More than two dozen theater artists to watch in Chicago, suburbs this season

Theaters shuttered during the pandemic are raising their curtains once again throughout the suburbs and Chicago this fall.

And making that happen are talented actors, writers, designers, directors and more who will help stage everything from a pre-Broadway premiere in Chicago to an autobiographical show in Glen Ellyn.

Here's a look at more than two dozen theater artists to watch in the coming months.

Kurt Naebig

Hometown: Originally from Cicero, now living in Lombard

Position: Actor, director and ensemble member at Buffalo Theatre Ensemble

Upcoming production: “Stove Toucher” (Nov. 26-Dec. 19) at Buffalo Theatre Ensemble in Glen Ellyn

For Buffalo Theatre Ensemble's 2021-2022 35th anniversary season, Kurt Naebig takes on a new title as playwright for “Stove Toucher,” a new solo show written and performed by Naebig. The play is a funny coming-of-age story set during the 1970s skateboard boom. Naebig, who was a semipro skateboarder in his early life, is also on deck this season to direct BTE's winter 2022 production of Mat Smart's “Naperville.”

Jesse Gaffney Courtesy of Paramount Theatre

Jesse Gaffney

Hometown: Bolingbrook

Position: Properties designer

Upcoming productions: “Cinderella” (Nov. 10-Jan. 9), “Groundhog Day” (Jan. 26-March 13) and “Rock of Ages“ (April 13-May 29) at Paramount Theatre in Aurora

As Paramount Theatre's properties designer, Jesse Gaffney is charged with creating all of the props for Paramount's Broadway series including the rose that dropped petals on cue in Paramount's “Beauty and The Beast” and the special paper that dancers could dance with in “Newsies.” She's a creative problem solver. She's been a professional property designer for nearly 14 years, with more than 180 productions under her belt at theaters all over Chicago.

Matthew C. Yee Courtesy of Lookingglass

Matthew C. Yee

Hometown: Wheaton

Position: Lookingglass Theatre Company artistic associate, playwright and composer

Upcoming production: “Lucy and Charlie's Honeymoon” (Feb. 16-April 10) at Lookingglass in Chicago

Matthew C. Yee's new musical, “Lucy and Charlie's Honeymoon,” will make its world premiere at Lookingglass Theatre Company. Yee has been a part of the Chicago theater community since 2013. Previous Lookingglass credits include “Treasure Island” and “Moby Dick.” Recent credits include “Almost Famous The Musical” (Old Globe Theatre), “Cambodian Rock Band” (Victory Gardens) and “Once” (Paramount Theatre). TV credits include “Chicago Fire,” “Chicago Justice,” “61st Street” and “Empire.”

Masi Asare Courtesy of Broadway in Chicago

Masi Asare

Hometown: Central Pennsylvania

Position: Lyricist

Upcoming production: “Paradise Square,” making its pre-Broadway premiere (Nov. 2-Dec. 5) at James M. Nederlander Theatre in Chicago

Masi Asare is a composer, lyricist and playwright. Her shows include: “The Family Resemblance” (book/music/lyrics, commissioned by Theatre Royal Stratford East, developed Eugene O'Neill Center); the musical adaptation of Mira Nair's film “Monsoon Wedding” (lyrics), slated to tour internationally in 2022; and a one-act play for Marvel about teen superhero Kamala Khan aka Ms. Marvel, featured on “Marvel's 616” (Disney+). A past Dramatists Guild Fellow, Asare won the inaugural Billie Burke Ziegfeld Award for a woman composer of musicals. She is an assistant professor of theater at Northwestern University.

Enrique Mazzola Courtesy of Jean-Baptiste Millot

Enrique Mazzola

Hometowns: Born in Barcelona, Spain; grew up in Italy

Position: Lyric Opera music director

Current and upcoming productions: Conducting “Macbeth” (through Oct. 9), “The Elixir of Love” (through Oct. 8) and the Chicago premiere of “Proving Up” (Jan. 22-30) at Lyric Opera of Chicago

Dynamic Italian conductor Enrique Mazzola begins his inaugural season as the new music director of Lyric Opera of Chicago - only the third person to serve in this role in the company's history. He conducts two operas to kick off Lyric Opera's return to live performances: the premiere of a new production of Verdi's “Macbeth” and a new-to-Chicago production of Donizetti's “The Elixir of Love.” In January, Maestro Mazzola returns to conduct the Chicago premiere of Missy Mazzoli and Royce Vavrek's “Proving Up,” a haunting new chamber opera.

