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How Jim Shiflett built the church of off-Loop theater

If you had founded a small professional theater company in Chicago before the mid-70s and wanted to open it in a storefront, you couldn’t have done it without the risk of getting closed down by the city. Before that, you had to call yourself a “club,” as Playwrights Theater Club did in 1953 when they rented a former Chinese restaurant on LaSalle Street. Or you could call yourself a “cabaret,” as Second City did when they rented a former Chinese laundry on Wells in 1959. If you were part of a troupe of like-minded theater artists and wanted to rent temporary space from a multitheater venue, you couldn’t do it because there was, at that time in Chicago, no such thing. 

Rev. James A. Shiflett, who died December 16, 2019, at the age of 89, changed all that, earning him a special place in the chronicles of Chicago theater history. He first set this change in motion when he cofounded what became known as the Body Politic 50 years ago. He originally intended it to be a community center for performing, written, and visual arts, but it quickly became Chicago’s first multitheater space, which would foster and launch many careers and new works. The building has changed ownership twice since then, first to Victory Gardens Theater in 1995, and then, in 2008, Wendy and William Spatz purchased it and named it the Greenhouse Theater Center. The three performance spaces that Shiflett originally carved out of the building have since grown to five, which have hosted a wide variety of resident companies and rentals over the years.

Terry McCabe, Body Politic’s last artistic director who now holds that position at City Lit Theater, acknowledges the significance of Shiflett’s contribution to the burgeoning Chicago theater scene in a 2012 New England Theatre Journal article. Shiflett, he writes, created “a reproducible model by which a fragile theatre scene could grow into a movement, and from that into the multimillion dollar industry it is today.” Former Chicago Tribune theater critic Richard Christiansen, in his 2004 book A Theater of Our Own, aptly refers to the Body Politic as the “cradle of Chicago theater.” 

By founding Body Politic, McCabe adds, Shiflett “set in motion the events that would redefine what it meant to be a Chicago theater in the twentieth century.” Another of those defining events came in the mid-70s. Shiflett and a couple of other small theater leaders met with Mayor Richard J. Daley to discuss amending the city’s fire codes, which had been established for theaters after the Iroquois Theater fire that killed over 600 people in 1903. The then-70-year-old ordinances had been written for the large Loop theaters with no provision for smaller professional theaters, which few would have anticipated at the time. These well-intentioned laws effectively squelched the rise of storefronts and other small theaters, at least for those who preferred to operate legally, because they required, for example, a proscenium arch so that a fire curtain could be lowered, if necessary. 

That one-hour meeting with the mayor resulted in the easing of constraints on these emerging theaters, and it wasn’t long before Chicago began to see companies popping up in the nooks and crannies of found spaces, giving rise to one of the most vital aspects of Chicago’s theater scene today. 

“It was all like a whirlwind,” Shiflett told me in a 2016 interview, “getting stronger and stronger and stronger until finally it was spewing out theater groups. But one thing that I would make sure is clear: I was not the author of all of that. I did help create the context. Yeah, I did do that. But almost without knowing it.”

Rev. James A. Shiflett came to Chicago from Dallas, Texas, and attended the McCormick Theological Seminary. He became a Presbyterian pastor at St. Andrew’s Church where he was a controversial leader with a strong bent on social justice. Some of his congregation adored him and others reviled him for his views and actions in response to the civil rights and anti-war movements. As a civil rights activist, for example, he was jailed for civil disobedience in Albany, Georgia, where he subsequently participated in a hunger strike. 

In appearance, Jim cut an imposing figure. “He was very tall and had this long beard,” Reader theater critic and Columbia College theater department professor, Albert Williams, remembers. “He looked like an Old Testament patriarch, and then add to that his deep Texas drawl! He seemed very masculine.” 

Sharon Phillips, who first met Shiflett when she worked in the box office at Body Politic and later succeeded him as managing director, says, “The first time I saw him, I thought he was either Rasputin or Jesus Christ! He wore a shirt with big blousy sleeves, floppy pants, and sandals. I thought, He’s so good looking! I’d follow him anywhere. And I did!”

Jim’s ambitions in life and career never seemed to run in a straight line. His passions, interests, and curiosity guided the path that he made by walking. “He was a true visionary,” says Phillips, “His heart and spirit went into everything he did.” 

In 1964, something caught Jim’s interest that would change everything for him and ultimately for Chicago theater. He met the legendary improv pioneer, Viola Spolin, when he and his wife and children participated in various theater games workshops. Through Spolin, he met her son, Paul Sills, the director and cofounder of Second City, and later Game Theater. “Jim was fascinated by the theater games,” notes McCabe, “not so much for their value as a tool for actors, but for the sake of what Spolin called ‘this deeper meaning of the material’—the idea that playing the games is a way to improve interpersonal relationships and make the world better.”

In 1965, Shiflett made the weighty decision to leave the pastorate and, inspired by what he had learned from Sills and Spolin, explored the idea of the healing power of the arts in society, particularly in terms of how people relate to one another. He founded and was director of the Community Arts Foundation, and, within a few years, persuaded a donor to contribute money for the down payment on a building situated on a then-dark and slated-for-demolition tract of Lincoln Avenue. The two-story building at 2257-59 N. Lincoln had previously housed the U.S. Slicing Machine Company, the erstwhile Artful Dodger Pub, and, on the second floor, the Monte Carlo Bowling Alley. 

