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CHICAGO: WHAT'S HAPPENING IN THE WINDY CITY
Raising Second City Curtain
And National Jewish Theater
Joyce Sloane spreads the gospel of Jewish theater
from her home in Chicago.
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This is the first of an occasion-
al column on Jewish issues and
profiles from Chicago.
oyce Sloane breezes into her
office at Chicago's Second
City with an apology for be-
ing late and a "let's-get-to-
work" look on her face. A woman
with an idea for a new production
will have to wait.
One of the most recognized
names in Chicago theater circles,
Ms. Sloane, as she almost always
does, is sandwiching time for new
ideas into a day that is jammed
with responsibility to existing in-
stitutions. Chicago Academy of
the Arts, the International The-
ater Festival, Victory Gardens
and Wisdom Bridge theaters are
among them. Since October,
some of each day is devoted to
that eight-year-old enterprise.
A heart attack two years ago
has hardly slowed her pace
though Ms. Sloane does say she
is thinking of taking a few weeks
off this summer. No one close to
her believes it.
Ms. Sloane did not get her ti-
tle of "Earth Mother to Chicago
theater" by sitting around read-
A founding member of Na-
tional Jewish Theater, Ms.
Sloane beams with pride at the
excellent reviews much of the the-
ater's recent work has received.
One well-respected reviewer told
her NJT outclassed the New
York production of
Sight Unseen, by Donald Mar-
gulies, an important, upcoming
American Jewish playwright.
Last season, three of NJT's
four plays were nominated for the
prestigious Joseph Jefferson
awards. Two of the productions
won awards. One of them,
Puttin' on the Ritz, won in sev-
'The magic we are making in
that theater is just amazing," said
Ms. Sloane, with obvious pride at
the skill of set and lighting de-
signers who turn a non-descript
auditorium stage into a theatri-
cal masterpiece show after show.
`The quality of work is as good as
is being done anywhere," she
added. Ms. Sloane should know.
Typically she attends to three
theater performances a week,
every week of the year.
"I'm dying to get more (I.B.)
Singer produced," said Ms.
Sloane, waving her hand at a
poster of Singer on her office wall.
"I'm a great fan of his. But you
have to adapt his work. This
takes time, you have to workshop
Nurturing, whether actors,
writers or audiences, is some-
thing that comes second nature
to Ms. Sloane. She understands
time and work, building and cre-
ating from scratch something
that may endure. She also un-
derstands the vagaries of theater
and the fickleness of audiences.
Every theater enterprise "has its
bumps along the way," she said
Joyce Sloane: Spreading the word of
the National Jewish Theater.
when reminded of some of the
rockier seasons for NJT.
Ms. Sloane, 63, got her start at
Marshall High School on the Jew-
ish West Side. Producer of the
school's major theater event, Ms.
Sloane endeared herself to class-
mates by calling many re-
hearsals. "I always managed to
get everyone out of classes," she
said with a mischievous grin that
lights up her deep brown eyes.
Her interest in theater was
piqued by a cousin who was an
entertainer in the Yiddish the-
ater in Chicago. It was through
the cousin that she first met ac-
tor Joel Grey's father and the
young Mr. Grey himself playing
in what might be called an ear-
ly Yiddish Cabaret. Mr. Grey is
redoing that show, Borscht Ca-
pades, and Ms. Sloane likes the
return-to-roots feeling that gives
her. Her own start in profession-
al theater was tied to Borscht Ca-
prides initial run in Chicago.
Her connection with Second
City started in 1961 in ticket
sales as well. Founder Bernard
Sahlins told her to sell out the
opening night performance and
she did — twice.
In the mid-1960s, Ms. Sloane
took a one-year leave of absence
from Second City/Chicago to try
her handing producing musical
theater in Canada.
With the title of producer
emeritus, Ms. Sloane has relin-
quished some of the day-to-day
detail work that absorbed her
time at Second City. From pro-
ducing shows to hiring actors and
negotiating contracts, to basic
hand-holding, Ms. Sloane has
done everything and with such
panache that she was given a
special award in 1980 by the the-
ater community for "dedicated
service as a counselor to all and
as Earth Mother to a host of
Ms. Sloane does not allow nos-
talgia to blind her to the realities
of theater. One of the toughest re-
alities for NJT is audience de-
velopment. While the audience is
growing and now stands at about
4,000 annual subscribers, the
general demographics for atten-
dance are weighted toward an
older, more staid audience.
"They love musicals, but we
want to do more than that," she
While Ms. Sloane wants to see
plays by Jewish writers, she does
not see NJT as a haven for Jew-
ish actors. "I think the casting has
to be done strictly on who is best
for the role," she said. "We have
to be true to the work. The im-
portant thing is the final prod-
As chairman, Ms. Sloane was
able to get money for NJT to hire
a marketing consultant for audi-
ence development. That has to in-
clude younger members,
non-Jews as well as Jews.
While Ms. Sloane is one of
NJT's biggest boosters, she ad-
mitted that she can't persuade
everyone to go. "The only thing
that bothers me is when I hear
people say they don't want to go
to Yiddish theater," she said.
"Like Levy's bread, you don't
have to be Jewish to enjoy NJT.
We are very good theater."
Emily Soloff is a free-lance writer
based in Chicago.