Angela Weber Miller Courtesy of Drury Lane

Angela Weber Miller

Hometown: Evergreen Park

Position: Scenic designer

Upcoming production: “The Jigsaw Bride” (Oct. 16-Nov. 14) at First Folio Theatre in Oak Brook

Angie Weber Miller has more Jeff Award nominations for scenic design than any other female in Jeff Awards history (10 nominations, with one win). She is set to design three shows at First Folio as well as three more shows at other major Chicago-area Equity theaters, including the Paramount in Aurora.

Nathaniel Stampley Courtesy of Broadway in Chicago

Nathaniel Stampley

Hometown: Milwaukee

Position: Actor

Upcoming production: “Paradise Square” (Nov. 2-Dec. 5) at James M. Nederlander Theatre in Chicago

Besides starring as the Rev. Samuel Jacob Lewis in the pre-Broadway run of “Paradise Square,” Nathaniel Stampley has had Broadway roles in “Cats,” “The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess,” “The Color Purple” and “The Lion King.” Locally, he won a Jeff Award for starring in “Man of La Mancha” at Lincolnshire's Marriott Theatre. He also starred there in “The Bridges of Madison County.”

Ailyn Pérez Courtesy of Catherine Pisaroni

Ailyn Pérez

Hometown: Elk Grove Village

Position: Opera star

Current production: “The Elixir of Love” (through Oct. 8) at Lyric Opera of Chicago

Acclaimed soprano Ailyn Pérez is in demand at the world's leading opera houses. This season she returns to Chicago to star in a leading role in Donizetti's “The Elixir of Love” at Lyric Opera, playing the romantic lead Adina. Her career has taken her across the globe, from the Metropolitan Opera in New York City to Opernhaus Zürich, Teatro alla Scala Milan and the Royal Opera House Covent Garden.

Glenn Davis Courtesy of Frank Ishman

Glenn Davis

Hometown: Chicago

Position: Steppenwolf Theatre Company co-artistic director and ensemble member

Upcoming production: “King James” (Feb. 24-April 3) at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago

Steppenwolf ensemble member Glenn Davis was recently named co-artistic director of the company along with Audrey Francis. This marks the first time co-artistic leaders have been appointed in Steppenwolf's nearly five-decade history, and the first time the company has elected an artistic director of color. Along with his new leadership role, Davis stars in the world premiere of ensemble member Rajiv Joseph's “King James” later this season, a play about “King” LeBron James' impact on Cleveland and the place that sports and athletes occupy in our lives.

Phallon and Kyra Pierce Courtesy of Joel Maisonet

Phallon and Kyra Pierce, aka The Pierce Twins

Hometown: Bolingbrook

Position: Dancers

Collaboraction just introduced The Light, a new performance/mentorship program dedicated to recruiting, mentoring, introducing and inspiring exceptional Chicago youth artists and activists over the course of a full year. Included in the class selected for the first year are twins Phallon and Kyra Pierce, 14, who have a bill on the Illinois House Floor, called The Pierce Twins Law, that would ensure K-12 curricula throughout Illinois will include books written by diverse authors.

Namir Smallwood Courtesy of Namir Smallwood

Namir Smallwood

Hometown: Originally from Newark, New Jersey

Position: Steppenwolf Theatre Company ensemble member

Upcoming production: “Bug” (Nov. 11-Dec. 12) at Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago

Hot off his appearance on Broadway in Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu's “Pass Over” - the first show to open on Broadway since the industrywide theater shutdown that began in March 2020 - Namir Smallwood returns to Chicago to join fellow ensemble member Carrie Coon for Tracy Letts' “Bug” at Steppenwolf Theatre Company. Steppenwolf's revival of “Bug” was shut down one week before closing last year, and the acclaimed production's return is the company's refusal to let the disaster of COVID-19 rewrite its story.

Rachel Boylan Courtesy of Drury Lane

Rachel Boylan

Hometown: Originally from Silver Spring, Maryland, now Chicago

Position: Costume designer

Current production: “Forever Plaid” (through Nov. 7) at Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook Terrace

Rachel Boylan has previously worked at Drury Lane as a costume design assistant and she'll be making her design debut at Drury Lane with “Forever Plaid.” She has also worked as a costume design assistant at Steppenwolf, Writers and Chicago Opera Theatre. Local design credits include: “Pippin” (Jeff Award nomination), “Shear Madness,” “Avenue Q,” “I Left My Heart,” “Mary Poppins” (Mercury Theater), “Hello Again” (Theo Ubique), “Leavings” (Polarity Ensemble Theater) and “Hello & Goodbye” (Bluebird Arts).