Shiflett’s idea was that a variety of artists would convene here and their work would be an expression of the community’s interests and concerns. Indeed, the space became home to painters, puppeteers, dancers, poets, muralists, and much more. The radical group Rising Up Angry, cofounded by Michael James, also made a home there for a time. “It was all very amorphous, at first,” his son Shawn Shiflett says. “Kind of, let’s try this, let’s try that. My dad was less interested in theater as a profession and more interested in asking, ‘How does this work relate to the community we’re in?’”

Paul Sills, who shared this sensibility, was now looking for a home for his Story Theatre after a successful summer in 1968 in the about-to-be demolished first home of Second City, and Shiflett was looking for someone to anchor the theatrical aspect of the center. Sills and his company moved into the first floor of Shiflett’s arts center. The first theatrical production in this building would be Sills’s Story Theatre production of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Carol Sills, Paul’s wife and creative partner, suggested they call the space the Body Politic, from a quote by English actor and director, Harley Granville-Barker, who wrote, “The theatre is a body politic and the art of it a single art, though the contributions must be by many.” Later, when Paul left for other pursuits, Shiflett adopted the name for the whole building.

William Russo, a composer and chair of the Columbia College Music Department, was another artist who knocked on Shiflett’s door. He was looking for a performance space for his Chicago Free Theater and the rock cantatas he wrote. Shiflett told Russo he could perform in the bowling alley upstairs where the gutters still separated the maple floor into lanes. The audience of 150, Shiflett remembered, was seated in the area where bowlers had once sat at tables keeping score. Patrons soon were lining up to get in, 300 a night. Between Russo’s Chicago Free Theater, Sills’s Story Theatre, and the Oxford Pub, which had moved into the Artful Dodger space, once-dark Lincoln Avenue was lighting up.

“My dad found the building and got that started,” Shawn Shiflett says, “but he credits Sills and Russo with cofounding it, by bringing to it their artistic gravitas, reputations, and creative integrity which Dad felt he lacked.” 

The Body Politic was becoming a magnet and a hub for theatrical activity. In the early 70s, a University of Wisconsin-Madison student named Stuart Gordon had formed a theater company with fellow students and, on a suggestion from Sills, moved his troupe to Chicago. When Sills moved out of the Body Politic to take his Story Theatre out of town, the Organic moved in and began their remarkably successful and influential tenure there. Among their longest running and still talked about shows was Warp! by Stuart Gordon and onetime Reader critic Lenny Kleinfeld (writing under the pseudonym, Bury St. Edmund). It would be an early Chicago transfer to Broadway in 1973, after Sills’s Story Theatre in 1970, and Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey’s Grease in 1972, which was developed and first seen at June Pyskacek’s Kingston Mines, just down the block from Body Politic at 2356 N. Lincoln.

A fledgling playwright named David Mamet directed his first Chicago productions, Duck Variations and Squirrels, at Body Politic with Steven Schachter, William H. Macy, and Linda Kimbrough. A host of other talents also found early success there, including Joe Mantegna, Dennis Franz, and 2019 Tony winner André De Shields, as well as companies like Godzilla Rainbow Troupe, Pary Productions, Peripatetic Task Force, Dinglefest Theatre Company, and Shiflett’s own Dream Theater, which invited audience members to tell their dreams for the cast to act out. Shiflett’s daughter, Melissa, served as the resident musical director for that company.

Running a place so dynamic wasn’t easy, especially for Shiflett who, by his own admission, was not a good manager. Strong-willed artists competed for space, arguments erupted about the sound from one show bleeding or thudding through to another’s space, and needed repairs were often neglected. Then in 1973, a second-floor fire nearly closed the place. Though they managed to pull through, it took its toll.

By 1979, Shiflett admitted, “I was burned out” and he stepped down as director. “He was physically exhausted,” Shawn Shiflett remembers. “It was rough. We never had any money, even though people thought we did, and there were always arguments about that. Those years were the most dramatic and the most rewarding of his life.”

“He left me with a pile of debt and a building in disrepair,” says Sharon Phillips, who took over as Body Politic’s managing director in 1979. “But that’s OK. I loved that building. I loved Jim. I loved everything they both stood for. My heart is so full of all the beautiful things he did. He did so much for the growth of the off-Loop theater but I don’t think he was ever given quite the credit he deserves.” The reason for that might be that after leaving Body Politic, Shiflett seemed to vanish from the theater scene.

He returned to the ministry, first to be the pastor at Bryn Mawr Community Church in the predominantly Black South Shore neighborhood for six years. He then moved on to a church in Downers Grove and after that, settled into being the interim pastor for many churches in the Chicagoland area.

In 2007, at the age of 77, Shiflett earned his Doctorate of Divinity. In 2011, he and his second wife, Jean, moved to Greenville, South Carolina, to be closer to Jean’s sons. Shiflett became active at St. Giles Presbyterian Church where his skills as a storyteller and the theatrical sensibilities he had acquired served him well.

Three years ago, I stood with Jim on the second floor of the Greenhouse Theater Center. He regarded the now-renovated room in silence at first. I asked what he thought of it. “I can see it all the way it was,” he laughed. “The bowling alley, the maple floor, the gutters between the lanes. Isn’t that funny? I can still see it all.” It was, I imagined, like an echo of the day he first stepped into Monte Carlo Bowling Alley 50 years ago and saw what it could be. 

Rev. James Allen Shiflett, DD, is survived by his second wife of 40 years, Jean Shiflett, and six children from two marriages—Drew Shiflett, Melissa Shiflett, and Shawn Shiflett from his marriage to his first wife, Betty Shiflett, and stepchildren Terri Likowski, Steven Dopp, and Daniel Dopp. 

In February the Chicago theater community will honor Jim Shiflett’s impact on the Chicago theater movement at the Greenhouse Theater Center.  v

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