We’re the Problem

by Michael Halberstam

in National Conference

Post image for We’re the Problem

(This post is part of the 2014 TCG National Conference: Crossing Borders {Conflict | Confluence} blog salon, curated by Jacqueline E. Lawton.) 

JACQUELINE LAWTON: First, please tell us a bit about yourself and your organization.

MICHAEL HALBERSTAM: I’m the Artistic Director and founder of Writers Theatre in Glencoe Illinois, a north suburb of Chicago. In 1992,  I founded the Writers Theatre in the back room of a bookstore in Glencoe. Over the next twenty-five years, I helped create productions in which interpretations of classic and contemporary plays came to thrilling life in two intensely intimate venues. Recently, the company embarked upon an ambitious campaign to build a new venue which would give us a permanent home. We break ground in October of 2014. One of the primary motivations of the company and indeed the new venue is, and always has been, to provide actors with a voice in the process of making art and give all the artists and staff who collaborate to make the plays ownership over the art. Commensurate with that ideology is the notion that actors are paid a fair wage and to that end, despite two impossibly small capacities (a 50 seat venue and a 108 seat venue) Writers Theatre has always been a leader in the Chicago Arts community in artistic compensation.

JL: Next, please share the title and description of your breakout session, so that folks can find you.

ML: It’s called, “We’re The Problem.” Every year at TCG we gather to address the same issues and have been doing so for decades. The issues don’t seem to be changing which might lead one to look at the constant factors in the room – us! Are we the problem? Are our artists paid a living wage? Do we truly value our artists and prioritize their needs? Do we open ourselves to criticism? Is marketing the first department to get the blame when ticket sales slow or the audiences are walking out? Do we actively and aggressively seek to diversify our stages? Do we regularly hire women playwrights, designers, and directors? Do we seek diverse programming to share with our audiences? Do we have an evaluation process in which our artists and/or staff can give us direct and honest feedback? Or do we live in an ivory tower? Are we protected by an assenting staff? Do we find ourselves getting defensive a lot in the work place? Could we be the problem? How do we adequately self-assess and create an environment in which we are both available to give and receive criticism? How do we manage conflict within our organization if we ourselves are not open to hearing alternative conversations? Michael Halberstam, founder and artistic director of Writers’ Theatre, will be joined by fellow artistic directors, and facilitate an open dialogue about trying to aggressively and truthfully addressing the problems in our institutions and on our stages.

JL: Now, what inspired this breakout session?

MH: I was having a conversation with Jennifer Bielstein who was Executive Director at Writers Theatre prior to moving to the Actors Theatre of Louisville and then later with Curt Columbus at Trinity Rep.  We chatted about trying to initiate a substantive discussion about meaningful change and accountability within ourselves and our institutions at TCG.  I think that too often panel sessions devolve into promotional opportunities and discussions about marketing.  I am VERY lucky to be joined by three bold and very real innovators in the field.  Kevin, Tisa and Kent have all earned national admiration for their work because of their unpretentious and honest engagements with their institutions.

JL: Finally, what do you hope participants learned from this breakout session?

MH: I suppose that the participants can only learn as much as we learn ourselves.  So it’s up to us to lead a dialogue that encourages a deep and significant look into the mirror and hopefully we can all come out with some practical senses of where we can self improve and deepen our engagements with our institutions.

Michael Halberstam (Artistic Director) is the co-founder of Writers Theatre. He has directed over thirty-five productions for the company, including Not About Heroes (starring Nicholas Pennell), Private Lives, Look Back In Anger, Candida, The Father, Crime and Punishment, Benefactors, Seagull, The Duchess of Malfi, Othello, The Savannah Disputation, the world premiere musical A Minister’s Wife, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, She Loves Me, The Real Thing, Hamlet and Sweet Charity. Halberstam has appeared in numerous Writers Theatre productions, including Richard II (title role), Loot and Misalliance. Previously, he spent two years at The Stratford Festival in Ontario and performed in Timon of Athens, The Knight of the Burning Pestle (title role), Much Ado About Nothing and As You Like It. Halberstam’s other Chicago acting credentials include productions with Wisdom Bridge, Court Theatre and Chicago Shakespeare Theater. Elsewhere he directed The Gamester (Northlight Theatre), A Man For All Seasons (Penninsula Players Theatre), Hamlet (Illinois Shakespeare Festival), Candida (Jean Cocteau Repertory in New York), Ten Little Indians (Drury Lane Oakbrook Terrace), a highly acclaimed revival of Crime and Punishment, which Writers Theatre produced off-Broadway at 59E59 Theatres in New York City, Enchanted April and State of the Union (Milwaukee Repertory Theatre). In 2010 he directed A Minister’s Wife at Lincoln Center Theater, and also directed the west coast premiere at San Jose Repertory Theatre in 2013. His forays into opera have included The Rape of Lucretia (Chicago Opera Theatre), Francesca De Ramini featuring the Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Christopher Eschenbach and Le Freyshutz, a Berlioz adaptation of the Weber opera conducted by Christopher Eschenbach in its North American Premiere (Ravinia Festival). He spent two and a half years teaching Shakespeare at The Theatre School at DePaul University and has received awards for excellence in theater management and/or artistic achievement from The Chicago Drama League, The Arts & Business Council, Chicago Lawyers for the Creative Arts, and The Chicago Associates of the Stratford Festival. He also received the 2010 Zelda Fichandler Award, the 2013 Aritstic Achievement Award from the League of Chicago Theatres, and was named the Chicago Tribune’s 2013 “Chicagoan of the Year” for Theater. He currently serves on the executive board of the Arts Club of Chicago.


Jacqueline E. Lawton received her MFA in Playwriting from the University of Texas at Austin, where she was a James A. Michener fellow. Her plays include Anna K; Blood-bound and Tongue-tied; Deep Belly Beautiful; The Devil’s Sweet Water; The Hampton Years; Ira Aldridge: Love Brothers Serenade, Mad Breed and Our Man Beverly Snow. She has received commissions from Active Cultures Theater, Discovery Theater, National Portrait Gallery, National Museum of American History, Round House Theatre and Theater J. A 2012 TCG Young Leaders of Color, she has been nominated for the Wendy Wasserstein Prize and a PONY Fellowship from the Lark New Play Development Center. She resides in Washington DC and is a member of Arena Stage’s Playwrights’ Arena. jacquelinelawton.com