Melanie Brezill Courtesy of Chicago Shakespeare Theater

Melanie Brezill

Hometown: Chicago

Position: Actor

Upcoming production: “As You Like It” (Oct. 6-Nov. 21) at Chicago Shakespeare Theater

Melanie Brezill will be portraying Celia in Chicago Shakespeare's much-anticipated production of “As You Like It,” featuring the hit songs of The Beatles. Later this year, she will rejoin the company of the celebrated “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” national tour production in San Francisco. Brezill is a professional actress and director with a passion for telling black women's stories. Previous film projects include “I AM the Movement,” which aired on Chicago's Can TV and led to the creation of her voters registration drives of the same name.

Bethany Thomas Courtesy of Northlight Theatre

Bethany Thomas

Hometown: Originally from Kenosha, now a Chicagoan for over 20 years

Position: Actor

Current production: “Songs For Nobodies” (through Oct. 31) at Northlight Theatre in Skokie

“Songs For Nobodies” - a one-woman tour-de-force musical starring Bethany Thomas - celebrates the iconic work of Judy Garland, Patsy Cline, Billie Holiday, Edith Piaf and Maria Callas. Other projects this season for Thomas include: co-host of the Chicago Humanities Festival Gala and co-director of the Porchlight Revisits production of “The Apple Tree” in May. Thomas is co-founder of the new artists' collective Murmuration Records. She recently released two albums of original rock music: “BT/She/Her” (solo) and “Material Flats” (with Tawny Newsome).

Scott Phelps Courtesy of Citadel Theatre

Scott Phelps

Hometown: Mundelein; originally from Monterey, California

Position: Co-founder and artistic director of Citadel Theatre in Lake Forest

Current production: “Brighton Beach Memoirs” (through Oct. 17) at Citadel Theatre in Lake Forest

Scott Phelps is leading the professional Citadel Theatre Company into its 20th season, with four main stage productions, theater for young audiences, a summer production and a youth education program, along with directing the company's productions of Neil Simon's “Brighton Beach Memoirs” and Steve Martin's “Picasso at the Lapin Agile.”

J. Nicole Brooks Courtesy of Lookingglass Theatre

J. Nicole Brooks

Hometown: Chicago

Position: Lookingglass ensemble member; Mellon Playwright in Residence

Upcoming production: “Her Honor Jane Byrne” (Nov. 11-Dec. 19) at Lookingglass Theatre Company in Chicago

J. Nicole Brooks' award-winning play “Her Honor Jane Byrne” premiered onstage in March 2020 just five days before the theater went dark due to COVID-19 and will be returning to Lookingglass Theatre this season. “Her Honor Jane Byrne” is the recipient of the Harold and Mimi Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association New Play Award. Brooks is an actor, author, director, educator and social justice warrior based in Chicago. As a playwright, Brooks has created original works including “Black Diamond: The Years the Locusts Have Eaten,” “Fedra Queen of Haiti” and “HeLa.” Brooks also appears in the horror film “Candyman” directed by Nia DaCosta and produced by Jordan Peele.

Alaudin Ullah Courtesy of Writers Theatre

Alaudin Ullah

Hometown: East Harlem, New York

Position: Writer, performer and comedian

Upcoming production: “Dishwasher Dreams” (Dec. 9-Jan. 23) at Writers Theatre in Glencoe

Alaudin Ullah is a trailblazer as one of the first South Asian comedians featured nationally on HBO, MTV, BET, PBS and Comedy Central. Ullah is a member of the Public Theater's Inaugural Emerging writers group. His solo show, “Dishwasher Dreams,” began at New York's Castillo Theater, and will be featured in the 2021-22 season at Writers Theatre in association with Hartford Stage.

Kristen Martino Courtesy of Drury Lane Theatre

Kristen Martino

Hometown: Slidell, Los Angeles, now based in Chicago

Position: Scenic designer

Current production: “Forever Plaid” (through Nov. 7) at Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook Terrace

Kristen Martino's design of “Mamma Mia!” for Music Theatre Works was seen this summer at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts. After “Forever Plaid,” her work will be seen at the Gulfshore Playhouse in Naples, Florida, and the Ocala Civic Theatre in Ocala, Florida. Kristen was selected to co-design the USA's Emerging Artist Exhibit for the 2019 Prague Quadrennial. Her work has been seen at The Goodman, Porchlight Music Theatre, Music Theatre Works, Marriott Theatre, Piven Theatre Workshop and First Floor Theatre.

