Skip navigation

Alex Gelman Presidential Engagement Professor 2017 Recipient

In nearly 16 years as director of NIU’s School of Theatre and Dance in the College of Visual and Performing Arts, Alex Gelman has created near-perfect synergy between the needs of theatre graduates and those of the Chicago-area’s theatre community: newly-minted actors and stage designers need jobs, theaters require professional creative direction and audiences need good reasons to turn off Netflix and head out to live theatre.

All three groups have their needs met through the tireless work of Alex Gelman. From the time Gelman arrived at NIU in 2001, he lobbied for the creation of an alumni theater company. All of the great theater companies are affiliated with drama schools, he reasoned, and to have such a connection would give NIU graduates a strong start to their careers.

Fundraising for a theater group in the immediate post-9/11 era was difficult, so Gelman tried a new tack: become artistic director for an existing theater and transition it into an alumni company. That approach proved successful when Gellman was named the artistic director of a languishing Chicago theater with a rich history – the Organic Theater Company of Chicago.

The Organic was Chicago’s second-oldest theater and a seminal organization in the establishment of the city’s great theater reputation. Steppenwolf, Victory Gardens and Chicago Shakespeare Company (just to name a few) all modeled themselves on the Organic. Alumni included Joe Mantegna, Dennis Franz, Dennis Farina and Meschach Taylor; and Pulitzer Prize-winner David Mamet chose the Organic to debut many of his most famous plays. Yet, the theater was suffering financially and had not produced a play in two years. Within a short time, Gelman helped the Organic rise from the ashes and presented a four-production season in which all of the actors and many of the behind-the-scenes staff were NIU graduates. Later he negotiated a partnership with North Central College in Naperville and established a suburban venue as well. The Organic’s debt has been cut in half and ticket sales are on a steady climb.

Today, the Organic Theatre has served as a launching pad for dozens of NIU graduates, including actors working on network and cable television programs as well as in stage careers across the country; designers working in lucrative commercial venues including music tours and television and technicians who work in the most prominent venues in Chicago and on both coasts. Beyond that, an important theater company has been saved and is enjoying a new life as both entertainment venue and center for public dialogue on important societal issues.

"He is the master of fostering reciprocal partnerships," wrote Kaitlin Henderson, a theater instructor at Southern Oregon University and former NIU student. "He views fostering young artists as a grave social responsibility and he’ll stop at nothing to make sure his students and alumni get the best start possible. "In addition to his work with the Organic Theatre, Gelman has established a partnership with the famed Moscow Art Theatre in Russia, the country of his birth. The great Russian writers and playwrights have had an enormous effect on the European and American art culture and the chance to study in Russia has been life-changing for many of Gelman’s students.

"Before my class left for Russia, we were twenty-year-olds whose minds had been nurtured in the closed-minded Chicago suburbs. Suddenly we were more aware of the vastness of the human experience," wrote former student, and working actor, Will Burdin.

"Alex instilled in us that the duty of an artist in society is to hold the mirror up to nature and show other human beings what it means to walk this earth together. That came home to me when we performed a play at the Organic that had to do with a gay teenager coming out to his parents. Alex partnered with the Center on Halstead, an outreach center for LGBT youth, and had members of the center facilitate audience talks after each performance. It was incredibly powerful and added great meaning to the performance," Burdin said.

For all the time and effort Alex Gelman puts into running Chicago’s Organic Theatre, and for all the benefit it provides current students and NIU alumni, he does not accept any pay for that work. "The partnerships Alex Gelman has created and continues to nurture bring value beyond measure to the theater community," said Kaitlin Henderson. "In a time when the arts are in grave danger, Alex makes it his mission to instill a sense of civic duty through art. Simply put, the world is a better, more insightful and more compassionate place because of Alex Gelman."