American Blues Theater Mission and History


Winner of American Theatre Wing’s prestigious National Theatre Company Award, American Blues Theater is a premier arts organization with an intimate environment that patrons, artists, and all Chicagoans call home.  American Blues Theater explores the American identity through the plays it produces and communities it serves.

We believe in cooperative collaborations both on and off-stage. We provide community service for many not-for-profits, such as the Lynn Sage Foundation, Chicago Public Schools, Greater Chicago Food Depository, Illinois Farm Bureau, Misericordia, PAWS Chicago, and the USO.  Since 2009, we’ve held food & book drives, distributed promotional tickets, and raised awareness for children’s surgeries and health needs. We donate proceeds from “Pediatric Previews” to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

We are Chicago’s second-oldest AEA Ensemble theater. As of today, our theater and artists have 224 Joseph Jefferson Awards and nominations that celebrate excellence in Chicago theater and 44 Black Theater Alliance Awards. Our artists are honored with Pulitzer Prize nominations, Academy Awards, Tony Awards, Golden Globe Awards, Emmy Awards, and numerous other accolades.

American Blues Theater is committed to developing the classic plays and musicals of tomorrow. More than half of our mainstage productions are world and Chicago premieres. Our new play development consists of a variety of programs – including world and Chicago premieres, the nationally-recognized Blue Ink Playwriting Award, Blueprint play development, and annual Ripped: the Living Newspaper Festival of new short-plays.

Definition of “Ensemble”

An Ensemble theater is a group of individuals dedicated to collaborative creation and committed to consistently working together over years to develop a distinctive body of work and practices. Ensemble members, both artists and administrators, are empowered to help shape their theater’s artistic direction and organizational structure.


Built by the American Blues Family

American Blues Theater was founded in July 1985 by a director, playwright, actor, and designer. The company dedicated itself to new and classic American plays. Richard Christiansen of the Chicago Tribune cited American Blues as one of three companies in his editorial “Chicago Theater Forges New Standards of Glory.” In August of 1993, the company leased a warehouse on Byron and Lincoln. In 38 days, James Leaming led a community-based 90+ volunteer crew to transform the space into an intimate 134-seat theater. From 1994-1997, the Ensemble was lauded with numerous Joseph Jefferson Awards and After Dark Awards.

Leadership from Outside the Ensemble

From 1997-2009, the company was led by Artistic Directors from outside of the Ensemble. Under the leadership of Brian Russell and Damon Kiely (‘97-‘07), the theater’s name changed to American Theater Company (ATC), the mission statement was revised, and the business expanded. In 2008, under new management, the Ensemble theater practice was dismantled. After 18 months of talks with new management, all four Founders and every Ensemble member prior to 2008 chose to leave the ATC organization in March 2009 citing “major administrative and artistic differences”.

Blues Skies Ahead

The Ensemble immediately reformed under its original name American Blues Theater. Founding Board members reconstituted the Board, giving tremendous support and guidance. Ensemble member Gwendolyn Whiteside became the Artistic Director. Under her leadership, American Blues has nearly doubled the size of its Ensemble, added Artistic Affiliates, and diversified its base of artists. She created the nationally-recognized annual Blue Ink Playwriting Award, Blueprint play development for new work, implemented community service into the company’s mission, and adapted the arts education program The Lincoln Project for Chicago Public Schools serving nearly 4,000 students annually.

“Feels like home!”

The Wall Street Journal

Terry Teachout

“One of our favorites in Chicago!”


Dean Richards

“Everything that is so remarkable, so rich and treasurable about Chicago’s storefront theater scene is embodied in American Blues Theater.”

Chicago on the Aisle

Lawrence B Johnson

“Ensemble founded one of Chicago’s most venerable off-Loop theaters.”

Chicago Tribune

Chris Jones

“A tribute to the liberating power art has in people’s lives.”

Picture This Post

Jacob Davis

“The entire troupe’s talent is matched by its generosity!”

The Lynn Sage Foundation

Laura Sage


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