and presents 16 different short plays that are in the beginning stages.”

In all, they have productions running almost 50 weeks of every year.

In addition to their professional productions, their growing children’s program was another reason Circle was nominated and won, Piet said.

“For the first few years it was called Children’s Circle, and it was only a summer production each year, but it presented a large production using 50 local kids,” Bellie explained. “About 10 years ago, the circle grew, when we expanded it to 2 or 3 shows a season. Another four years ago, we decided to take a more hands-on approach and give kids the opportunity to be involved in a professional art company. We transformed the program into the Emerging Young Artists.”

This junior company, as members refer to it, consists of young actors 13-18 years of age, who work with professional actors and staff in a mentorship program, learning about theater behind the scenes.

Unlike past recipients, Circle’s ascent to the winner’s podium came not from an awards committee nomination, but from the Arts Funds Panel, which also gave the company a grant from its $67,000 Arts Fund grant program.

“Names are [usually] presented to the board, with recommendations as to why people or organizations should receive the award,” Piet said. From there the board considers each nomination.

Regardless of where the nomination came from, Circle Theatre is a deserving recipient, Piet said.

“Management of the theater has been solid,” Piet said, adding that they won because “they are the only suburban theater company to continue to receive Jeff awards and with the pace they have in that theatre, it is always amazing the quality of productions they continue to turn out. We think so highly of them, and they really deserve it.”

“Circle has been honored with several of them [Jeff citations],” Bellie noted, “Over 30 in last couple of years, and we’ve been nominated over 70 times in last eight years.”

In addition, Circle has also been recognized as the 1995 New City Magazine “Best Storefront Theatre” and the 1997 Chicago Reader “Best Non-Equity Theater” in Chicago.

The Joseph Randall Shapiro Award will be presented on March 16 at Pleasant Home, 217 Home Ave., in Oak Park.