Nathan Allen, the founding artistic director of the House Theatre of Chicago and its principal public face and creative force for the last almost 20 years, is leaving his post.
“I am not going to stop making art,” Allen said, noting that money factored into his decision. “But I have two school-age kids and my wife is working a lot of overtime.”
As with many other theater companies, the pandemic has had an acute impact on House, a company founded by a group of college friends in 2000 and known for its innovative original theater, its interest in popular culture and its longstanding determination to attract millennials and Gen-Xers who do not typically attend theater. Allen, known for his exuberant curtain speeches (“let’s make some noise”) and his warm-centered personality, was a big part of that appeal, as was his work.
Unlike most non-profit theaters, House made an impressive 70% of its roughly $2.2 million annual budget at its own box office, and that box office has been closed since March.
“Our way has always been to sell a hell of a lot of tickets,” Allen, 42, said. “And our way doesn’t work anymore. We’ve settled into a sustainable position where we can hold on for a whole year. But what the House deserves is someone to really rebuild a company. I know what that is, but it’s not me. That was a commitment I had in my 20s, but I don’t have it now. I feel like I already helped build it, and I honestly would be too angry to have to do it all again.”
House has been forced to furlough or lay off most of its staffers in recent weeks. Its two remaining current employees, Allen and managing director Erik Schroeder, have been reduced to part time.
Allen was responsible for some huge creative and financial successes, including the writing and directing of “Death and Harry Houdini,” which toured nationally; the co-authorship and direction of “The Sparrow,” a wrenching piece about an unusual young girl in a small Illinois town; the direction of “Verboten,” a recent hit musical featuring punk music by Jason Narducy; and, perhaps most notably of all, the direction of “The Terrible Tragedy of Peter Pan,” the dazzlingly creative and emotionally intense piece that first made House a young Chicago theater to watch.
“Nate has built a community of artists,” Schroeder said. “For so many people in Chicago, House was their first theater experience. His focus was always on the audience. He helped bring some super-fun and very unusual stories to the stage. And a large part of the legacy that Nate leaves is an audience of 30- and 40-somethings who now will be theatergoers for rest of their lives.”
Schroeder also said that House intends to carry on into the future and look for a successor. Allen says he is committed to helping the company make that transition. He also said that he had “seen the sea change socially” and concluded that he would be happier now as an artist rather than an administrator.
“I’ve had my dream job for 20 years and I’m very grateful,” Allen said. “I am so proud of House. Our group of people is magic.”
Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.
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