Cody Estle Courtesy of Joe Mazza-Brave Lux

Cody Estle

Hometown: Wilmington, Ohio

Position: Artistic director

Upcoming production: “The Last Pair of Earlies” (Oct. 27-Dec. 12) at Raven Theatre in Chicago

Under Cody Estle's leadership, Raven Theatre is becoming an Actors' Equity Association-affiliated company for its 2021-22 season. Estle assumed the role of artistic director at the 39-year-old institution in 2017 with the goal of becoming a fully professional theater.

Yoshi Arai

Yoshihisa “Yoshi” Arai

Hometown: Born in Hiroshima, Japan. Now lives in Chicago.

Position: Company artist and choreographer at The Joffrey Ballet

Upcoming production: “Boléro” (Oct. 13-24), which will have its world premiere for the stage as part of The Joffrey Ballet's season-opening production “Home: a Celebration” in Chicago

In addition to having “Boléro” featured as part of the Joffrey's opening production, Yoshi Arai is creating original choreography complemented by Copland's “Appalachian Spring.” The piece will have its world premiere as part of Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra's season-opening production on Oct. 16 at Ozinga Chapel on the campus of Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights. The piece will be danced by Studio Company dancers of the Joffrey Academy of Dance, Official School of the Joffrey Ballet.

Kevin Earley

Kevin Earley

Hometown: Mundelein

Position: Actor

Current production: “And the World Goes 'Round” at Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire

A talented actor, Kevin Earley has moved into directing as well. He currently lives somewhere between Los Angeles and New York, meaning, most of the time he travels for his work. As he says, “That's what it means to love what you do.”

Jasmine Lacy Young

Jasmine Lacy Young

Hometown: Originally from Louisville, now living in Chicago

Position: Actor

Upcoming production: “Legally Blonde” (Oct. 7-Nov. 20) at the Metropolis Performing Arts Centre in Arlington Heights

Jasmine Lacy Young is becoming a regular on the Metropolis stage. She just finished an outdoor production of “My Way: A Musical Tribute to Frank Sinatra,” and Metropolis' creative staff is excited that she will be showing even more of her extensive talent during “Legally Blonde” this fall.

Trey Brazeal Courtesy of Oil Lamp Theatre

Trey Brazeal

Hometown: Gulfport, Mississippi

Position: Lighting designer

Upcoming productions: “This Wide Night” (Oct. 14-Nov. 14) at Shattered Globe Theatre and “Snow Queen” (Nov. 2-Jan. 2) at the House Theatre of Chicago

Trey Brazeal moved to Chicago during the pandemic and has been working on most of the emerging projects coming out of it. He created the lighting design for both shows for Metropolis Performing Arts Centre's outdoor space in Arlington Heights as well as Oil Lamp Theater's outdoor production of “Talley's Folly” in Glenview. Not only is he able to tackle the challenges when it comes to innovation during the pandemic, he's also got some serious skills and attention to detail that will make him a favorite to work with across Chicago.

Jennifer Reeves Wilson Courtesy of Steel Beam Theatre

Jennifer Reeves Wilson

Hometown: Batavia

Position: Actor

Upcoming production: “Agnes of God” (next spring) at Steel Beam Theatre in St. Charles

Jennifer Reeves Wilson recently wrapped up her run in the one-woman Steel Beam show “Six Characters in Search of an Audience.”

David Cerda Courtesy of Hell in a Handbag

David Cerda

Hometown: Hammond, Indiana

Position: Artistic director of Hell in a Handbag Productions

Current production: “The Golden Girls: The Lost Episodes, Vol. 5 - SEX!” (through Oct. 23) at Chicago's Leather Archives & Museum

Under David Cerda's leadership as co-founder and artistic director, Hell in a Handbag Productions is celebrating its 20th anniversary season. Cerda has written and starred in dozens of the company's plays and musicals. He is a member of the Chicago LGBT Hall of Fame and has received a Special Jeff Award for his theatrical and charitable contributions.

Leean Kim Torske Courtesy of Northlight Theatre

Leean Kim Torske

Hometown: Originally from Casper, Wyoming, now based in Chicago

Position: Playwright, dramaturge and arts administrator

Current and upcoming productions: “Songs For Nobodies” (through Oct. 31), “Mr. Dickens' Hat” (Nov. 26-Jan. 2) and “Fireflies” (Jan. 20-Feb. 20) at Northlight Theatre in Skokie

Leean Kim Torske was recently hired as the new literary manager and casting associate at Northlight Theatre. She'll be curating Interplay Northlight's new play development program, assisting in season selection, providing dramaturgical support for productions and more. She's been assisting with the casting process for several plays in Northlight's upcoming season.

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