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RISHI SHARMA: Preserving World War II Combat Stories, One Veteran at a Time

Rishi Sharma has logged a lot of hours on the road in recent years, connecting, meeting and filming interviews with combat veterans who served in World War II. To date, he has amassed a comprehensive archive of over 850 interviews – easily over 4,500 total hours and counting — all part of his ambitious plan to honor America’s World War II heroes and preserve their stories for generations to come.

It is a lofty goal and he is determined to press on until there are no stories left to tell. In a relatively short time, Sharma has generated impressive public exposure and private support for his project. He is patient, polite, responsive and well-prepared, treating each veteran he meets with respectful reverence for their service and sacrifice.

There is one more thing that Rishi Sharma brings with him whenever and wherever he is conducting his interviews: a youthful curiosity and enthusiasm that has no seeming limitations.

That’s because Rishi Sharma just turned 20 years old.

It is hard not to be inspired by Sharma or his vision for a perfect world where veterans of World War II never die. He is driven to do all he can every day to meet and thank veterans while recording video of their story. He wants more people to reach out to the veterans in their communities before it is too late, and has created a step-by-step guide with sample questions to make the process easier.

His mission has garnered local and national media attention. CBS Sunday Morning has profiled Sharma twice in recent years, helping to catapult the program that he started in high school by visiting local veterans homes and senior centers to a broad-based national campaign. He has established a not-for profit organization that has already raised over $180,000 through a successful GoFundMe campaign started in May 2016. That funding has allowed Sharma to travel greater distances for his interviews, typically conducting two or more per day depending on the location. He provides a copy of the finished product to each family and is exploring options now for a permanent home for the collection.

What moves you most about Sharma is his determination to inspire others. His hope is that his generation will mobilize and embrace these extraordinary veterans as mentors, thank them for their service and utilize all the technological resources to post their stories online as part of a national archive at: #ww2vets.

Rishi Sharma joined the conversation as he was travelling by car from Fond De Lac, Wisconsin — where he met with James ‘Maggie’ Megellas, the most decorated veteran of the 82nd Airborne Division, on the occasion of his 101st birthday — by way of an interview in Rockford, Illinois toward his final destination, a veteran meeting in Champaign, Illinois …  just another day in the life of a young man on a mission to preserve World War II combat stories, one veteran at a time. PODCAST

Rishi Sharma ...“Ever since I was a little kid, I've always been interested in World War II and I've always been fascinated talking to the older veterans. In high school. I visited a lot of nursing homes and I interviewed a lot of the World War II veterans there and I got hooked on it. I started calling up veterans who I'd read about in books with the idea that I could talk to like a real-life hero about what was written about them in a book and hear their side of what they went through.”

For future generations ...“I know that it means a lot to the families of the veterans I have interviewed to have that 4 to 5 hour filmed interview of their grandpa or their dad talking about what it was like going through hell. For future generations, that's going to mean a lot. They won't just get to know their grandfather's name, but they'll get to know what their great, great grandpa looked like, how he talked, how he laughed, how he cried and who he really was.”

Following their life journey ...“I prioritize combat World War II veterans and tend to focus on the infantry. My purpose is truly to highlight the sacrifices made in combat so that we could have a chance at life today, 75+ years later. … when I meet the veterans, basically the interviews follow a pattern. We talk about growing up in the great depression, what it was like as a kid, how they heard about the attack on Pearl Harbor. And then we dive straight into following their life journey. It's a chronological interview. … how they ended up in the service, whether they enlisted or they were drafted, and then the focus is on the battles that they saw, what their role was, their friends who didn't make it, the things that they had to see, the things that they had to do, the struggles of the living conditions in combat, the fear of not knowing if you're going to make it another day.”

One-on-One ...You're talking to people who saw the worst of the worst and had to do the worst of the worst and now to bring back those memories after 70+ years, it takes a lot out of the person being interviewed but also out of the interviewer because it's a tough thing to talk about killing people and seeing your friends die. I'm in a very fortunate position because I have three major things going for me. … my age, I just turned 20 and I'm the same age as a lot of the veterans were when they were in combat. … I do a lot of research before our interviews. It's important to know the difference between a company and a platoon, a division or what a certain division did in a certain battle. … it's hard enough for the veterans to talk about the worst days of their life, but it's even harder when they have to talk about it and try to explain it in terms that a civilian would understand. … the most important thing that I have going for me is that I'm not related to any of these veterans, so there's no emotional attachment and these men can sit down one-on-one with me and just talk as if I'm one of the guys and they know that they won't be judged.”

#WW2VETS ...“A lot of people will come to me and say, “My grandpa never talks about it. He wouldn't talk about the war.”  “My father never talks about it.” … but in all honesty, it's really because people don't ask. If you don't ask, they won't bring it up on their own. … all you have to do is whip out your phone and instead of taking a selfie, why not actually contribute to history, take a photo of a World War II veteran, add a caption to it and post it online at #ww2vets. A hundred years from now, historians will be digging through the online archives and they will find a composite image of all these different social media posts and videos that people have made. It took them like two seconds to make, to take a short video or take a picture, but they've contributed to this big composite image of what it was like to be a World War II combat veteran and what they went through.”

Comments have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

PHOTO CREDIT: Rishi Sharma|Heroes of the Second World War


Rishi Sharma's website( offers detailed information about conducting interviews in your community, the World War II Veteran for A Day media initiative and how you can make a donation to support this initiative at:

Special thanks to Regus Chicago, the market leader for office space, for their support of our program.

PODCAST available on iTunes, Libsyn and Stitcher

PLAYING IN 'THE YARD' - Chicago Shakespeare Theater

Few things are more rewarding than spending time with students who are discovering something for the first time. On a brisk day in March, the topic was Shakespeare: a crisp, shortened version of Midsummer Night’s Dream, in fact, with formidable Chicago talent presented by Chicago Shakespeare Theater in the glorious new versatile performance space known as 'The Yard.'  Part of the fun, a terrific experience from beginning to end, is that this is an old-fashioned field trip with six Chicago school groups filling up the place. It is all part of the educational program that provides over 40,000 students access to world-class productions at CST.

