“It has been an incredible journey founding and leading 16th Street Theater; it will be exactly 14 years at the end of August, and I am excited and ready to explore what is next for me,” Ann Filmer said in a news release. “This is a wonderful time for new leadership at 16th Street. I cannot wait to champion the next artistic director and their new vision.”
Filmer started 16th Street Theater in 2007, after she and her family moved from Chicago’s Humboldt Park to Berwyn. Questioning why the Chicago area’s theaters resided in so few neighborhoods, the majority on Chicago’s north side, Filmer and her husband, musician Barry Bennett, pledged to “make art for the community in which we live.” When she learned the North Berwyn Park District had just unveiled a 49-seat theater in the basement of a city of Berwyn building, Filmer approached North Berwyn Park District Executive Director Joseph Vallez with a proposal: “You have a theater. I can run a theater,” and submitted her plan for a professional Equity theater for all in the community.
Filmer’s vision for a professional theater that would pay its artists a decent wage while being inclusive to the community resulted in 16th Street being the most affordable union theater in Illinois. Tickets started at $16 in 2008, and 14 years later, the Berwyn resident price remains just $18 (the top general admission price is $22).
Since its founding, 16th Street has amplified the voices of women and playwrights of color, focusing on Illinois artists. During Filmer’s tenure, out of 61 productions plus 19 free Pop Up Readings for the community, 55 were written by female-identifying playwrights and 37 by writers of color.
Under Filmer’s leadership, 16th Street created co-producing partnerships with Teatro Luna, Teatro Vista, Victory Gardens, Jedlicka, Lewis University, Tellin’ Tales, Goodman and Steppenwolf, including Filmer’s adaptation and direction of Tony Fitzpatrick’s “This Train” and “Nickel History.” Creating relationships with The Lark in New York and National New Play Network, Filmer produced rolling world premieres of Andrea Thome’s “Pinkolandia,” Karen Zacarias’ “Into the Beautiful North,” adapted from Luis Alberto Urrea’s novel, Sean Lewis’ “Dogs of Rwanda,” Maya Malan-Gonzalez’ “A Xmas Cuento Remix,” and Audrey Cefaly’s “Alabaster.”
As a producer, director and dramaturg, Filmer has been a fierce advocate for playwrights being in command of their own work. Sixteenth Street has provided space and resources for writers to develop and present their new plays in the way that best serves the playwright’s voice, including writers such as Rohina Malik (“Unveiled” and “Yasmina’s Necklace”), Aline Lathrop (“Merchild” and “The Hero’s Wife”) EM Lewis (“The Gun Show”), Loy Webb (“His Shadow”), and Natalie Y. Moore (the upcoming “The Billboard”).
“Every artist that worked at 16th Street was asked to serve the playwright, and that was no small task,” Filmer explains. “Without every single artist being dedicated to creating with limited resources, none of 16th Street’s accolades would exist. Being an artist can be thankless: every actor, director, designer and staff member selflessly created for the good of the play. The artists, our dedicated audience, board and staff are the ones who make 16th Street possible.”
Over the course of the pandemic, Filmer’s duties grew to include grant writing, successfully securing over $200,000 for 16th Street Theater since it was shuttered in March 2020. Financially, Filmer leaves the theater debt-free and financially solvent – solid ground that will be especially important as 16th Street transitions to new leadership in the months ahead.
The board of The 16th Street Theater NFP is working with RGW Consulting in Oak Park (and the to-be-named interim artistic director*) on a strategic plan that will chart the future of 16th Street.
“While saddened by Ann’s departure, I remain optimistic about the future of 16th Street Theater,” Joseph Vallez, executive director of North Berwyn Park District, said in the release. “The board is dedicated to continuing a legacy of excellence in theater that she has brought to the community. I not only respect Ann as an artist, leader and mentor, but she has also become a dear friend. She will be greatly missed at 16th Street Theater.
“It is with great sadness that I issue this statement on behalf of the North Berwyn Park District staff and Board of Commissioners,” he said. “Ann Filmer has enlightened the community to the gift of theater. She has confronted subject matter that initiates conversation, debate, and invites us to reexamine the world we all live in today. Ann has been a dedicated artistic director [who] has introduced unique productions to the theater world. We wish her well and offer appreciation for all of her efforts. Good luck, Ann.”
(*The release noted that the searches for an interim artistic director and the next artistic director will be announced.)
Learn more about the theater and its season at 16thstreettheater.org.