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Jordan Ratliff Is Bringing A New Wave Of Theater To Chicago

Written by on March 9, 2023

Jordan Ratliff hopes to take the Chicago theater’s depictions of LGBTQ+ stories to a deeper level. As a playwright, director, choreographer and graphic designer, he strives to push the boundaries of what modern-day theater can be.

The theater has always had a place in Jordan Ratliff’s life. Long before his debut in the Chicago theater market, he discovered a passion for it as a kid watching his family members perform in high school productions.

“I had a cousin who… [was] doing a production of Into the Woods,” Ratliff recalled. “And… my whole life was changed.”

Though Ratliff fell in love with theater early on, he quickly learned — through performing in his own high school’s theater program — being in the spotlight was not for him. 

“I really loved the rehearsal process, I loved building a story with people,” Ratliff explained. “I have this mental vision of what shows can be and how I can interpret things. And so I was like, ‘Hmm, directing!’”

Jordan Ratliff is a Chicago-based playwright and director living in Rogers Park. Joshua X. Miller/Vocalo Radio.

After graduating college, he moved to Chicago in pursuit of directing and theatrical story-building. He is passionate about pushing the boundaries of what theater can be by telling stories audiences may have never experienced before. Now, only two years post-grad, Ratliff is making his directorial debut at Pride Arts Center. His current project, One in Two, is an autobiographical piece about the playwright Donja R. Love and gives a new perspective on the HIV epidemic.

“We always hear stories of people dying of AIDS, but never living with HIV,” Ratliff said. “That’s a perspective… that we don’t get to see… So, I’m really glad that I get to… put it on and be a part of telling this story. ” 

In this segment of “This is What Chicago Sounds Like” Jordan Ratliff discussed creating space for other theater artists, being part of the Chicago theater scene and a new theater company in the works.

What do you do?

I am a theater-maker in Chicago. My primary trade is in directing and playwriting. I just graduated from college, I think now it’s two years ago. So I’m fresh, I’m learning a lot of new things, meeting a lot of great humans and everything like that.

Where are you from?

I’m from Morton Grove, Illinois. Now I’m actually living in Chicago, I live in Rogers Park. I live in a predominantly POC area. So it makes me actually feel a lot more comfortable just, like, existing and wandering around. And also, there’s so many businesses to support around here… up and down the block. You can’t go… a single block without running into a few local restaurants, so it’s pretty cool. I’m just so excited… to be in Chicago, and… this is only the beginning. And I’m excited to see where my career takes me. 

How did you get into theater?

I had a cousin who went to ETHS, Evanston Township [High School], and they were doing a production of Into the Woods, and she was playing the witch. And I remember, I had seen that, and I — my whole life was changed. I was like, “What is this art form? What is this? Oh, my God, I’m obsessed.” I then proceeded to listen to the Into the Woods soundtrack, like, every single night before I went to bed. Then my sister did theater when she got into high school, and I went and saw all the musicals she was in. And I was like, “When I get into high school, I’m gonna do theater, I’m gonna be in shows.” I did theater, I did band, I did choir, I did all of the performing arts things. And then, when I started figuring out where I wanted to go for school, I was like, “Hmm… I don’t…” Naturally, I wanted to do something in theater, I was debating about what exactly it was. And I thought about acting. And something hit me, where I was just like, “Wow, I really hate performing.” And that… hit something in me, where I was like, “Well, what does that mean?” 

I really loved the rehearsal process, I loved building a story with people. I loved working with the director and figuring things out. But then, when it got to being on stage, I was like, “Ugh!” The having to memorize lines, having to have the stage fright and the anxiety before you went on stage was not for me. I’ve always been a person who, I have this mental vision of what shows can be and how I can interpret things. And so I was like, “Hmm, directing!” So I took a leap of faith, I’ll tell you! I’m sticking my entire education on this thing that I, on a whim. 

