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Posted October 11, 2005

Illinois Theatre Center Begins its 30th Season

By Judy Rossignuolo-Rice

ITC's inaugural production of AH, WILDERNESS in 1976 featured Carol Ganger and Tim Murray
photo credit: Dee Shigley

Thirty years and going strong. Not many businesses, partnerships, or even marriages, let alone professional theatres, can boast such longevity. The Illinois Theatre Center, a small regional theatre in Park Forest, Illinois just outside of Chicago can proudly make this claim. With the opening of William Inge's PICNIC on September 23, 2005, ITC (as it is called in the theatre community) began its 30th season. It is the only professional Equity theatre in the south suburbs of Chicago, making it a welcome haven for the many Equity actors that inhabit the Chicago area (ITC operates on a CAT contract.)

Founded in 1976 by Steve and Etel Billig, the New York City theatre couple recognized the need and desirability for a professional theatre to serve this culturally neglected suburban area. Along with a dedicated group of volunteers, the lower level of the Park Forest Library was converted into a 180-seat theatre with a three-quarter thrust stage. The first play, AH WILDERNESS, was a rousing success with audience members scrambling to become subscribers, many of whom still subscribe to this day. Part of the theatre's success was the affordable ticket prices, something that still exists. The producers feel that with reasonable ticket prices, theatre is accessible to all people.

LIVING THE DREAM (1999) with Shelly Crosby, Etel Billig, Carmen Severino and Judy Rossignuolo-Rice

ITC was established with the belief that a vigorous artistic and cultural life should be part of all communities. ITC has created theatre for all ages, ethnic and socioeconomic groups. To satisfy the theatrical sophistication of the audiences, it has presented new plays, Midwest and national premieres, as well as the classics. In addition to a regular theatre season of seven plays, it presents a script-in-hand series; outreach programs that travel to hospitals, nursing homes, community centers and schools; a full-time drama school for all ages; a summer arts camp; workshop productions; youth theatre presentations; student matinees; post-play discussions, and a Summerfest musical that give local talent and college drama and music students a chance to work with experienced professionals.

ITC's WINTERSET (1991), starring Laura McDonough and Michael Shannon photo: Warren Skalski

Tragedy struck in 1996 when co-founder Steve Billig met with an untimely death. Steve was a beloved member of his local community. As an active member of the Chicago theatre community, he was part of the group that developed the Chicago Area Theatre (CAT) contract. With the help of friends and family, his wife and son continued the legacy of this theatre that was so important to Steve. In 1999, the theatre moved into a new facility located in Downtown Park Forest. This larger and more conveniently located space allowed for major improvements in technical production, dressing rooms, and a rehearsal space, as well as audience comfort and convenience.

All of this does not come easily to any professional theatre, especially smaller ones not in the heart of a big city. The staff at the Illinois Theatre Center works hard to meet a budget that comes primarily from subscriptions, fundraising, ticket sales and grants. It is often difficult to compete with the more affluent and well endowed theatres only 30 miles to the north of this ambitious "little" theatre in the suburbs. These bigger theatres receive large corporate grants from companies seeking the high profile visibility associated with metropolitan areas.

A YEAR WITH FROG AND TOAD (2004), starring Alan Ball and Joe Lehman
Photo: Warren Skulski

We applaud the hard work and accomplishments that have been achieved at the Illinois Theatre Center. We wish them many more years of success as they fill a much-needed role as an artistic venue to a diverse and culturally receptive audience, as well as yet another Equity theatre to supply jobs for our robust and growing community of actors. Many actors seen on Broadway, in Regional Theatre and in film today got their start at ITC. We want to thank ITC for the drive and dedication needed to keep theatre alive and accessible to all people. Happy 30th Season!!!

Judy Rossignuolo-Rice is an Equity actress and director in the Chicago area who has been associated with the Illinois Theatre Center for over 20 years. She met her husband, Bernard Rice, also an Equity member, on stage at ITC, and in 2000 they married on the very same stage.

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