Freelance director gets to 'the soul of the play'

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By Michelle Dybal

Contributing Reporter

He's directed works written by Charles Dickens, Tennessee Williams, George Bernard Shaw and some who aren't household names with newer works like Craig Wright. As a freelance stage director, Jason Gerace said he no two stage experiences are the same.

Gerace and his wife moved to Chicago from his hometown of Anchorage, Alaska in 2007, hoping he'd find work in the rich theater community here. By 2014, he received a non-equity Jeff Award for directing Dickens' Great Expectations at Strawdog Theatre. Then a suburban relocation opened up new prospects.

"When we moved to Oak Park in 2014, I was interested in the arts community where I live," he said. "My wife challenged me to make plays for my neighbors and collaborate with other artists here."

Gerace directed Shaw's Pygmalion for Oak Park Festival Theatre in 2016. In early 2018, he returned home to direct The Pavilion, a modern play by Wright at Open Door Theater. He still consistently finds work in Chicago theater. Just this spring, he directed Ghosts of War at Griffin Theatre and Tennessee Williams' Suddenly, Last Summer at Raven Theatre in Chicago.

This summer, he directed You Can't Take It With You, staged by Oak Park Festival Theater. It ran through July 22.

"It means so much to be an Oak Park resident and direct in Oak Park," Gerace said. "[Festival Theater] is such an incredible summer activity in Austin Gardens while the sun is setting and you have your picnic."

Gerace started acting in school plays when he was young and did competitive speech in high school. In college in Arizona, he "found the artist" in himself and earned a degree in acting and later, an MFA in directing from the University of Oklahoma. 

Afterward, he and his wife Amy went on scouting trips to different cities to find the best place for them to settle. Gerace found the "number of theater opportunities was undeniable" and he would be able to find a community here. After moving to Chicago, Amy found rewarding work, and Jason became involved with the American Theater Company (which closed in March), becoming an artistic associate, and began directing. Seven years later he received the Jeff Award.

"It was a huge validation for my wife and me," he said. "We got our apartment on blind faith in our mid-30s without jobs."

While directing, Gerace also adapted scripts. His adaptation of Great Expectations for Strawdog Theatre has been published and remounted twice. He also adapted You Can't Take It With You for this summer's production, bringing the 1936 script more up to date, tackling such obstacles as race relations and social position. The screwball comedy remains funny, but Gerace was able to "get to the soul of the play."

Being a freelance director has its perks and challenges. Gerace said it can be difficult and lonely at times and that building relationships in the theater community takes a long time. While working on shows, he also establishes relationships with the theater, the actors, the designers, the playwright and others.

"We put faith in each other, then say goodbye," he said. 

But Gerace also feels "incredibly fortunate" since he is able to spend time with his two children, age 5 and 7, as a stay-at-home dad.

His next act is "The Business of Theater" this fall at North Central College in Naperville, a course he "deeply loves teaching." Gerace has taught at North Central, on and off, since 2012.

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