But I’m so glad that I trusted myself, because, when I got into school, and I started directing stuff, I was like, “Oh, my gosh, yes.” Being able to dive into a piece and do the research and the casting and building the story, doing blocking, choreography, all of it. It just resonates so much with me. I realized that, while I’m a storyteller, I’m also a story-builder. 

Jordan Ratliff in his Rogers Park apartment. Joshua X. Miller/Vocalo Radio.

What is story-building?

For directing, story-building is finding a story that resonates with you. For me, that is usually stories of the untold. So when I’m speaking about story-building, it’s about understanding or figuring out your interpretation of what the core of the work is. And then it branches out into these different design aspects of, “Who do I see telling the story? How do I want to tell the story? What do I want to be important of this story?” 

What kind of plays do you work on?

I’m attracted to stories that introduce a new perspective to me, that I haven’t thought about. The most recent show I’ve been doing is One In Two by Donja R. Love. I read it, and I was like, “Oh my god, this is right up my alley.” A lot of the queer stories that we see put on are often white-centered or have some kind of whiteness that is always a part of the story that we always have to take in consideration, and I rarely ever see queer stories from a POC perspective. It is a semi-autobiographical story of the playwright, Donja R. Love, telling the story of living with HIV, a positive HIV diagnosis. And it is about these three men, who are in this ethereal waiting room, who are waiting for God knows what. But they are being forced to retell the story of this character, Dante, his story living with HIV, of the struggle with mental health, the struggle of stigma, the struggle of having to tell family and friends and partners about this and how to navigate that. How hard it is, and a lot of the things that we don’t even realize that folks who are living with HIV have to deal with from the day to day. 

We always hear stories of people dying of AIDS, but never living with HIV. And that’s a perspective, like I was talking about, that we don’t get to see. So if I’m able to amplify this story, that is so many people’s story, and it still is so many people’s story. The fact [is] that one in two gay or bisexual Black men will be diagnosed with HIV in their lifetime, and that statistic was pulled from 2016. This piece educated me, and these are the kind of works that I work with. That’s a lot of what attracted me to this story. So, I’m really glad that I get to… put it on and be a part of telling this story. 

What is it about directing that resonates so deeply for you?

I have a very vast imagination. The ability to almost paint my imagination on a stage is something that… fascinates me and excites me so much, that I have all of these… rushing ideas in my head, and being able to consolidate them and then put them on stage and see them come to fruition is like something so magical. I love actors. I love my designers. I love stage managers. I just love… seeing everybody doing the thing. It just gets me so excited. So I think those are the things that drive me, passion-wise. I think it’s very people-based and very creation-based. 

What is it like making theater in Chicago?

Chicago is this ever-changing… place where there’s always new theaters that are coming, and theaters that are closing and new theaters that come out of it, artists that are revolving in and out of Chicago. So there’s always changing work that’s going on in Chicago. One thing that I’ve been working on is, I’m building a new theatre company in Chicago, we are called New Wave Theatre Company. And our mission is, specifically, to get rid of this disconnect for new theater artists. We want to create a hub and a haven for new theater artists to come and explore their art, make mistakes, get their foot in the door in professional theater. It’s very network-based. And, I mean, that’s theater, isn’t it? Yeah, it’s all network-based, but… for somebody like me, who comes right out of college… not everybody has those resources of being able to come out having this deep-seated network of people to connect them with. I think that’s my new biggest thing, so keep an eye out for New Wave Theatre Company. 

Photo by Joshua X. Miller/Vocalo Radio.

Since 2016, we have been profiling people who give their all to Chicago and enrich us socially and culturally by virtue of their artistry, social justice work and community-building. Take a listen. Read their words. Become inspired.

Keep up with Jordan Ratliff on Instagram and Jordanratliff.com.

Audio production by Ari Mejia

Photography and written introduction by Joshua X. Miller

Transcription and editing for length and clarity by Morgan Ciocca

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