By MYRNA PETLICKI Contributor
It's not who you know -- it's how much they like you. And BJ Jones is very well-liked in the theater community. That's one of the reasons Northlight Theatre has flourished since Jones became artistic director. He's currently celebrating his 10th anniversary season.
Susan V. Booth, artistic director of Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, which won the 2007 Regional Theatre Tony Award, has worked with Jones in a number of capacities, including directing him in "God's Man in Texas," at Northlight during his second season as artistic director. "BJ's a total pro but he's one of the all-time good guys as well," Booth said. "He's such a straight-up guy. You always know where you stand with him. He takes care of his friends like he takes care of his family."
Booth is equally impressed with Jones' talent as a director. She invited him to direct "Glengarry Glen Ross" at her theater earlier this spring. "Thank God, I didn't direct it myself," Booth declared. "I never would have come near nailing what he nailed."
"When I came to Northlight, it was a major risk," Jones admitted, by phone from the Utah Shakespearean Festival where he is directing "Twelfth Night." "It was an institution that was challenged. We probably had about forty-five hundred subscribers and falling. We had a million-and-a-half dollar budget. Every play that we had done in the previous season had not been received well from the press. We were on the slide."
Jones already had a long relationship with Northlight. In 1976, he performed in staged readings there, and he costarred with Judith Ivey in "The Goodbye People" in 1977.
"When I came onboard, I think there was real fear that Northlight would go the way of Wisdom Bridge, Remains and Organic," Jones revealed. "I was determined to not let another artistic institution go out of business. And I wanted to make sure that it provided a safe haven and a source of artistic satisfaction and revenue for actors, directors, designers and playwrights."
By Jones' second season as artistic director, there were 8,900 subscribers -- nearly double the figure when he accepted the job. The theater had also won a couple of Jeff awards after not having even been nominated for a handful of years.
"We started to see some of Chicago's finer artists come back, including Mike Nussbaum and designer Todd Rosenthal," Jones said. "We got some new, exciting playwrights involved." One of those is David Rambo, author of "God's Man in Texas." The Midwest premiere of Rambo's "The Lady with all the Answers," about Chicago advice columnist Ann Landers, opens at Northlight next May.
"We were able to turn the ship around," Jones declared. He said that was possible because "we raised the profile of the pieces we were doing." The first season that Jones fully programmed including "Dinah Was," starring E. Faye Butler, a show that had played off-Broadway. "E. Faye ended up doing that production of 'Dinah Was' all over the country to great acclaim," Jones reported.
Northlight also staged "Side Show," which had a mixed reception in New York. "It was, at that time, the biggest hit in our history," Jones said. "So we did two very big musicals, which Northlight never did, and then we did some challenging new work. We chose, and continue to do so, in a way that acknowledges who our audience is and engages them through reflecting who they are and then challenging their beliefs."
"BJ wants to know what every person who sits in the seats of his theater thinks," Booth said. "He genuinely listens and he genuinely processes what they have to say to him. I don't think BJ is in this for BJ. I think BJ is in this for Chicago and Evanston and the North Shore to have a really fantastic theater that takes risks with its work and really expands people's ideas of what constitutes theater."
Feast of plays
"Our audience has come to see our season as a sort of banquet of theatrical choices," Jones said. "Ninety-one percent of our audience resubscribes every year. And fifty percent of our new subscribers return. Those statistics are among the highest in the nation, according to Theatre Communications Group, our professional organization. "
During Jones' tenure, Northlight Theatre has co-produced shows with a number of theaters around the country, including Arizona Theatre Company, Alliance Theatre and Goodman Theatre. They have staged a number of world premieres that went on to success across the country, including "The Last Five Years" by Jason Robert Brown and "The Gamester," Freyda Thomas' translation of a 17th century comedy.
Jones' future includes a continuation of "Interplay," a popular new play reading series created last year, adding to the theater's board of directors and launching a capital campaign to increase the theater's annual budget from three million to five million dollars.
"Nothing would make me happier than to do a world premiere play and musical every season, as well as continuing to refresh the classics," Jones declared.
His proudest achievement as artistic director, he said, is "getting Northlight to have a national presence."
For more information on Northlight Theatre, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie, call (847) 673-6300 or see www.northlight.org.