Community leaders anticipate Northlight Theatre’s return to Evanston after 25 years in Skokie


Daily file photo by Evan Robinson-Johnson

An aerial view of Evanston. A performing arts center whose history is intertwined with Evanston and Northwestern, Northlight Theatre is bringing the arts back to downtown Evanston in 2024.

Lily Carey, Assistant City Editor

Evanston resident Laurice Bell shared her experience watching the play “Fireflies” at Northlight Theatre, a nonprofit theatre company currently located in Skokie, with City Council during an April 11 meeting.

“It was a beautiful production, and the theatre was crowded,” Bell said. “I was entertained, I was informed — and I thought to myself, why is this not in Evanston?”

Later in the meeting, councilmembers addressed Bell’s concern, allocating a $2 million grant to fund Northlight’s planned move to downtown Evanston.

Originally opened in Evanston in 1974, the theatre transitioned to its current location at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie in 1997. In 2019, City Council approved plans for Northlight to move to its new location at 1012-16 Church St., which is now slated to open in fall 2024.

As the theatre continues to fundraise and work toward its goal of bringing the arts back to Evanston, residents, theatre officials and business owners eagerly anticipate its return. 

B.J. Jones, Northlight’s artistic director and an Evanston resident since 1984, said he was “gratified and humbled” to see the support the city has shown Northlight. 

“This is a dream come true, and something that we’ve been aspiring to for quite some time,” Jones said. “It’s really vital that we move towards more accessible public transportation, which will do great things for the next generation of theatregoers.” 

Moving to a location that is more accessible to visitors from Chicago, he said, will broaden Northlight’s audience and reconnect it with its roots in both Evanston and Northwestern. 

The theatre was founded by Gregory Kandel, Mike Nussbaum and Frank Galati under the original name Evanston Theatre Company. Galati, a School of Communication Prof. at the time, directed its first production. 

Ever since, Jones said, Northlight has worked closely with the School of Communication’s theatre department. Once it moves back to Evanston, the nonprofit aims to strengthen these “long and fruitful” ties, he said.

Jones said Northlight’s move will also benefit the theatre itself. The theatre shut down performances from March 2020 to August 2021 due to the pandemic, and its ticket revenues have struggled to recover since reopening.

City Council’s $2 million grant to Northlight is funded through the American Rescue Plan Act, a federal plan to aid local governments in pandemic recovery. Evanston received $43 million from the act. 

According to an economic impact study conducted by Hunden Strategic Partners, Northlight is projected to generate $56 million in new spending and $450,000 in city tax revenues.

Annie Coakley, executive director of Downtown Evanston, said owners of surrounding businesses are excited for this new spending to boost their own efforts.

“Putting in a live theatre and encouraging people to be social again is really where we think this will be a big addition to the downtown offerings,” Coakley said. “When you go out, you want a couple of other things to tack on – you’re not going to leave your house just to do one thing.”

Once the theatre opens, Coakley said Downtown Evanston will aim to attract theatregoers to surrounding shops and restaurants through incentives like dining rewards programs and weekend or day trip itineraries for visitors. According to her, the organization is already working on “packaging” arts events and restaurant deals to attract more visitors — and having Northlight in the area will bolster these efforts.

At the April 11 meeting, Rev. Michael Nabors, who leads the Evanston/North Shore NAACP, said he is especially excited to see Northlight bring its commitment to diversity to the community. He said the NAACP has already spoken with Northlight contractors to ensure that women and people of color will be included in its workforce development projects. 

As Northlight continues to work toward its $26 million fundraising goal, Nabors said he is excited to watch the theatre transform Evanston through “the gift of art.”

“True art — which includes (Northlight) — has no color, class, creed, dogma, political affiliation, ethnicity or race,” Nabors said. “True art is emotion, and what better place for such emotion to be revealed than in the heart of our beloved community?”

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @lilylcarey

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