Williams Street Repertory: Striding Onstage for its Next Act

For four years, their work was halted by the pandemic. Now, as Raue Center’s in-house theater crew prepares to relaunch, their work seems more relevant than ever.

Crystal Lake’s neighborhood theater, Raue Center for the Arts, 26 N. Williams St., is gearing up for the much-anticipated relaunch of its esteemed Williams Street Repertory (WSR). Shuttered by the 2020 pandemic, the repertory is poised to make a triumphant return after nearly four years.

“The show that the pandemic shut down, that’s our first show back,” says Richard Kuranda, executive director and founding artistic director at Raue. “We’re thrilled about that performance. Michele Vasquez, the director on it, is so gracious to stick with the project because not many people would have.”

WSR, originally dubbed the “Recession Rep,” had humble beginnings as a nonprofessional company during the economic downturn of 2007. For a few years, the repertory consisted of guests reading plays on a makeshift stage. In 2010, WSR officially launched.

Since then, the repertory has received several awards for its works, including four Broadway World Chicago awards for its 2013 production of “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.” As with many cultural institutions, WSR faced challenges during the pandemic and was forced to stop production.

“We lost 11 people to COVID – artists, volunteers and former grant writers,” says Kuranda. “So, we consider ourselves lucky and blessed to come back.”

Despite the setbacks, WSR’s upcoming season focuses on thought-provoking themes that delve into the complexities of human experiences. The season addresses topics such as the war machine, immigration and interpersonal relationships, with “Native Gardens” taking center stage as a poignant exploration of neighborly dynamics and American identity.

“This season explores everything going on in the world and our interpersonal acceptances of our neighbors, especially ‘Native Gardens,’” says Kuranda. It’s a season of humanity that asks us to get to know each other and realize we’re all human. Good art asks questions, so we want to inspire, provoke thought and get people on the same page.”

“Native Gardens,” running Feb. 23 through March 17, centers around a pair of friendly neighbors who become enemies when a dispute over a fence line evolves into deeper issues of race, taste and class. It’s a play that holds great importance, Kuranda says.

“It has themes of immigration and themes of accepting your neighbor,” he says. “It’s a great comedy, but it has some underlying tones that are wonderful.”

The stimulating performances continue from Aug. 2-25 with the performance of “An Act of God.” This 90-minute dialogue involves God unveiling mysteries of the Bible and answering existential questions that trouble mankind.

Then, get ready for “Bandstand,” running Sept. 13 through Oct. 20. The Tony-winning post-World War II Broadway musical follows Private First Class Donny Novitski as he returns home to form a band with fellow veterans so they can compete in a national swing band contest.

“That’s another piece that has played on Broadway and is just an amazing story of GIs coming back, trying to get their lives together through swing music and re-creating the world after World War II,” says Kuranda.

The hiatus prompted by COVID-19 became an opportunity for Raue Center and Williams Street Repertory to reflect and innovate. This period of introspection led to the creation of new positions, including a managing director and an operations manager to further enhance the overall experience for both artists and audiences.

“We used the break as a mirror exercise to reflect on what we were doing well and what we weren’t doing well and how can we do it better,” says Kuranda. “So, we made some changes based on that data.”

The restructuring also allowed WSR to upgrade its infrastructure and technology. With a quarter-million-dollar investment in a new sound system and LED light system, WSR is now equipped to deliver even more immersive and high-quality performances. The advancements include improved ambient noise quality that offers a richer and more authentic experience for the audience.

WSR’s revival also includes a renewed focus on professionalism and inclusivity. The theater company, while being a non-union house, engages with seasonal union contracts and the Actors’ Equity Association.

“We’re so lucky, because even though we’re a non-union house, we sign on to these seasonal union contracts,” says Kuranda. “The Stage Directors and Choreographers Society and its union for directors and choreographers have been amazing.”

The commitment to inclusivity is further emphasized by WSR’s dedication to providing professional opportunities for actors at different stages of their careers, much like the Raue Center School for the Arts. With a blend of professional and community actors, WSR creates an environment where artists can develop their skills under professional standards.

“We offer professional experience so artists can develop with professional standards,” says Kuranda. “Everyone on stage follows union guidelines and rehearsal standards, but it’s about 30% professionals.”

One of the striking aspects of WSR’s journey is the unwavering support it receives from the community. Kuranda has witnessed an outpouring of care and commitment from local families, even during the hiatus, that shows him there is a demand for quality theater, he says.

“Right now, we have 11,000 families that donate to us on an annual basis and work with us on our fundraisers,” says Kuranda. “I mean, 11,000 families care. That’s amazing.”

That care extends beyond financial support, with residents actively participating in the theater’s events and discussions. WSR serves not only as a cultural hub but also as a catalyst for community engagement.

“There’s something pure about it; it’s not just transactional,” says Kuranda. “People at the Raue seem to care and want to build something for the future.”

As WSR prepares to unveil its winter 2024-2025 season in September, there is a palpable sense of hope and anticipation. Repertory members envision a season that not only entertains but also provides opportunities for local talent trained in the School for the Arts to step onto the professional stage alongside seasoned performers.

Support from the community helps to ensure a vibrant future for Raue Center for the Arts and Williams Street Repertory. The beloved theater is scheduled to remain in the neighborhood for the next century and beyond.

“Thanks to the city, this theater will be here long after I’m gone,” says Kuranda. “We have 121 years left on a 125-year lease. They believe in this community.”

The mission of WSR has evolved over the years, starting as an initiative to tell engaging stories that resonate with the community. The repertory’s commitment to diversity and inclusion is evident in its choice of plays that raise essential questions about societal values.

“We’re just good people trying to tell good stories on stage that will hopefully move you and ask questions you’ll be talking about,” says Kuranda.