In the weeks leading up to a 25th anniversary bash for Circle Theatre, artistic director Kevin Bellie was in touch with performers and playwrights he hadn’t seen in years. And with all the dramas, musicals, comedies and romances that have played out on the Forest Park stage, it would be easy enough to forget a few faces.
That hasn’t been the case, said Bellie, who has 23 years of Circle performances under his belt.
“When they come in, I find myself doing a lot of introductions,” Bellie said of Circle alums stopping by to help with party preparations. “It’s a really great, great feeling.”
On Aug. 22, the theater hosted a smashing gala at Dominican University that served as a look back at all that has transpired for the non-profit company. Performances from handfuls of musicals were relived and memories of the earliest days came flooding back.
Karen Skinner, one of three founding members of Circle Theatre, said in some ways it is entirely remarkable that the company has managed to survive 25 years. She and co-founders Wayne Buidens and Joe Bass repeatedly took risks with their money and their reputations, staging unknown plays by unknown writers starring unknown performers.
Perhaps, she said, those risks are the very reason Circle Theatre has made it.
“There’s a lot of community theaters throughout the Chicago area, but Circle Theatre always went outside the box,” Skinner said a few days before the celebration. “We did a lot of that. We took the chance that we might be doing a show for 10 people a night.”
In the early days, said Skinner, Circle Theatre consistently trotted out operas in a blue collar community that didn’t yet know what to make of its fledgling artists. Then, when a former mayor threatened to shut the theater down when she caught word of nudity, Circle Theatre put itself on the map as city reviewers and media outlets flocked to the controversy.
The show went on, no one was arrested and a reputation was solidified.
“I think there are a lot of reasons Circle Theatre was never ordinary,” Skinner said.
Recognition of that something extra doesn’t just come from within. Joseph Jefferson Awards have been raining down on this, the only non-equity suburban theater stage recognized by the awards committee. That Forest Park’s theater company is alone with this distinction is “almost by accident,” according to Bellie. The critics intended to cut such suburban stages from its award ceremonies, but two major Chicago theater companies lobbied on behalf of Circle.
No longer a fledgling organization struggling to see its name in lights, Circle Theatre has become a mainstay of Forest Park’s commercial success and owns a reputation that extends well beyond the village. The challenge now, said Bellie, is finding new ways to innovate – and new ways to make money.
The anniversary celebration doubled as a fundraiser. Like many art groups, Circle Theatre is feeling the brunt of a lousy economy.
“It is increasingly difficult to raise money for an activity that many people see as extraneous,” Bellie said.
Year in and year out, though, the focus of making an impression on the audience remains.
“You sort of forget, day-to-day, that people really love the arts,” Bellie said. “Those kinds of nights [such as the anniversary celebration], it’s pretty undeniable.”
Editor’s note: Karen Skinner is employed by the Forest Park Review’s parent company, Wednesday Journal Inc.