For me, it was a little like going back to school again, but without the bus ride. All of a sudden I am in and among a hip, sea of exuberant, young people for a 21st century cultural happening - an extraordinary example of just one of many opportunities offered up by the arts community for students across the City of Chicago.

At CST in years past, the educational outreach was designed alongside the main stage program, often competing for valuable space, time and resources. Fewer students were served in those days and there were all kinds of logistical challenges. Add in that Navy Pier has been constantly evolving and it gets complicated. That expansion – the new Centennial Ferris Wheel, food court, a state-of-the-art upgrade to the IMAX Theatre, the reconstruction of the plaza and main pavilion - is moving briskly and there is more to come.

At the epicenter, however, tucked magnificently in the middle of all the rest, is The Yard.

Not so quietly, the CST has been executing a long-range plan to transform the former Skyline Stage area into a new performance space. On this day, like many when there are two shows, 300 students from six schools attended the 10:30 a.m. performance of Midsummer Night’s Dream. 

From the main lobby, The Yard is a sunlit stroll west along a window wall - the technical term is 'electrochromatic facade' - that reaches 30 feet high. The facade panels can be individually adjusted to block UV rays - think transition lenses in eyeglasses.

The hallway leads to access on both sides of the main floor. As you come around the corner and enter The Yard for the first time, you never really know what you might find. The 90 ft. towers that move independently to frame the performance area encircle the thrust stage for this production which was mounted and performed primarily for students. Except for a few chaperones, there appeared to be no one much over 18.

Cast member Chris Sheard (Lysander) welcomed the group from the stage, telling the students Shakespeare's language is like music, you have to adjust to the language, listen to the tone and watch the expression on the actors faces as the story unfolds. He encouraged everyone to stick with it and the context of the story will reveal itself.  

The play was superbly condensed into a lean and understandable Elizabethan fairy tale with a delightfully talented cast including Christina Clark(Hippolyta/Titania), Sean Fortunato(Theseus/Oberon), Travis Turner(Philostrate/Puck) and Jarrett King (Eqeus/Quince). The lovers played by Ally Carey, Faith Servant, Andrew L. Saenz and Sheard brought youthful cheers from the students when they kissed. This crowd was attentive, respectful and definitely 'stuck with it.'

The entire cast participated in the post-performance talk back. The engaging questions asked by the group included the challenges of "doubling" characters, stage construction and elevation, the actor crossway underneath, the production process from adaptation, tablereads, rehearsal, tech, opening, and, what the actors favorite part of the story was. Carey was asked how she got interested in Shakespeare recalling a touring company performance of Midsummer, following which she wrote a letter to her teenage self predicting to someday be a Shakespearean actor. Not so many years later, Carey admits that the older you get, Shakespeare becomes "more right!" When asked about character development, King said that he starts by trying to find elements of the character that are like him. Every student was leaning forward by this time.  

Watch how Navy Pier's former Skyline Stage was redesigned into a forward-thinking, new venue and how its nine mobile towers are creating a space that reconfigures with each production. Video courtesy of Chicago Shakespeare Theater.

We all have stories like this in our lives, which is, in essence, why CST has invested resources into this program. As more students participate, there is a higher likelihood that they will support the arts as adults. When you factor in the highly successful summer programs, CST’s outreach is a model for arts educational programming. Every student I spoke with understood the play, appreciated that they could attend and were looking forward to telling others about what they saw and how it influenced them. It was a first for every one I spoke to.

Chicago Shakespeare Theater is aligning schools with programs for 2019. If you are interested, there is more information on the website. Additional performances of Midsummer have been held in schools who did not have the ability or resources to attend the performances in The Yard. And the popular Shakespeare in the Park series is gearing up for another amazing season. 

  Model of stage for CST's MACBETH in The Yard. More in the CST's  Behind the Scenes Gallery  

Model of stage for CST's MACBETH in The Yard. More in the CST's Behind the Scenes Gallery 

All of this would not be possible without an extraordinary commitment to education by Chicago Shakespeare Theater and the vision of Artistic Director Barbara Gaines and Executive Director Criss Henderson that has created the award-winning new facility. The Midsummer thrust stage is the fourth configuration since the facility opened last fall with the largest proscenium at 850-seats for "The Toad Knew," a 350-seat proscenium for Teatro Linda de Sombra's "Amarillo," and the 400-seat cabaret for "Q Brothers Christmas Carol."

The next show to be bubbling up: the highly anticipated production of that “Scottish" play directed by Aaron Posner and Teller (Penn & Teller) which opens April 25th. 

Looking forward to coming around the corner for this one.


Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier
800 East Grand Avenue
Chicago, IL 60611
April 25 through June 24th

PODCAST available on iTunes, Libsyn and Stitcher


The genesis of the idea for Critical Conversations, the spirited new Spertus Institute series debuting March 18th, was framed by another series of critical conversations between President & CEO Dr. Hal M. Lewis and former trustee, the late Eric Joss. They envisioned a series that would bring together strongly divergent perspectives on hot-button issues of the day under the Spertus philosophy that, above all, the conversations strive not to change opinions, but to enhance understanding of individual viewpoints with civility and respect for one another.

It sounds like a tall order amid the current news cycle and polarized opinions on topics ranging from gun control to immigration. So, to succeed to the level of their expectations, Lewis and Joss agreed that they would strive to present opposing views in a moderated format, one that both informed the audience on a range of opinions and promotes the ability to listen and respectfully engage, qualities that have been fractured in the non-stop political discussions in the media, among family members and throughout our day to day interactions.

Generously endowed by Joss following his passing in 2016 and in collaboration with his family, Lewis and the Spertus leadership team have crafted the first in the multi-year series, appropriately titled: “Episode 1: Can We Talk?” The event will be presented on Sunday, March 18th in the Feinberg Theater of Spertus Institute at 610 South Michigan Avenue in Chicago. The program pairs progressive Jennifer Granholm, former Democratic governor of Michigan and conservative Mike Huckabee, former Republican governor from Arkansas. The discussion will be moderated by Frank Sesno, former CNN Washington Bureau Chief and Anchor.

