In May 2023, Rogers Park’s own Lifeline Theatre turns 40. As it enters its fifth decade, Lifeline has become an institution in the Glenwood Avenue Arts District and the neighborhood as a whole.
Lifeline is best known for its colorful literary adaptations and also hosts a Kid’s Series targeted for younger audiences. Since 1985 the company has called the intimate brick theater overlooking the Red Line tracks at 6912 N Glenwood Avenue home.
The company was founded in 1982 by five recent Northwestern University graduates who had previous experience on stage together as Northwestern students and in an improv comedy group.
The five founding members were Meryl Friedman, Suzanne Plunkett, Kathee Sills, Sandy Snyder and Steve Totland.
In an RPWRHS oral history interview conducted in 2015, Suzanne Plunkett, the group’s first Managing Director, said the idea to start a new company came after members of the group felt they were being disrespected by the men who ran the Practical Theater on Howard Street, the venue that hosted their all-female improv comedy troupe.
“What we were doing was kind of, you know, cutting edge,” Plunkett, said. “Because, women were not in improv then, (much) at all, but to have an all-female group was highly unusual. And so I just remember sitting and chatting, especially with Meryl, going this is, you know, we’re spinning our wheels. And why? You know, we could do this ourselves.”
The group began meeting in their living rooms to try and figure out how to scrounge up the cash to put on a production from scratch. Sandy Snyder Pietz, an actor and a co-founder of Lifeline’s educational outreach program, said the first task was finding a space to rent for the performances.
“We kind of created a budget, I believe, and then we started begging,” Snyder Pietz said. “Borrowing from anybody we could get money from because we didn’t have any money.”
The group eventually found a space in the Organic Theatre black box stage — which could hold just around 40 audience members — where they hosted their first production, Split. It was directed by Kyle Donnelly, a woman who was a prominent acting coach and director in the city. Donnelly directed the group’s first two productions.
Plunkett said it was thrilling when she was working the box office and people who the members didn’t know began buying tickets.
“Because otherwise I knew everybody,” she said. “That’s Sandy’s friend and now here comes Meryl’s cousin. And here comes — you know, we knew everybody on the list.”
She said it was their second production, The Rimers of Eldridge that really put them on the map. After a few more productions at other theater venues, the group became determined to find a space they could call their own.
“So we at that point determined even if we don’t produce, we have to put all our energies into finding something that we can call our own.” Plunkett said. “We’ll just be renting, but at least it’ll be the Lifeline Theater space.”
They eventually found the Lifeline space, which had been used as a studio for a dance company and was built and used originally as a Commonwealth Edison substation. In 1985 the company secured a one year lease and got to work making it into their theater space. Plunkett said the building’s history turned out to be useful in this process.
“You know, the ceilings were like 20 feet high and there were 20-foot ladders in there and a lot of equipment was left over from (ComEd),” she said. “That is really useful when you’re making a theater, you know, to have tall ladders.”
Plunkett called the owner of the building, Paul Mulroy, the fledgling company’s angel.
“He was a sweet man who wanted to support the arts,” she said. “He had a vision for Rogers Park as an arts center. (He told us) ‘I see this as a whole block of arts organization, so I want you guys to succeed.’ ”
Lifeline’s first foray into adaptations turned out to be a huge success as they put on a production of Pride and Prejudice.
“We just thought here’s an amazing story we can tell on stage,” Plunkett said. “Let’s just make it into a play and then, man, it was like people just loved it and we had this light bulb like, well, we need to sell tickets and, you know, let’s put on more. Let’s start doing adaptations.”
Snyder Pietz added that the group’s background in studying classical and contemporary literature at Northwestern was a huge help in these early adaptation projects.
Their second adaptation, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, was another breakthrough event for the company. “That brought in this whole other demographic. Families and young people, ” Plunkett recalled. “That was another huge light bulb that went off. There’s nothing else like this in Chicago. At the time, there was not another children’s theater.”
In 1986, Snyder Pietz’s father Raymond Snyder, became Lifeline’s first Chairman of the Board, and held the post for over 25 years. In his interview, he said the move towards literary adaptations was a turning point in the company’s trajectory.
“We were doing other people’s scripts and it was kind of a hit and miss thing. And we never knew how we were going to do with a production,” he said. “It wasn’t really until we started doing adaptations of literature that we really found our artistic footing.”
Over the course of its history, Lifeline has produced over 120 literary adaptations and 16 original plays.
Although some times during those early years were tough, and often the company and its members struggled to pay their bills, Snyder Pietz said the community they built kept her going and motivated to keep producing.
“For me it was a home,” she said. “I mean, it was like my family. I felt like we were doing good work and we wanted to keep at it, and eventually we got to the point of starting doing adaptation.”
After leasing the building for over 8 years aand pushed by a need for capital improvement projects, the group elected to try and buy the building.
Randy Snyder led the negotiating effort and after 18 months of discussions with the landlord, he said they came to a deal.
“That did two things that allowed us to start raising money to improve the building,” he said. “And also start getting some equity from it so we ended up getting a commercial mortgage.”
After purchasing the building Lifeline was able to embark on a series of projects improving both the audience and actor experience including the installation of new heating and air conditioning systems and new seats.
The company also reconfigured the space, moving the main entrance from the front of the building on the street to the side of the building. Sndyer said this allowed the theater to reconfigure its lobby, green room and dressing rooms to create a better layout.
In 2001 the company created the Raymond R. Snyder Commitment to the Arts Award to honor Synder’s work as a primary force in building and fostering Lifeline. Allison Cain, long-time former Managing Director at Lifeline, will be honored with the award at the company’s 40th anniversary celebration on May 18.
Lifeline has been an important anchor of the Glenwood Arts District, which includes other theaters and galleries. Lifeline was also instrumental in the start of the Glenwood Arts Festival, which presents its 22nd annual event in 2023.
When she was interviewed in 2015, Dorothy Milne, Lifeline’s long-time artistic director, said the idea for the festival spawned from a Kids Fest with games and food that Lifeline put on outside the theater for a few years in the early 2000s.
Milne said Al Goldberg, a community member who spearheaded the Kids Fest effort, said he wanted to try putting on a larger event, and what would become the Glenwood Arts Festival took roots from there.
From 2002 to 2018 Lifeline served as the lead organizer for the festival. Milne said she has enjoyed watching the annual event grow in size and popularity in the years since.
“It’s fascinating because that’s what grew, and that’s what really took off as a neighborhood- owned, completely grassroots organized event,” she said.
The festival has grown beyond Glenwood Avenue and now extends onto Morse Avenue as well. Milne said the festival has been successful in bringing wider recognition to the vibrant arts community in Rogers Park.
“There have always been artists in Rogers Park and a lot of arts activity because rents are affordable and it’s just a place that artists want to be with the cultural diversity here,” she said. “It is an exciting place to be, but I feel like our festival is (something that is) starting to feel and be recognized as a destination for those things.”
Today Lifeline puts on three main stage plays a season, with an additional three play Kids Series. It employs over 150 artists and brings in over 17,000 audience members to Rogers Park every year. The company’s Artists in Residence program partners with local schools to pair school teachers with acting teachers and artists to teach drama to local students.
When reflecting on the foundation of Lifeline, Plunkett said she was amazed with the growth of the theater and its long-term impact on the community.
“I don’t think any of us would ever have dreamt that we would become a Chicago institution,” she said. “I think it’s fair to say when we were first, you know, putting together our little place, if you had told me then that 30 years from now you’d be going strong I would have probably had my mouth drop open.”
Not just 30, but 40 years later, Lifeline endures.