Over the years, Forest Park’s Circle Theatre has garnered an impressive 107 nominations and 45 wins for the prestigious Jeff Awards, the standard for recognition in Chicago-area stage productions. This year, Circle will be the recipient of a Jeff award honoring the company’s longevity.
“This special award is very significant and much appreciated since it recognizes our history and achievement,” says Kevin Bellie, a Forest Parker who is Circle’s artistic director. “With the regular categories we never know, of course, before the Jeff presentation, that we’ll actually be receiving a particular award until it’s announced that night. This time we already know,” Bellie said about the presentation June 7.
The Joseph Jefferson Awards, usually referred to simply as the Jeffs, are given annually by an all-volunteer, nonprofit committee to acknowledge excellence and to promote growth in Chicago area theater. These awards are presented for outstanding achievement in a large variety of categories, such as scenic design, musical direction, and adaptation.
The Jefferson Awards were established in 1968 and were named after a popular 19th century actor and comedian. The Jeff committee consists of as many as 50 men and women with varying backgrounds in theater. They typically judge the opening nights of more than a hundred productions offered by many scores of theaters.
Circle Theatre was founded in 1985 by Karen Skinner, Wayne Buidens and Joe Bass. The name celebrated not only the Forest Park thoroughfare, Circle Avenue, but also the concept of infinity.
Longtime residents of the community may remember the company’s humble beginnings. The intrepid troupe performed in public spaces – elementary school gyms and church basements – during the 1980s. Then a disastrous fire forced them to relocate to their current home, 7300 Madison, a 1920s department store one block east of Circle Avenue.
Audiences have long looked to Circle for solid, cutting-edge productions. Their reputation also continues to grow. Recently, on Channel 7’s morning news, Circle was named Chicago’s favorite theater.
Bob Knuth, Circle’s producing director, also a Forest Parker, began designing productions with Circle a decade ago. “I used to freelance,” says Knuth, who designs five or six Circle shows a year. “But I found my artistic home with Circle. I embraced the challenges of our particular space.”
Michael Termine, an actor and director who worked at Circle Theatre during its initial decade, says the company has always been impressive. “So it’s wonderful,” says Termine, “that the Jeff committee is recognizing their consistent high level of achievement. It amazes me that through all the changes in recent years – especially in the city where many theaters have bit the dust – that Circle has weathered its various artistic and financial challenges to not only survive but to thrive. Karen Skinner, Wayne Buidens and Joe Bass set a standard that continues. Kevin Bellie and the others Circle company members build on that solid foundation with consistently exciting, edgy work.”
Circle Theatre members range in age from teens to 70s.
The Jeff Awards presentation will take place on June 7 at the Park West, 322 W. Armitage in Chicago. Circle, incidentally, has 10 Jeff as well nominations this year.