In our conversation on March 5th, Lewis talked enthusiastically about the series as an essential element of the mission of the organization, founded in 1924.  Lewis has been a member of the faculty and administration since 2003, and appointed President and CEO in 2008. It was during that period of change that the award-winning new facility was going up and, the economy was on its way down. Things were not good, as Lewis vividly recalls, citing public knowledge of the dire financial situation that Spertus was facing at the time – a startling wake-up call shared with scores of aspiring nonprofit institutions, many of whom ceased to exist as a result.

It was in this climate that Lewis began to inspire everyone involved to practice the principles of leadership they profess to teach and develop a new foundation of support in the Jewish community. Over the next several years, Spertus would dramatically stabilize and, today, continue to enhance their reputation as a both a cutting-edge academic center and a thought leader in the dialogue of important issues of the day.

It is all part of our in-depth look at what leadership qualities are necessary for organizations in our society, how the new series will venture beyond the headlines to the core issues and what is ahead for Spertus Institute as they transition to new executive leadership in June 2018 with the appointment of Dr. Hal Lewis as the Institute’s Chancellor.  PODCAST

Succession planning ... “I had a position in the administration and a faculty appointment. After 10 years as the chief executive, I will be stepping down from the presidency and the Board has asked me to retain a part-time position as Chancellor to help effectuate a smooth transition. This is part of a long term, more than three-year succession plan where I have worked with my board, my executive committee, and my successor to lay the ground work for as seamless a transition as possible. ... the late Peter Drucker, the great teacher of leadership, used to say: "There is no success without a successor." ... in the ancient world, and in contemporary events, the sign of an effective leader, and by extension, the sign of an effective organization, is one that doesn't take transitioning or succession planning for granted.”

Episode 1: Can We Talk?
Sunday, March 18th 4:30 p.m.

Former Governors Jennifer Granholm and Mike Huckabee debate hot-button issues from gun rights to immigration reform. Moderator: Frank Sesno Former CNN Washington Bureau Chief.

Spertus Institute
610 South Michigan Avenue
Chicago, IL 60605

Characteristics of effective leadership ... “first and foremost, tenacity. There are simply too many curves that come our way. ... part of what we do as leaders is identify challenges — sometimes the obvious ones, and sometimes the ones we had not yet imagined — and respond to that. ... a key to effective leadership is surrounding yourself with people who bring to the table different world views, different perspectives and different skill sets than you yourself have. ... the old notion of a renaissance leader — the person who had all the answers, who could do it all, who knew it all — is simply a myth. I am not sure it ever existed, but it certainly doesn't apply in a very fast-paced, rapidly-changing 21st century environment. ... you better not be conflict averse because surrounding yourself by different points of view means there are going to be multiple perspectives. ... the telltale sign of effective leadership is a humility that you bring to the experience. Humility does not mean weakness. It does not mean indecisiveness. It means a willingness to say: 'I think I am right, but I might be wrong.'"

Renaissance teams vs. natural leaders ... “most effective leaders today will speak, even if they do not use these exact words, in terms of a renaissance team, not a renaissance leader. That is the notion of multiple people around the table of discourse, who bring those diverse perspectives, as opposed to the mythology that any one individual embodies all of those. There is a notion, that fortunately we don't see much in contemporary studies of leadership, but that was once popular, the idea, of a natural leader: "She’s a natural at this...” or "He's a natural at this...” and I think that is a dangerous concept. I do think that there are some people who are, at the beginning, more comfortable public speaking, more comfortable being the center of attention, more comfortable attempting to articulate a vision and then influencing others. But the problem with the concept of a natural leader is that it is immediately exclusive or exclusionary. If 'So and so is a natural leader', that means the rest of us are not natural leaders and it is a quick jump to say we are not leaders. Plato first talked about this in the notion of the philosopher king in which he said quite clearly there are some who are predisposed to leading and the rest of us are predisposed to following. This is a terrible concept when you play it out because what was the 'natural leader'? The natural leader was a code word for saying: "male”. So, no women could be natural leaders in that antiquated context. Natural leaders were often people who had the money or the connections or the heritage to assume positions of leadership. I find it a concept that is rife with potential negatives. ... I believe that leadership, for all of us, is about behavior. It is not about rank or title or position in the org chart. Which means it can be learned. I do not mean to suggest that it does not come easier for some people than others, but if one wants to lead, we can teach certain key concepts of leadership and, most importantly, give individuals the chance to do what leadership theorists talk about: practicing leadership.”

Critical Conversations ... “We looked around at the world in which we find ourselves — in the general world of politics and religion and social relationships — and it became clear, as it is clear to most people today, that we have lost the ability, to have robust conversations in a civil manner. This is true not just in the halls of Congress. It is true at our Thanksgiving tables, at our Friday evening dinner tables, at our holiday family gatherings and when we get together with friends and neighbors. ... we wanted to bring to the Spertus stage real partisans on a variety of hot button issues ranging from gun control to immigration, to environmental issues, to the role in places of government to issues associated with the media and a variety of other issues. ...we believe at Spertus Institute, that we have an obligation to advance this concept of robust debate and civility because that is very much the inherited Jewish tradition that we are committed to teaching about on a graduate level and in our public programs. There is an old quip: 'Two Jews, Three Opinions.' While it is funny, it is also an indicator of a long-term historic commitment to a serious debate over serious issues, issues of passion, of faith, of commitment where we do not ask people to soften their opinions, but we do ask people to be able to listen and respect the perspectives of others and to be challenged by those perspectives. Throughout the literature of the Jewish people for millennia have been examples of point|counterpoint. Our most sacred texts, beginning with the Talmud, is a compilation of debates and disagreements and arguments that are, and this is a critical point, preserved for people to see whether they agree with those opinions or not. … Each one of these arguments are preserved on the page for scholars and students in general to read, study, challenge, be challenged by and to learn from. And so we thought this is perfect. We live in a world in which civility and respect for differences of opinion is critical and we are the heirs to a tradition that has for a long time embraced this notion of tolerance, respect, and, serious disagreement all wrapped up into one. Hence, Critical Conversations. ... On stage Sunday, March 18th will be two former state governors — Jennifer Granholm, Democratic of Michigan, and Mike Huckabee, Republican of Arkansas — moderated by Frank Sesno, the former Washington Bureau Chief of CNN —  a more partisan panel I don't think we could have assembled — to talk about some of these real core issues in America. Both speakers have pledged their commitment to our vision of robust dialogue with civility and a willingness to hear and learn from the other side. ... "I do not have any illusions that anybody will walk into that theater Sunday with one set of opinions and walk out with an entirely different set of opinions. That is ludicrous. What I would hope is that somebody may walk out and say, I have not changed my mind, but I must say I learned something about the position on the other side that I never knew before that is worth considering.”

