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Northlight Theatre remains, “more committed than ever to return to Evanston,” said Kim Hoopingarner, Director of Advancement. When the news broke that the movie theater was closing in downtown Evanston, a lot of people thought of Northlight. Ms. Hoopingarner explained that there are a lot of differences between a movie theatre and theatre for live performances, particularly the need for a large and flexible backstage area, noting, “We really want to own our space.”
The organization originally expected to break ground in 2021. “That’s not going to happen,” Ms. Hoopingarner said, adding, “The goal is within the next few years to return to downtown Evanston. It’s where we started in 1974, most of our community partners are in Evanston, and we’re committed to diversifying our audience.”
Northlight set a goal of $20 million for the purchase and build-out of a theater and is almost halfway there. They plan to reboot the capital campaign in April. “The money we had raised [before the pandemic] is in a restricted account and we reached out to people who said, ‘retain my pledge/commitment’. We also have an allocation of $4.5 million from the Illinois Arts Council and $1 million from the State of Illinois. “
Paul Zalmezak, the City’s Economic Development Manager, sees Northlight’s move to Evanston as a “beacon of economic hope. We’re going to have this theatre that’s going to bring artists and visitors to visit and dine.” He said that Evanston is entering a new phase and economic restructuring as more retail moves online and retailers consolidate locations.
“Evanston is rich in public transit with the CTA and Metra co-located downtown,” he said. “Baby-boomers and empty-nesters are making economic decisions to downsize and move into condos. At the same time, millennials and Gen-Xers want to live in these kinds of environments.”
The Avidor opened in downtown Evanston in July 2020, with rental apartments for people over 55. Asked about Northlight’s plans, Avidor’s Community Director, Maddie Scudiero said, “So many of our residents enjoy the performing arts, we’re super excited to think that our residents could walk to dinner and the theater.”
Janice Hanby lives at the Avidor and agrees. “Oh my goodness, I’m excited. That sounds great! I can walk right over.” Ms. Hanby loves theatre and says she’ll go, “once a month, maybe more. It depends on the shows they’re having.”
Ms. Hoopingarner said that Northlight “paused the capital campaign when the pandemic hit to focus on the core business and make sure we stayed in business.” Northlight has managed not to lay off anyone, keeping the staff intact, and the staff has been busy with different kinds of programming.
Northlight runs several community programs in Evanston that have moved to a virtual platform. A program for women at the YWCA is now Pen Pal Gals, a letter-writing program. Northlight facilitators develop the topics and help craft the content.
Recognizing that most job interviews now happen online, Northlight works with young clients from the Youth Job Center and Evanston Scholars to help them improve their digital presence.
Northlight also worked with the Levy Center to introduce a new storytelling workshop during the pandemic. Each session of Highlights runs for four weeks at a time for 10-15 seniors who meet on Zoom. Northlight delivers notebooks for participants to write their stories and provides the prompts. Ms. Hoopingarner said the participants “started serious about their experience during the pandemic and then got more lighthearted. They get together on zoom to read their stories and each four-week group has a collection of their stories. Their stories are being told and heard and shared.”
Looking ahead, Ms. Hoopingarner says, “We hope to open our season in September. We don’t know what that looks like. We’re going to do some programming outdoors in the summer and we’re exploring filming our productions going forward because we know even in a vaccinated world, some people may not feel comfortable coming back to a theatre right away.”
While there is no set date for Northlight opening in Evanston, Ms. Hoopingarner punned, “we can be that shot in the arm for downtown Evanston, a place for everyone to come together.”