Maria Bamford in black pants and red shirt, onstage at the Den
Maria Bamford performs at the Den Theatre's Heath mainstage Credit: Abigail Brasher

The last few months have been busy ones with theaters announcing new venues: if all goes well, American Blues, Steep, Northlight, and TimeLine will all be producing in their new homes sometime in the next couple of years.

But the long COVID shutdown of 2020-21 also took away some venues that had provided rentals to the large and vital band of itinerant theater companies in Chicago. 

Stage 773 (formerly the Theatre Building Chicago and one of the longest-running rental facilities in town, as well as the home for the Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival) announced a year ago that they were reimagining their Belmont Avenue digs as an immersive experiential space, described by executive director Jill Valentine to the Tribune‘s Chris Jones as “Willy Wonka meets Burning Man meets the Museum of Modern Art.” Stage 773 promises that WHIM is coming. What is WHIM? According to their website, “It’s more than a destination, it’s an exploration of creativity and inspiration where the line between artist, performer, and audience is blurred. The inner workings of the creative brain are explored and translated into reality for your play and enjoyment.” All righty then! But in the meantime, the four stages that were available as rentals in the venue are gone.

So too is the Royal George on North Halsted, right across from the ever-expanding Steppenwolfverse; they told their existing renters, including Vicki Quade of the popular Late Nite Catechism franchise, that they had to move out last spring. (Quade is now producing at the Greenhouse Theater Center, where longtime resident company MPAACT is opening their first show since shutdown, Pulled Punches, this coming weekend.)

The Athenaeum, a longtime go-to for rentals in Lakeview next door to owner Saint Alphonsus Church, has been reimagined as well; it’s now The Athenaeum Center for Thought and Culture. According to a press release last October, “The mission of the Athenaeum Center for Thought and Culture is to invite people into encounters with beauty and to revitalize the great Catholic tradition of the arts from one of Chicago’s most unique, religious, artistic, and civic buildings.” They are still offering rentals, but their website notes that those will be “curated” by the theater. Though some dance companies have performed there, I haven’t seen any announcements of upcoming theater productions.

Keeping commercial houses open during a time of no rental revenues is obviously an even more daunting task, since they’re not eligible for nonprofit grants. (Mercury Theater Chicago announced they were closing for good in 2020, but were mercifully able to reopen.) But in the case of Wicker Park’s the Den, they’ve found a savior in stand-up comedy.

Ryan Martin, CEO and founder of the Den Theatre Courtesy Austin Peters

Ryan Martin, once a member of the now-defunct Sinnerman Ensemble, first rented out a second-floor space in what was formerly a department store on Milwaukee Avenue in 2010 to produce and codirect William Inge’s Bus Stop with longtime Chicago actor Lia Mortensen. Quickly, however, the Den turned from producing their own work to providing rental facilities for others. 

With generous investments from theater philanthropists Michael and Mona Heath, the Den has grown to currently encompass five theaters, a downstairs bar/cafe, and comfortable lobby and bar areas throughout with cozy leather couches that do indeed feel denlike. A wide range of Chicago companies have called the Den home, including First Floor Theater, Broken Nose Theatre, Haven Chicago, and the Hypocrites.

The latter were supposed to be in residence 36-44 weeks per year in the downstairs Heath mainstage space, a large flexible-use room built out in 2014 that can seat up to 300. But by the end of 2016, the company, led by founder Sean Graney, was effectively shut down, leaving a large hole in the center of the Den’s operations.

Martin, who owns the business entity that runs the Den (but not the building itself) along with Carol Cohen, founder of Haven Chicago, says the departure of the Hypocrites left them scrambling for a model to keep the theaters viable even before COVID-19. “The challenges that came were fast and hard financially, you know, and it was like, ‘How do we support all this square footage?’ So I’ve always been searching for ways.” 

Rendering of the Haven Lounge at the Den, which will be remodeled this spring. Courtesy Jeffrey D. Kmiec

The downstairs bar/cafe space, the Haven Lounge, was open for a while during the day, but Martin found that it wasn’t generating enough revenue to cover costs. (Currently the lounge is open one to two hours before shows; the Den is also planning on unveiling renovations later this spring that will open up the street windows for better ventilation, and they will expand bar service into the downstairs main lobby.)

Enter the comedians.

The first high-profile comedian to rent at the Den was Cameron Esposito, who used one of the smaller studios for a two-week residency in 2017 to work out some new material. “I watched every single show sell out in two days,” says Martin. “And then I also watched my team, the Den staff, put together this show with such minimal cost.” 

Now the downstairs mainstage is mostly dedicated to presenting comedians; last weekend, Michael Kosta of The Daily Show and River Butcher filled the room. Patton Oswalt and Maria Bamford have performed there in the past, and the Den is now also becoming a spot for comedians to film specials; Todd Barry will be taping there on April 24.

“We have a really cool green room for them, we take care of them. We built a team where our goal is to give great customer service to the comedian,” says Martin. “So they come here and they go, ‘Oh, the Den takes care of us.’ We have a stage manager specifically for them. We have security. We treat them like royalty, you know?” He adds, “I think that we try to give the audience a really cool vibe.”

The layout of the Heath mainstage has cabaret-style VIP seating in the middle, with green and blue velvet padded seats around cocktail tables, and then regular seating around the perimeter on three sides, with enough space so cocktail service isn’t disruptive. The stage itself, designed by veteran theater designer Jeffrey D. Kmiec, is flanked by shelves with tchotchkes and books, giving it the feel of an intimate library room, as opposed to the stereotypical austere brick-wall backdrop of many comedy clubs.

I suggest to Martin that the Den is aiming for the sweet spot between clubs like Zanies and big headliner venues like the Chicago Theatre. “That’s a good way to put it. I love that,” he responds.

Martin notes that the Den offers what he categorizes as below-market rates (ranging from $275/nightly-$1,100 weekly for the smallest studio, which seats 45, to $1,200/nightly-$4,500/weekly for the Heath mainstage, not including facilities and equipment fees), with a dedicated technical and front-of-house staff to help renting companies. But rentals have been slow to return, as storefront companies worry about canceling due to new waves of COVID-19. (Upcoming non-stand-up shows at the Den include the Chicago Circus and Performing Arts Festival April 21-24; First Floor Theater’s production of The Secretaries, by Chicago playwright Omer Abbas Salem, opening May 5; and Broken Nose’s Chicago premiere of Zoe Kazan’s off-Broadway hit, After the Blast, opening May 13.)

By building up the comedy headliners at the forefront of their business model, the Den in essence is letting the comedy help bankroll the drama. But Martin has other ideas, too. Upcoming plans include turning the spacious downstairs lobby into a vendors’ market with a DJ on the weekends; Martin hopes to kick that off this summer. “If it all works, we could have 50 to 70 vendors on any Saturday that are all paying us a small amount of money, but where, when you add it all together, it’s significant. And it doesn’t interfere with our theater or our comedy.” 

He adds, “I think it is picking up among the comedian community that in Chicago, if you want a place where you can really connect with the audience and it’s a good neighborhood, good vibe, come to the Den. I think that that’s growing and it’s so important for us as a theater because our first love is theater.”