Commentary has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.


Episode 1: Can We Talk?
Sunday, March 18th 4:30 p.m.

Spertus Institute
610 South Michigan Avenue
Chicago, IL 60605

Season 3|Episode 4 - March 12, 2018
PODCAST available on iTunes, Libsyn and Stitcher


On any given day in the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Sun Times or countless other publications in print or online, you will see powerful images by photographer Michael Brosilow. These are not breaking news photos, but they are breaking stories in a theatrical world that Brosilow has been a part of for over 32 years, capturing the rich textures, brilliant colors and the extraordinary personalities who create the work that appears on Chicago stages, and many others, across the country. He sees it before we do and his images last long after the play has drifted out of our memory.

In recent years, Brosilow’s distinctive work spans a range of award-winning productions like Steppenwolf’s The Grapes of Wrath and August: Osage County, Court Theatre’s Caroline or Change, world premieres like the Writers Theatre production of Trevor: The Musical and A Red Orchid’s Traitor, and shows large and small from Chicago Shakespeare’s Mary Stuart, The House Theatre’s Hatfield & McCoy to Rivendell’s Cal in Camo.

The self-described photo “geek” in school with a Kodak Instamatic 124, Brosilow was like many other members of the photo club and newspaper staff. He spent countless hours in the dark room on a daily basis and knew even then that he would be a professional photographer. Soon, he established his own studio for portrait and commercial photography in Chicago. Life was good, but times were changing.

Brosilow’s career in theater photography happened not by plan, but by accident. He was invited to a poster shoot for Steppenwolf in 1986 and was then asked to shoot Educating Rita that summer. He accepted on one condition: to shoot the show live during a dress rehearsal. That decision began an association with the iconic Chicago theatre company – and dozens of others – that lasts today.

The affable, laid back Brosilow, admits that there was not a lot of money in theater photography — he did that first Steppenwolf gig for tickets — and credits Debra, his wife of 30 years, for making it possible for him to pursue his calling, which involved running from one job to the next, back to the dark room, then dropping off shots by hand to make publication deadlines to press agents and newspapers. As people naturally moved in and around the Chicago theater scene from company to company, so did Brosilow and his cameras. Then digital came along and everything changed. Today, he has amassed a carefully curated, one-of-a-kind archive of well over a million images, slides and negatives that is in high demand.

                    MICHAEL SHANNON
                 PHOTO|Michael Brosilow

Not surprisingly, Brosilow has a textbook memory for Chicago theater and the performing arts community. There is a flash of melancholy when he recalls the brilliant careers of superb talents we have lost like John Mahoney and Martha Lavey and sincere admiration for the directors, designers, actors and theater companies who ply their craft in Chicago. The work of photographers Joe Mazza and Paul Elledge catch his eye and there was a definite trace of impish pride when he told me that he took the first professional headshot of a 14-year-old Michael Shannon.

Through it all, Brosilow still savors the thrill of entering the theater for the first time to shoot a new show, following his instincts for the artistic intent of the show, sizing it up “on the fly” and taking it from there. In his spare time, the avid cyclist took up marathon running at 50 years old, completed his last Chicago marathon in under 3 hours and will be running the Boston marathon for the 7th time in April 2018.

There is much more ahead in our enjoyable February 26th conversation with Michael Brosilow, one of the top professional theater photographers in the country. PODCAST

In the right place at the right time … “What I really like to do is shoot a full run dress rehearsal … usually it is the first dress rehearsal of a show. I am there to shoot the whole run, be it a 90 minute one-act or a 3 ½ hour show … It is like shooting sports … under changing light … you have to pay hyper-attention … to lighting cues … sound cues … I try to bring actors on stage closer together through the camera … running all over the theater trying to create those relationships of the people who are in the scene.”

True to the vision … “One of my primary goals is to have my photographs be true to the look of the show. I almost think it is my primary job. I do not want the picture online or in the newspaper to be an estimation of what this is or “like” it. I want it to be as true to the way the designers intended it and the director blocked it. … It is photojournalism in a lot of ways … documenting the shows.”

The proper perspective … “I am not a big fan of going into the balcony. Occasionally, I will go into the balcony, but I want it to be the viewers point of view. I don’t like to look under tables. I have this thing – if you are photographing a table scene, you want to see what is on top of the table. … Some theaters are a little more difficult. Goodman comes to mind ... an elevated stage and you’ve got to figure out how to look at what is on top of that table when the audience is looking at it from a lower vantage point. … (at Writers Theatre) I am at stage level, maybe I’ll go one row up and I have to shoot a little wider, but even if I am that one row up, I am on my knees … I do not like to distort the perspective. … I like it to look architectural.”

AROT and Michael Shannon’s first headshot … A Red Orchid Theatre is an immensely difficult theater to photograph. I love those guys immensely. … They are as dedicated and as creative as any theater people you will find anywhere, but where they ever got the idea of putting a theater in this space is a mystery. But, I love the challenge of it. When I am photographing the shows … Michael Shannon is right there. I don’t even have to extend my arm … they are that close, which is the most wonderful thing about it. ... I shot Michael Shannon’s first headshot when he was 14 years old. He was a kid who came to my studio on a rainy day with a tee short balled up in his hand. I did a black and white headshot of him. I have seen him his whole career.”

House Theatre and Rivendell …I have grown up with them from kids from SMU who started a theater, when they were at the Viaduct … Chopin. It is wonderful to see these companies mature. Rivendell’s Tara Mallen, I have known her for a very, very long time. I like their mission. They produce extraordinary work on limited budgets. Both those theaters. It is exciting to see.”

