A Changing Court

In what may be the city’s most significant theatrical changing of the guard since Robert Falls took the artistic reins at the Goodman in the mid-1980s, Charles Newell is taking over as artistic director of the Court Theatre, effective in June. Newell replaces D. Nicholas Rudall, who founded the company on the University of Chicago campus in 1971 and has been its artistic leader from the start. Rudall won’t disappear entirely: he will direct and act in Court productions while working on translations of classic Greek tragedies Newell plans to direct. Newell came to Court last season as an associate artistic director; since then he has maintained a fairly low profile and directed only one show, The Triumph of Love.

Court has accomplished more in 23 years than many other medium-sized companies: it carries no debt and has one of the city’s newest and best-equipped theater spaces. The chance to put a fresh stamp on a stable theatrical organization is a rare one these days. But Newell does have challenges to confront. As evidenced by recent marketing initiatives aimed at younger audiences, Court is trying to revamp its stuffy image, the result no doubt of its classics-oriented mission. In 1990 it brought in Second City founder turned consultant Bernie Sahlins to try to give the organization a hipper edge–it was under his influence that the company staged The Mystery Cycle in U. of C.’s Rockefeller Chapel–but without much success. (Sahlins has since moved on to the Organic.) Court’s location is also a problem; far removed geographically from both most other theatrical activity and a large, affluent yuppie audience, Court has been forced to work hard to attract non-Hyde Parkers.

Last week Newell, who spent several years as a director in residence at the famed Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, was annoyingly circumspect about what he may do at Court’s artistic helm but took pains to suggest that there would be no swift or complete overhaul. “Nick [Rudall] and I share a fundamental feeling about the theater company, and I’m not looking to transform that profile overnight.” Newell says his “bottom-line passion” is for classical theater, so it probably won’t disappear from the Court menu anytime soon. But maybe it’ll have some new twists: “I think we have to find more exciting ways to do classical theater that will unlock and release its relevance for a modern audience.”

Fast Festival

On paper at least, the fifth biennial International Theatre Festival of Chicago, slated for May 24 through June 19, looks to be one of the fastest paced in the festival’s history. The ticket brochure mailed out last week includes a brisk, exhortative letter from executive director Jane Nicholl Sahlins (“ask questions, open your mind, take a risk”), some background information about each production, and the estimated running time of each show in the lineup. Only two productions–Communicating Doors and Juno and the Paycock–clock in at more than two hours; the remaining productions all run between 60 and 100 minutes. “It’s just a coincidence,” maintains festival managing director Pam Marsden. “We don’t choose shows based on their running times.” Bad theater can seem endless no matter how short the running time, but the large number of relatively short productions in this year’s festival should appeal to many marginal theatergoers.

Joseph Holmes Hires Some Help

A new temporary management team will guide the Joseph Holmes Chicago Dance Theatre through its May engagement at the Shubert Theatre, part of the Spring Festival of Dance, following the departure of low-profile, former part-time executive director Mary Webster last month. Fred Solari, former managing director of the defunct Civic Stages Chicago, and John Schmitz, former general manager of Ballet Chicago, are handling all the administrative details leading up to the company’s May performances. Explains Solari: “We’re providing a service and will be there to put out any fires at least through May.” Solari, who has become a sort of free-lance arts management troubleshooter since Civic Stages Chicago shut down (with a surplus of more than $200,000), maintains that Joseph Holmes is in pretty good shape given the lack of visibility and minimal funding hindering local dance companies. “Joseph Holmes has very little debt, about $10,000,” he notes. Schmitz, whose expertise is fund-raising, will be working to retire the existing deficit. Still to be resolved, however, is who will guide the company artistically: artistic director Randy Duncan and associate artistic director Harriet Ross both left last summer.

The CSO Makes It Official

Let’s hope the weather wasn’t an omen. Last week, on one of the snowiest days of a miserable winter, the Orchestral Association, parent organization of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, held a sparsely attended press conference to make official what has been rumored for several months: that the Chicago Symphony Orchestra has ditched plans to acquire the Borg-Warner building and will expand instead onto already-purchased property behind Orchestra Hall fronting Wabash and Adams. Sounding a little silly, vice chairman Bill Jentes argued that the association had preferred the Wabash-and-Adams site all along. The new plan, which doesn’t include a second concert hall, will cost between $90 and $100 million. That’s about the same as the original plan, which was thwarted when Borg-Warner refused to sell to the orchestra. At this point the CSO has in hand between $65 and $70 million.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Matthew Gilson.