The Prop Thtr, founded by two Columbia College students, has been Chicago’s home of radical art since 1981. Beginning its history with an original translation of Brecht’s “Puntila and Matti, His Hired Man,” The Prop has dedicated itself to creating fresh and challenging new work featuring local artists and ordinary people alike. With the guiding principles of inclusion, diversity of thought and experience, and a total lack of pretension, Prop Thtr has shapeshifted and survived, fighting and succeeding in generating a wide variety of new work by so many different people for 40 years.
In 1981, Prop Thtr rented its first storefront in East Lakeview. The Prop’s first five years consisted of producing and cohabiting within the same four walls. Prop Thtr’s early work involved numerous adaptations, original works, and Chicago stories by local makers; a signature setup we still continue to showcase. The Prop’s 1994 production of Paul Peditto’s “Never Come Morning” retains the record for the most (9) non-equity Jeff Award Citations ever given to a single production, including one to Jennifer Markowitz for her staging.
In the early 90’s, Prop Thtr co-founded Rhinofest with the Curious Theater Branch. Rhinofest provided an accessible gateway for Chicago artists to become familiar with The Prop’s work and Prop Thtr to become familiar with their work as well. This festival is now Chicago’s Longest Running Fringe Festival.
Over the years, Prop Thtr has provided residencies to Chicago’s weirdo visionaries and experimenters, including David Shepherd, Del Close, Susan Parenti, Lisa Fay & Jeff Glassman Duo. Prop Thtr is continuing this tradition with our Writer/Director/Deviser Lab rolling out over the next two years.
In 1998, Prop Thtr formed an annual new play festival which went on to become the National New Play Network or NNPN. The Prop remains a core member of the network and continues to be incredibly involved with our board member Kristen Vehill serving on the Strategic Planning Committee and our Artistic Director, Olivia Lilley, being nominated to join the newly restructured Board. Prop even supports new work with our weekly reading series Church of the New Play. The playwrights featured come from an open submission process allowing opportunities for many artists. Prop Thtr is committed to making new play development as accessible and transparent as possible.
In 2004, Prop Thtr relocated to its current space at 3502 N. Elston Ave and began to house Resident companies. Factory Theatre, Hermit Arts and Curious Theatre Branch all were residents upon opening. The Prop is currently working with resident companies: Fehinity, an African New Work centered organization, and Tekki, a company focused on devised work by people with disabilities. We continually welcome new resident companies whose missions align with ours in different ways.
Stefan Brun took over as Artistic Director from Scott Vehill and built upon The Prop’s history. Under Brun, The Prop premiered Fatzer at it’s 15th Anniversary and its hit production of Saint Joan of the Stockyards, solidifying The Prop as Chicago’s home for Brecht. In 2006, The Prop had a big hit when Brun staged Hizzoner, leading to an open-ended run and tour around Chicago.
In 2015, Prop Thtr began its working relationship with current Artistic Director Olivia Lilley during her touring production of Goethe’s Faust in the apartment above the theater and in the hallways of Rhinofest that year. Lilley went on to direct Hatchet Lady, an original rock musical for Rhinofest 2017. It was a sold out hit. She co-produced an original dance musical with The Prop about the life of Eleonora Duse. Brun tapped her to become Artistic Director in December of 2017 and she took on full leadership in March of 2018.
Under the artistic leadership of Lilley, The Prop’s core values of inclusion and diversity established in 1981 have been reinvigorated through the mainstage season, Church of the New Play, partnership with the MCA, and continued investment in Rhinofest (a collaboration with Curious Theatre Branch). The 38th season’s mainstage featured all new work; devised by an ensemble and led by a director. As for Rhinofest 2018, Lilley co-curated the event with Jenny Magnus and Beau O’Reilly of Curious Theatre Branch. Lilley revitalized Prop Thtr’s Church of the New Play program, a weekly new works reading series every Sunday morning from 2018 to 2019.
As one of Chicago’s longest surviving experimental storefront theater, the Prop currently seeks to refresh its commitment to widening the array of artists until they truly represent the city around it. Prop Thtr is accompanying the newest and wildest of experiments with a community of veteran designers, makers, and playwrights all dedicated from years of collaboration.
The Prop’s history tells a story of fearless innovation. There have been plenty of failures along the way that are held as highly as the accolades. Without them, initiatives like NNPN and Rhinofest would not be as wildly successful as they are. In that respect, Prop Thtr has always been an incubator for renegades.
After 38 years, The Prop is still here and not going away. Prop Thtr is Chicago’s home for radical art.