The archive …On my desk, there are four 4TB hard drives with over a million photographs that are all cataloged. … At any given time, I can call up very easily the best twenty shots of any particular show. I spend a lot of time on my archive. Over time, they have become, historically, very, very valuable. … I can go back 30 years and pull up photographs of John Mahoney or Martha Lavey. — We have, unfortunately, lost a lot of good actors in the past couple of years — I also have a lot of archives of theater companies who are no longer with us. Famous Door and Next Theater are a couple that come to mind.”

Transition to digital, social media and cell phones …Since I have had my feet in both worlds — in the film world and the digital world — I can’t specifically say where we are going. One of the things we are dealing with is trying to figure that out right now. You go through a period where people are posting everything. People would post 60 pictures of their vacation … (they are) learning to edit themselves … becoming much better photographers. … visually literate.”

Early Days … “When I was 12 years old, I decided to be a photographer. I got a Kodak 124 Instamatic. I am incredibly lucky … people go through their whole life to find their true calling. I am still not sure it was my true calling, but I ran with it. You had to be a sort of a geek to take pictures. … I did all that, the school newspaper, the dark room, you do all that stuff and you were kind of a geek. Kind of a nerd. You had a certain quirk. Nowadays, people have access not only to a camera in their pocket, there is a dark room and a delivery system, too. It is truly a wonderful thing. …This was our dream, to carry a camera with you at all times ... go out onto Michigan Avenue, take a picture and post it immediately. It is a matter of time — a matter of a short time — before the Pulitzer will be won with a camera phone. Somebody will be in the right place at the right time with a camera in their hand.”



The Digital Era … “For me, personally, it has been wonderful. I think that I was born to be a photographer in the digital era. … being from the film era makes me a better digital photographer because there are things that digital photography takes care of easily, but you still have to have the knowledge of it — color temperature, for example. LED lights are at one color temperature ... incandescent lights — as a film photographer, I learned how to deal with that. Because of the difficulty in it, I have been very sensitive to it, to the color of light. … Kodak never made a good film to shoot theater. They made Ektachrome 160 … then came out with 320. It was a terrible film. And that was the only film that they made for color that you can shoot under tungsten light. It was never a big market for them … Comes the digital age … I can control the color temperature immediately. I can white balance whatever I need. It was a revelation.”

Best designers “Chicago is known as a theater town primarily for its actors and its acting style. What makes Chicago theater really great, in my eyes, and again I am a visual guy, is the designers. We have some of the best designers anywhere in the world — the Todd Rosenthal’s … the Mara Blumenfeld’s — who are constantly challenging themselves and you see it on stage. A lot of people take that for granted. I don’t. I love walking through the doors to see what I’ve gotta deal with. I never want to know beforehand. I love walking through those doors and figuring it out. Right on the fly. Figuring out how I am going to deal with this and taking it from there.”


Edited for length and clarity.

Season 3|Episode 3 - March 6, 2018
PODCAST available on iTunes, Libsyn and Stitcher

BOB DOEPEL & CHICAGO SCENIC STUDIOS - 40 Years Of Making It All Come Together

To hear Bob Doepel reflect on Chicago Scenic Studios, the company he founded almost 40 years ago, you might think that it just happened to come together. In truth, Doepel has elevated the process of making things come together, often under impossible deadlines, on projects that materialize overnight, to an art form. His company has a vast array of resources, and coordinates with other industry professionals, to collaborate with clients to turn vision into reality.

Imagine staging Grant Park for the election party of Barack Obama or the Cubs World Series victory party, 25 years of sets for Oprah Winfrey, including the big Michigan Avenue event and the final show at the United Center, and, Winter Wonderfest on Navy Pier. Chicago Scenic has outfitted the Picasso at Daley Center, the lions at the Art Institute and you can see their work in the new American Writers Museum on Michigan Avenue and in some of the staging elements in the brilliant Joffrey production of Christopher Wheeldon’s The Nutcracker at the Auditorium Theatre.

Considering the variety and scope of these and other projects, things have certainly come together for Chicago Scenic, which began serving theater companies, museums and the City of Chicago in 1978 and now provides a range of design, building and professional consulting and management services to national and international cultural and business clients. It is all part of a new strategic plan that took a giant step forward this summer by moving into an extraordinary 165K sq. ft. facility on West Cermak in Chicago.

That’s where we caught up with Bob Doepel on November 28th, to talk about the 40th anniversary of the company and how Chicago Scenic Studios has evolved into a market leader.


Diverse Projects and Clients… “we do work for the International Auto Show in Detroit and here in Chicago… we do pharmaceutical projects… we also do lots of museum work… just finished the American Writers Museum on Michigan Avenue…  Andy (Anway), the designer from Amaze Design, did a terrific job… it is engaging on all levels.”

Building a creative team… “there are a lot of components. I come from a theatrical background, rooted in storytelling, which is what theater is all about. We try to find out what the story is. At the museum, we are telling the story American writers. What is the process? How do we communicate and engage people in a collaborative method? We have lots of resources here so if we can’t do it, we find someone else who can… talented project managers and phenomenal crafts people pull the different resources together to make the project happen.”   

Winter Wonderfest 2.jpg

Navy Pier… “my great grandfather was the general contractor for Navy Pier. The family has continued to be in the construction business, Paschen Construction... my mother’s side of the family. I have always had the construction bug. I worked summers for Paschen, then went off to be a forest engineer. It was interesting, but no job, so I came back to my roots, theater.”

New Trier High School mentors… I was on the stage crew building shows… the fine arts program at New Trier was extensive. ...Toby Nicholson, choreographer, Carol Gill, lighting and set designer, and Frank Gill technical director... a talented group of people who were into their art form.”

Joffrey Ballet’s-The Nutcracker… “they redesigned the Mother Ginger costume set piece… we just finished and delivered it to them so they could rehearse with the dancers. It is a very integral piece in the show.”

Big New Space… “165K sq. ft. … 32 ft. high ceilings… 62 ft. wide bays… we have a greater ability to set up shows. It was good on Goose Island, but this is much improved.”

