Festival Theatre at Austin Gardens | Courtesy of Festival Theatre

One year ago today, Oak Park Festival Theatre’s second floor office at 1034½ Lake St. was destroyed when a fire broke out behind Delia’s Kitchen. Sadly, the restaurant never recovered and the building was razed nearly eight months later. But because of an outpouring of generosity and care by our supportive community, I’m proud to say OPFT is still here. For this, we are immensely grateful.

Returning from this calamity has been a work-in-progress, coming on the heels of a global pandemic that devastated the performing arts community. While we have yet to return to a permanent office setting, we’re grateful to live in a world that allows for the remote administration of our organization. This has freed us up to focus on the future.

We are very near to announcing the next artistic director who will be taking over for the inimitable Barbara Zahora. Her 5-year tenure in that role was buoyed by a broadening of the kind of performance experiences our audiences have come to expect as well as consistent critical acclaim for those productions. While we are sad to mark the end of an era, we know she’ll continue to contribute to our success as an esteemed artistic associate.

In addition to providing their own creative vision for OPFT, the next artistic director will be embracing a three-year, three-part operational strategy newly mapped by our board of directors. Our first priority is accessibility — that is, removing obstacles that keep the greatest number of community members from participating.

For example, this summer we implemented a new open captioning system that was welcomed by everyone, not just those with hearing impairment. We aim to be radically hospitable and do everything we can to ensure a welcoming atmosphere; we’re even exploring sustainable ways to reduce our ticket prices.

Our second priority is greater diversity and equity. We will continue to make our company more reflective of the full spectrum of our audience, be it their age, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, etc. We also owe it to our employees to pay a just wage for their time and talent.

Finally, we will prioritize education, developing and delivering programming that encourages people of all ages to engage with and explore ideas that matter to the health and welfare of our community.

This is a bold agenda and will take time for our small arts organization to roll out. But the first step in that journey is sharing this vision with you. Being inclusive means not only going public with our successes. It means inviting our community into the challenges and opportunities we have yet to realize and trusting that our allies will help us find our way.

That certainly proved to be true last year when a two-alarm fire on Lake Street made our future terribly uncertain. Our community of supporters made sure we would endure.

If you have ever joined us for a summer evening in Austin Gardens or an immersive show in a local historic mansion, I hope this vision for Oak Park’s very own professional theatre company resonates. I look forward to hearing from you how we might be more accessible, diverse, equitable, and educational. If you are unfamiliar with Oak Park Festival Theatre, I hope this note inspires you to take a chance on us in 2023.

And if you prefer not to wait that long, join us at 3 p.m. on Dec. 4 at Grace Episcopal Church for Midwinter’s Tales: Simple Gifts, a holiday celebration that will raise money for the company as we close out the year. More information can be found on our website: https://www.oakparkfestival.com.

Tom Arvetis is the managing director of Oak Park Festival Theatre.

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