In 1990, recent TTS graduate Criss Henderson (THE ’86) received a call from a former professor who wanted to let him know about a possible job opportunity. Barbara Gaines, a local director and actor, had founded a small theatre devoted to Shakespeare and needed an executive director—at the time, its only other employee. After 25 years, during which the theatre moved to a new home on Navy Pier and the staff grew to hundreds, Henderson’s title has not changed. The job and the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, on the other hand, are quite different.
For Henderson and many TTS graduates, “We’re looking for our place in the theatre and hoping that we’ll be able to make a life, and if we’re really lucky, a living,” Henderson says. “I’ve had the good fortune to check all three boxes.”
Executive Director of Chicago Shakespeare Theater
Director of MFA Arts Leadership Program at DePaul
BFA Theatre 1986
He has produced a variety of shows, from the theatre’s staple Shakespeare plays to musicals and new plays from around the world. The company’s consistently high standards were rewarded when it was honored with the 2008 Tony Award for Outstanding Regional Theatre, as well as multiple Laurence Olivier and Joseph Jeff Awards from the London and Chicago communities, respectively.
Through it all, Henderson’s connection to his alma mater remained strong. He counts creating the Arts Leadership graduate program at TTS among his proudest moments.
“I wanted to take the conservatory environment and coursework and synthesize it with my experience growing Chicago Shakespeare Theater. I’m so proud of the Arts Leadership fellows, many of them now leading some of the great Chicago theatres. It’s been an incredibly rewarding experience.”
“I wanted to take the conservatory environment and coursework and synthesize it with my experience growing Chicago Shakespeare Theater,” he says. “I’m so proud of the Arts Leadership fellows, many of them now leading some of the great Chicago theatres. It’s been an incredibly rewarding experience.”
As for his own success, Henderson credits hard work, a bit of luck and a lot of support.
“Four hundred years ago, the thought of a thriving Shakespeare theatre in the middle of America was probably ridiculous,” Henderson says. “I think Shakespeare is looking down on us and cracking up that there is a theatre named for him at the center of Navy Pier. I think he would have liked that.”