Talented Staff… “We have a broad array of talented people on staff at Chicago Scenic Studios. We are licensed electrical contractors in the City of Chicago along with being a licensed general contractor… we have phenomenal sub-contractors that we use… they all come in to collaborate with us on these crazy things we all want to do.”

Four-Tier Apprentice Program… "The bulk of our crafts people and our project managers come from a theatrical or art background and have college degrees… we have a four-tier apprentice program… even if they are ultimately going to be a carpenter or electrician on the floor, we still put them through the project management process so they understand how the estimates are formulated, what the process is, and, how to deal with clients.”

New Technology… “Video mapping, LED walls and projections are all being integrated. The Nutcracker is a dimension show, but also has the integration of projection. Sometimes it is hard to tell what is scenery versus projection. They really did an unbelievable job with it. I was amazed when I saw it all come together at the Auditorium Theatre.”


Project Photos Courtesy of Chicago Scenic Studios
Joffrey Ballet Photo|Cheryl Mann
Comments have been edited for length and clarity.

RICH DANIELS: MAKING MAGIC – ELLA & LENA: The Ladies and Their Music

Rich Daniels and The City Lights Orchestra return to the Auditorium Theatre on November 17th for ELLA & LENA: The Ladies and Their Music, a centennial concert celebration of Ella Fitzgerald and Lena Horne.

Chicago vocalist and producer Joan Curto will be joined by many of Chicago’s top artists including E. Faye Butler, Beckie Menzie, Tammy McCann, Paul Marinaro, Tom Michael and Sophie Grimm with a 17-piece orchestra featuring songs from the Great American Songbook.

For over 4 decades, Daniels and his orchestra have been featured together with a long and distinguished list of music greats including Ray Charles, Mel Torme, Burt Bacharach, Dionne Warwick, The Four Tops, Smokey Robinson, Frankie Laine and many more. Daniels has been touring recently with the Jerry Garcia Symphonic Celebration and has been engaged with the hit TV series “Empire” for the past four years.

Rich Daniels joined us for a spirited conversation on November 2nd to talk about the early days, his first big band at Brother Rice High School, the upcoming Auditorium show and developing opportunities for the next generation of musicians.


The profound musical influence of Jim Moore … “Beyond the family, my parents who were amazing, and friends, there was a man named Jim Moore. He was a trumpet player and he never made his living as a musician… He was in the clothing industry, an executive at Hart Schaffner Marx and other organizations like that. … Jim was a wonderful, giving man who played in an Army Air Force jazz band in the 1950’s. … He saved all of his arrangements and he carried them forward. … He reminded me of Cary Grant, the way he dressed, the way he held himself … a tall man who spoke beautifully and eloquently. I met him when I was 14 because his son, Michael Moore (‘the writer, not the filmmaker’) became one of my dearest friends. Jim would spend weekends and weeknights rehearsing with the band. I have a stack of letters that I keep to this day where he would encourage, support and take me to task if he saw that things were not going as they should. He was a tremendous influence on myself and many, many there young people of that time.”

On inherent ability … “It is a blend. Hard work is something you cannot take away from any artist, or someone who pursues the arts. It is required. But, there has to be an inherent ability, at some level, that is worth nurturing. There are certain things in music, and I assume in other disciplines, too, that you cannot teach people. They either have an understanding, they have that quality, that talent, you can nurture along, or they don’t.

Developing talent … One of the thrills for me on the television show “Empire” is that I am allowed to hire the young talent that we are going to put on camera and we have put over 300 young people on camera over four seasons. It is an amazing opportunity for them … film and television are a new commodity to Chicago. They have been here forever – films being made, television – but nothing to the extent currently. The movie studio Cinespace, 51 acres of movie studios, 30 sound stages, “Empire” is 9 of the 30 stages … the largest show on television now for 20th Century Fox. The opportunity for young people has been amazing on this show. Really rewarding for them and for us to bring them forward and let them shine. …musicians, composers, singers, and a wide range of disciplines that these young people bring forward aside from their musical skills. They are all quick to want to tell us what they are doing, how they can help. … It is great to see this huge appetite for opportunity … great for Chicago to have an infrastructure to support that. Cinespace has been marvelous. There are eight shows shooting there right now and it is only going to grow."

Advice to artists about the risks of overexposure on the internet … “The internet is here to stay. We all know that. It is not going anywhere. The thing I caution about is giving too much away on the internet, so that it no longer becomes a salable commodity … some day you may want to have a family, some day you may want to do something that will support yourself with your art and if you give it all away and you continue that pattern, it is going to be hard to monetize it and make a living at it. I hate to sound like the guy who is jaded around the edges, because I am not, but I want them to have a realistic picture of what their art means and how they should view it. Giving it away is not the best thing all of the time … there are certain opportunities … the internet is rampant with music and film and clips, so it’s important to do that, but you need to think about the future and how you are going to move forward. They are going to move forward in ways that you and I do not even know because they are going to outlive us and the community of how music is disseminated and programmed is going to go well beyond our imagination. So, they have to do it with caution."

ELLA & LENA at the Auditorium Theatre on Friday, November 17th… “Joan Curto is to be given a lot of credit for what she has created at the Auditorium. These annual concerts have great value … This is the centennial of Ella and Lena; they would have both turned 100 years old this year. Joan came up with the notion that we would celebrate Ela Fitzgerald and Lena Horne. The show is going to have seven wonderful singers – Joan Curto, E. Faye Butler, Beckie Menzie, Tammy McCann, Paul Marinaro, Tom Michael and Sophie Grimm – a big band … a traditional jazz ensemble of 17 musicians in the style of Goodman, Basie, Miller, Dorsey, Ellington … the theatre is magnificent. The Auditorium is one of the great palaces in the world acoustically, visually, take your pick. I like the fact that we do the entire show in front of the proscenium … we set the orchestra and the singers up in front so that we’re even closer to the audience because a lot of music can be very intimate. … Last year was very well received. … Hat’s off to Joan and Beckie Menzie(music director) for all the hard work, time and energy they have put into creating the program with the arranger, Bobby Ojeda. … It is going to be a really memorable evening. The music is going to be tremendous. The audience is going to love the selections. The artists are all geared up for it. It is a wonderful opportunity for people, especially for those who want to be exposed to this music for the first time in a live setting. Live music is something that in many ways is not as popular as it used to be. When people get a chance to experience it, they should and they can and they do find it very special. Very magical.

