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Illinois Theatre Center’s Billig dies at 79

Etel Billig who died March 27 age 79 had worked as professional actress director teacher for more than 50 years.

Etel Billig, who died March 27 at the age of 79, had worked as a professional actress, director and teacher for more than 50 years. | Supplied photo

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Updated: May 1, 2012 8:18AM



Etel Billig, the artistic director of Illinois Theatre Center, died on March 27 at the age of 79 from a brain aneurysm.

Her son Jonathan Billig said the longtime Park Forest resident suffered a brain aneurysm Tuesday afternoon, and paramedics took her to Franciscan St. James Hospital in Olympia Fields.

She was airlifted Tuesday evening to Rush University Medical Center in Chicago and was removed from life support late Wednesday evening, he said.

The indefatigable theatrical artist, though, will not be forgotten. She leaves behind a profound legacy for theatergoers throughout the Southland.

“I believe people are measured by the lives they touch, and Etel touched so many lives and had such a positive impact on so many people,” said David Boettcher, the actor and director of many ITC productions.

Boettcher recently starred in “The Cocktail Hour,” which closed March 18 and was the last show Mrs. Billig directed.

As an actress, director and teacher, Mrs. Billig gave many budding actors their start in theater.

Michael Shannon, Academy Award nominee for best actor for the film “Revolutionary Road,” got his first acting role at ITC.

And Sally Murphy — who appeared on TV shows “The Good Wife” and “Law & Order Criminal Intent” and now is starring in “Time Stands Still” at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago — also took her first steps on stage under Mrs. Billig’s tutelage.

Boettcher said one of the main reasons for ITC’s survival was Mrs. Billig.

“She knew every member of the audience by name,” he said.

“She had this ability to connect with theatergoers who came to a show. Etel made them feel as though they were part of the theater.”

Mrs. Billig had a theatrical career of more than 50 years that included performances at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, the Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook Terrace, the Candlelight Dinner Playhouse in Chicago and Court Theatre in Chicago.

She also performed in productions at Wisdom Bridge Theatre in Chicago, the Forum and Body Politic Theater.

Mrs. Billig co-founded the ITC with her late husband, Steve, in 1976.

From the inception of the theater, she performed and directed a cornucopia of productions.

The last production in which Mrs. Billig was featured as an actress at ITC was Tennessee Williams’ “Suddenly Last Summer” in 2008.

In the past 34 years, she appeared in and/or directed more than 100 productions at ITC.

In Chicago magazine’s August 2004 “Best of Chicago” issue, Mrs. Billig was named best muse for children for her work as director of ITC’s Drama School.

She also was active in film and TV work and was teaching theater at Prairie State College in Chicago Heights.

Mrs. Billig has served as the president of the Southland Regional Arts Council and as a member of the Theatre Advisory Panel of the Illinois Arts Council.

She received numerous awards for her contributions to the arts.

These honors include the Women Together Award from the Abby Foundation, the Risk Taking Award from the National Organization for Women, the Linda Morgan Award from the Chicago Southland Convention & Visitors Bureau and the Athena Award as well as election to the Park Forest Hall of Fame.

She also is listed in Marquis’ “Who’s Who.”

Mrs. Billig had lived in Park Forest since 1964 with the exception of 1974 to 1976 when she was in Omaha, Neb., performing at a dinner theater, Jonathan Billig said.

For the last couple of years Mrs. Billig moved away from acting and focused on directing shows like the recent “Broke-ology,” “Greetings,” “The Spitfire Grill” and “Intimate Apparel” at ITC.

“The caliber of script Etel presented at ITC was very high and had great variety,” said actor-director David Perkovich, who starred in ITC’s poignant production of “Heroes” in late 2011.

“She was aware of theatrical history and presented shows that aren’t often done.”

Perkovich said Mrs. Billig’s love of theater is what kept ITC going.

“For a small theater, its 32 years is an enormous achievement. Very few theaters have had that kind of run,” he said.

Perkovich echoed the feelings of many who knew Mrs. Billig that her passing is a great loss to the Park Forest community, as well as to the Southland.

“She was a great soul. She had terrific energy, and her strength of will inspired all who knew her,” he said.

Funeral arrangements are pending.

Mrs. Billig’s son requests that in lieu of flowers, donations be sent to Illinois Theatre Center, 371 Artists Walk, Park Forest, IL 60466, (708) 481-3510.

Note: The opening of the Jerry Herman production “Showtune,” which was set to open April 13 at Illinois Theatre Center, has been rescheduled for the following week.



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