Eddie Sugarman is the Executive Artistic Director of the Theatre of Western Springs. He leads TWS in fulfilling its mission “to entertain, to educate, and to inspire across the generations through the art of live theatre.”
One of your most recent works is It’s A Wonderful Western Springs Life! The library was delighted to be included in part 1! Give us some backstory on this digital creation and how it’s been received.
This film was a collaboration between the Theatre’s adult program and the Children’s Theatre of Western Springs and could not have been more fun or successful! TWS, like the rest of the world, did some serious adapting to the pandemic. This was an idea we had to create art together in and for the community in a safe way. Our typical holiday production would be inside with many hundreds of people together and that was just not possible! It was an enormous amount of work and gave live-stage people a huge lesson in film making. It’s really hard and a ton of fun!
It’s A Wonderful Life is frequently performed as a radio play around the holidays and we got to thinking that an adaptation could be something fun and special. We weren’t sure exactly how, but we thought we could include people who preferred to perform virtually. If you’ve seen the film we were able to do that in our Angel sequence, our local commercials, and a few other spots thanks to Zoom and the technical wizardry of our film editor David Rodriguez.
The response has been overwhelmingly positive and folks are clamouring for another one! This is a bit of a silver lining to a most challenging year.
What does it mean to be the Executive Artistic Director of the Theatre of Western Springs? What was involved in the past and how have you pivoted because of the pandemic?
I lead the organization in collaboration with our board of governors, our staff, and a large number of dedicated volunteers including our adult members (called Actives) and our Children’s Theatre families. We have a lot of wonderful people making a lot of wonderful art.
Pre-pandemic, we put on 12 productions a year on our 2 stages as well as a large number of classes, camps, and educational workshops in all aspects of the theatrical arts. It’s a wonderful place that one of my friends calls a “happiness machine.” I think that’s a pretty wonderful description of TWS actually.
The pandemic has been awful, of course, and has decimated our industry. TWS instituted dramatic budget cuts and furloughed half of our small staff. We have pivoted about a million times and I feel we have been incredibly successful creating art and community in this time. After a brief pause last March, we never stopped programming. Just a few examples of what we pivoted to are online children’s theatre classes, in person small-group camps, a Zoom-filmed original monologue series, and a virtual production of “Couples” by Sean Grennan which was written specifically to be performed on Zoom! Oh, and we made a movie too…
How did you get started on this path?
My parents took me to the theatre when I was young. Please, please, everyone: immerse your kids in the arts. It’s better for them than broccoli! Who cares if they’re “good” at it. Who cares if they do it for a living. It’s a wonderful part of life. Okay, sermon over.
In high school, my friend William couldn’t hang out with me because he was doing sound for the school play. I asked him if I could tag along and I was hooked. I studied Musical Theatre performance in undergrad at the University of Michigan (Go Blue!) and met my amazing wife-to-be there. We moved to New York and did the starving artist thing for about 10 years and had a blast. During that time I did acting jobs here and there and then was very lucky to have a very tiny part in the Broadway musical Ragtime. I also began writing musicals and had some success with a musical I co-wrote called Meet John Doe, which is based on the Frank Capra film. After my wife Kara and I moved to Western Springs, I left the biz for a year or so to work in pharmaceutical sales to make money and get benefits. Then an old friend called us one day on our landline— remember landlines? He ran a theatre in Cicero and had lost their managing director. I asked Kara if she wanted the job. She said “Um… no thanks.” So I took it and started managing theatres.
Along the way, I worked very interesting jobs at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre and 16th Street Theatre and earned a Master’s degree in Arts Management from Drexel University. Then, the opportunity at TWS came along and I applied.
What community resources do you use to build a production at TWS? How do you choose the productions for each season?
We have several wonderful connected communities. There is the community of Western Springs and the surrounding areas, our committed volunteer members who we call Actives, and our Children’s Theatre parents and families. So people-power is the largest community resource we use by far. Everything from set-building to ticket-taking to acting takes committed community members. Another resource is our local businesses who sponsor productions. We have a great group of businesses who help sponsor productions and activities, which is very very appreciated and needed.
In addition to directing, you also write plays, and you were nominated for the Charles MacArthur Award for Outstanding Original New Play or Musical. Tell us more about that.
Sure! My friend Andrew Gerle and I co-wrote a musical called Meet John Doe, which is based on the Frank Capra film that starred Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck. It’s about Ann Mitchell, a brassy reporter in the depression who creates a fictional everyman hero, John Doe, that the public believes is real. They “cast” the part of John Doe with a homeless man and a nationwide movement begins around him. You can hear the cast recording on Spotify and other places. Check it out. We had quite a journey with Meet John Doe that led to a pretty splashy production at Ford’s Theatre in Washington D.C. That’s where we were nominated for the MacArthur Award. That production won a few Helen Hayes Awards that year which was pretty fun. There was a great production a year later or so later in Chicago at Porchlight Music Theatre. They did fabulous work on the show. Also, an audience member named Joe asked me to put him in touch with my writing partner Andrew and a few years later, we were honored to attend their wedding!
How long have you lived in Western Springs?
We moved here in 2005, so about 15 years. My wife Kara grew up in Westchester, so this area was close to her parents and had great public schools. That’s why we landed here.
You are also the Secretary of the Western Springs Business Association. Could you comment on that part of your life?
I think Mark Ptacek from Heartland Bank asked me to join the board and I’m very glad I did. At the time, WSBA was going through a bit of a growth spurt and bringing on new members. As a WSBA board member I help and support WSBA planning and activities with a terrific group of local business people. I have really enjoyed getting to know more of the community through my WSBA service. If you have any questions about the Western Springs Business Association or our activities— which we’ll be getting back to when we can!— drop me an email at email@example.com.
Please tell us a little about your personal life and interests.
I am lucky to be married to Kara (Pawlowski) Sugarman and we have two great kids, Sam (19) and Lucy (15). They are my main interests, really. I also love novels, comic books, horror movies, sculpture (seeing, not doing!), walking our beagle Clayton, and hanging out with friends in the neighborhood. Oh, and BBQ. I really really like BBQ.
Finally, what role has the Thomas Ford Library played in your professional and personal life?
I’m proud to live in a town with a strong, well-supported library. Thomas Ford Library is a great community resource. We brought our kids there as they were growing up and always enjoyed it. Several times, I have found a play that I wanted to read on the shelves. Also, WSBA has been grateful to use the library for meeting space from time to time. Keep up the great work, Thomas Ford!
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