The orchestral arrangements … “Bobby (Ojeda) had years on the road with the Count Basie Orchestra. He is well-known and beloved in the Chicagoland area … a mature gentleman, lots of skills, a trumpet player. Once the singers and Joan decide on the selections, then they get together with Beckie to work out the song, the keys, all the things that are necessary, then they send that information to Bobby and he creates the orchestrations for the instrumentation we have agreed upon.”

The secret of success – work hard; arrive early … “Years ago, I would only look for the best possible players who were acknowledged in the community to be part of a program because everyone said, “These are the guys. These are the ladies. These are the people you want to use because they are the best.’ Well, ‘the best’ do not always represent the ‘best person’ for the job, and there are other attributes I look for in individuals when we bring them in on a show or any opportunity. Some of it is their ability to be on time, the ability to communicate, play well with others, their ability to be part of a cohesive unit … if you show up on time, for a gig, you are late. Showing up at 9:00 o’clock for a 9:00 o’clock gig doesn’t work. You have to be early. You have to prepare yourself … do whatever is necessary to get ready for that performance. … All those little things you begin to value more and more as you get older and realize there is so much more to a good performance than someone who can play their instrument at the highest level possible.”

The simplicity of a performance … “The goal is for the audience to have no idea how the sausage is made. We like to think that people realize that this didn’t just happen. If it looks effortless, then we have succeeded in what we are trying to do in the presentation that evening.”


Comments have been edited for length and clarity

ELLA & LENA: The Ladies and Their Music
The Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University
Friday, November 17, 2017
7:30 p.m.
Honoring the centennials of music icons Ella Fitzgerald and Lena Horne
Featuring: Joan Curto, E. Faye Butler, Beckie Menzie, Tammy McCann, Paul Marinaro, Tom Michael, and Sophie Grimm and Rich Daniels and the City Lights Orchestra.
For information and tickets

Visit the CONVERSATIONS ARCHIVE or iTunes, Libsyn and Stitcher for conversations with Joan Curto, E. Faye Butler, Tammy McCann, Paul Marinaro and more. 


 “Appreciation is a wonderful thing. It makes what is excellent in others belong to us as well.” – Voltaire

Our Conversation this week comes in the form of a letter from Ron Keaton. Ron agreed to step in when business called me out of town. It was a chance for Ron to give his unique point of view on a big night of recognition for Chicago's professional theatre community and share comments from award recipients in many of the categories. Congratulations to all of the truly exceptional performers and productions honored at the 2017 Equity Jeff Awards ceremony on November 6th at Drury Lane. And, thanks for your memories of the night, Ron!  Ed  

“To get the full value of joy, you must have someone to divide it with. – Mark Twain

Hello Ed,

As you know, when you asked me to fill in and report on the 2017 Jeff Awards while you were out of town, I said “Sure. Happy to do it.”  I attended in a totally different role. For the moment, I was a unique part of the Fourth Estate. An observer who helps to sum up this particular occasion for those who peek in from the outside, while, at the same time, providing a bit of insider’s perspective. 

Suddenly I was struck with a bit of fear. Me?  ME?  Who in the world would care what I had to say?  I went straight to that place that worries about what others had to say about what I had to say.  It took a little time to remind myself that it was never about me, but about others in the room, and what they share – what we all share – in the theatre.

The night was filled with terrific performances from the nominated shows. I began to realize that all the talent, all the work, the commitment, ALL of it comes from a place of cathartic love and joy. This year’s Jeff Awards had its share of emotional release and connection, leaving folks pretty high.

So, Ed, in addition to listing the recipients, allow me to highlight, in as much of their own words as possible, what I mean.

Here we go:


I truly enjoyed Anish Jethmalani and Mierka Gierken who were both constant, charming hosts throughout the entire evening.

Michael Cristofer - “Man in the Ring” – Court Theatre
Lauren Gunderson/Margot Melcon – “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley” – Northlight Theatre
Antoinette Nwandu - “Pass Over” – Steppenwolf Theatre

Orbert Davis – “Paradise Blue” – Timeline Theatre Company
“I was hoping someone else would speak first, so I’d know what to do! ... I’m totally out of my league here. … This is such an incredible experience.”

Marton Csokas – “Uncle Vanya” – Goodman Theatre

Kymberly Mellen
– “The Columnist” – American Blues Theater
“First person I need to thank is my husband; we’ll be married 22 years this month! ... There is no way I could do anything I do without that man!”

E. Faye Butler – “Chicago The Musical” – Drury Lane Productions

Jonathan Butler Duplessis – “Parade” – Writers Theatre

Oh, Ed…I have to stop here and tell you, it was like a churning machine of infectious joy. Jonathan couldn’t stop, and people didn’t want him to stop. 

He kept jumping up and down: 

“NONE of this was supposed to happen! None of it! ... I wanna thank so many people right now … I wanna thank my beautiful girlfriend right over there!  I wanna thank my grandmother, who we had to take two weeks to get her here tonight!”

And he certainly thanked all the right people profusely.  But then, and I’ve never seen anything like it, I had a special vantage point, sitting right behind Kathleen, his girlfriend, and his grandmother.  When Jonathan returned to his seat, he gave the award to his grandmother.  He got down on his knees.  He laid his head down in her lap.  And cried.  Probably five minutes, the young man cried with joy, his grandmother’s arms all around him.  I was almost embarrassed at witnessing this family exchange. But what a privilege I had, watching this utter, absolute joy.

Jeffrey D. Kmiec
– “Disney’s The Little Mermaid” – Paramount Theatre (LARGE)
Joe Schermoly – “Naperville” – Theater Wit (MIDSIZE)

Nick Belley/Jesse Klug
– “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” – Paramount Theatre (LARGE)
Cat Davis – “The River Bride” – Halcyon Theatre (MIDSIZE)

Steve Scott.jpg

Theresa Ham
– “Disney’s The Little Mermaid” – Paramount Theatre (LARGE)
Kristy Leigh Hall – “Pygmalion” – Remy Bumppo Theatre Company (MIDSIZE)

Andre Pluess – “Man in the Ring” – Court Theatre (LARGE)

Grover Hollway – “The Great and Terrible Wizard of Oz” – The House Theatre Of Chicago (MIDSIZE)

Mike Tutaj – “Objects in the Mirror” – Goodman Theatre

Jesse Mooney-Bullock – “Disney’s The Little Mermaid” – Paramount Theatre

A Special Jeff Award was presented on the occasion of Scott’s retirement after 37 years at the Goodman Theatre, a person we need among us at all times and one I hope to be when I grow up – a teacher who never stops learning. The award was presented by David Liesse, the Jeff Committee chair, and by Roche Schulfer and Robert Falls of the Goodman Theatre. 

Steve Scott: “We do work that is difficult and truthful and honest – and for the respect that we all deserve as artists and as citizens.” …“We can never assume viciousness in our world today, when the problem is actually ignorance.” … “We must never forget that, though our rehearsal rooms are safe spaces, our theatres by their very definition, are not … and that the most potent weapon we have in dealing with those who don’t agree with us is empathy – our ability to understand what ties us together as human beings.”

Linda Reiter – “Rose” – The Greenhouse Theater Center in association with Forum Productions
After a joyful “whoop!” and following Steve Scott, who directed this production: “Well, I was trying to get this under a minute, but, apparently, we have a really long time now. Yay!”

ENSEMBLE (Sponsored by Actor’s Equity Association)
“East Texas Hot Links” – Writers Theatre

Matthew Crowle
– “Crazy for You” – Drury Lane Productions
“My Mom and Dad are here tonight … You never missed a dance recital. And you never missed an opening night.  And the older I get, the more I realize how rare that is … and how profoundly fortunate I am.”

Tom Vendafreddo – “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” – Paramount Theatre

DIRECTOR PLAY (The Michael Maggio Award)
Ron OJ Parson – “Blues for an Alabama Sky” – Court Theatre

Jim Corti – “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” – Paramount Theatre

Austin Cook – “Marry Me A Little” – Porchlight Music Theatre

Michelle Lauto
– “Spamilton” – Royal George Theatre
“So many times, in theatre, women are resigned to playing shallow archetypes and don’t get to show off their most bold, dynamic, fun selves. I played thirteen characters in 80 minutes, and I spent most of that time making ugly faces and doing funny voices; there was no love story and I never did a ballad about whether I was missing something. It was just bliss!”

Angela Ingersoll
– “End of the Rainbow” – Porchlight Music Theatre
“I made a wish on a Christmas star two years ago; that was the little voice in my head that I couldn’t stop hearing.  I believe that is God’s will and believe in that, because then the dreams you dream really do come true!”

Alex Weisman
– “Hand to God” – Victory Gardens Theater
“…this play is about an absent father and a silent mother, and I have a very present father and a very loud mother! ... and the greatest thrill of my life is getting to take you to my Broadway debut!”

Paul Jordan-Jansen
– “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” – Paramount Theatre*

ACTRESS IN A PRINCIPAL ROLE – MUSICALKathy Voytko – “The Bridges of Madison County” – Marriott Theatre
“Wow! ... Thank you, Jeff Committee … I got my Equity card here in Chicago in 1996, and for me, Chicago is home. Alex Weisman, Broadway is great, but Chicago is home!”

“Smokey Joe’s Café” – Drury Lane Productions
Artistic Director William Osetek: “…most especially we want to thank Marcia Milgrom Dodge (the director of the production) … Marcia took a review and created character and relationship and story without adding a word of dialogue or changing anything … I know my work will be forever better by having worked with Marcia.”

PRODUCTION – MUSICAL (LARGE) – The Dr. Harlan Haimes Award
“Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” (Large) – Paramount Theatre
Artistic Director Jim Corti: “Lord knows our world is going through hell right now. If only we could show more love out there, like the love in this room.”

“The Scottsboro Boys” (Midsize) – Porchlight Music Theatre

Assistant Director Wardell Julius Clark: “I’m standing here on behalf of Samuel G. Roberson, Jr. (the 34 year-old director of the production who passed away this past May after a 25-year battle with leukemia)…This was a labor of love from Sam; he was insistent on being a social justice activist and telling our stories our way, unapologetically.”

“Blues for an Alabama Sky” – Court Theatre (LARGE)

Artistic Director Charles Newell: “…Ron OJ Parson helped us change the way we look at classics. It changed our audience…and it garnered your respect.  Thank you all!”

“Born Yesterday” – Remy Bumppo Theatre Company (MIDSIZE)
Artistic Director Nick Sandys: “We chose this play in 2015, because we thought it might have relevance in November 2016 … it had a HUGE amount of relevance!”

  RONALD KEATON won a 2015 Jeff Award for CHURCHILL in the Solo Performance category.  He will be appearing in the Mercury Theatre production of THE CHRISTMAS SCHOONER November 24-December 31. More at:

RONALD KEATON won a 2015 Jeff Award for CHURCHILL in the Solo Performance category.  He will be appearing in the Mercury Theatre production of THE CHRISTMAS SCHOONER November 24-December 31. More at:

Ed, I wonder often if people really understand how the arts affect their lives.  When you’re smack in the middle of it, it becomes more than a job.  It’s a calling, one that addresses every aspect of life right down to that first cup of coffee in the morning.  I have tried to share a bit of that here with you and with my fellow artists.  I can’t remember who said it, but the saying goes:

 “The truly committed artist goes to where the work is, where the people are … and simply goes to work.”


Comments have been edited for length and clarity. Images courtesy of Jeff Awards/Bill Richert Photography.


For more information about the Jeff Awards, including a complete list of nominees and recipients, visit the website at: JEFF AWARDS

You can listen to CONVERSATIONS with Steve ScottAngela Ingersoll, Matt Crowle, E. Faye Butler and more in our Archive at Conversations with Ed Tracy. Check out PicksinSix.


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