Another Theater Company Bites the Dust

Chicago’s easy come, easy go off-Loop theater scene had another fatality last week when Synergy Theatre Company went out of business and closed the doors of its performance space, Wicker Park’s Synergy Center. In a letter to the group’s supporters Synergy cofounder and artistic director Mark Fritts characterized the move as a “fiscally responsible” decision. “In spite of our artistic and business efforts the support and economic resources are not there,” he wrote. During its eight years in business, Synergy’s hits included Sam Shepard’s Buried Child and a Joseph Jefferson Award-winning presentation of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.

Six years ago Synergy spent $12,000 building a comfortable and functional 96-seat proscenium theater in a space it rented at 1753 N. Damen. “We believed there was real revenue potential in opening our own space,” says Fritts. But the expected revenue never came. “In the past couple of years, the theater companies that could afford to sublet our facility were fewer and fewer because most of the small theater companies have less and less money to invest in productions,” he adds. Before Fritts decided to close the Synergy Center, the organization was asking $650 a week to rent the space. (A 148-seat space at the Theatre Building rents for $1,350 a week.)

Synergy hadn’t produced in its own space since it staged Federico Garcia Lorca’s The Marriage of Cristobal and Dona Rosita 18 months ago. Bailiwick Repertory executive director David Zak says, “Synergy never had very high visibility as a theater company, and none of their shows ever seemed to really take off.” Synergy’s busiest season was 1992-’93, when it mounted seven productions. Fritts says they only managed to do so many shows by keeping costs to a bare minimum. The company’s annual operating budget never exceeded $43,000.

Early on in Synergy’s life Fritts, who says he had no desire to see Synergy take on some “archaic institutional form like a mini Goodman Theatre,” apparently became disenchanted with the administrative aspects of building a theater company. “All that structure is dead weight when you should be putting your energy into the art,” he says. Synergy stopped writing grant proposals around 1991 when they realized begging for money “left no time for the art itself.”

At the age of 40, Fritts has closed Synergy with no debts outstanding and moved to the suburbs with his wife, actress and Synergy cofounder Annette Lazzara-Fritts, and their baby. The landlord of the former Synergy space is turning it into loft apartments.

Fame and Fortunes

The theater scheduled to open in 1997 at Cityfront Center may not be known as the Music & Dance Theatre after all. A source familiar with developments says the proposed 1,500-seat theater may be named for arts philanthropist and former city cultural commissioner Joan Harris, president of the advisory board overseeing fund-raising and strategic planning for the facility. According to the source, after Sandra Guthman, who is chairman of the advisory board as well as head of the Polk Bros. Foundation, made a bid to attach the Polk name to the facility, Harris agreed to chip in an additional $2 million in return for getting her name on the new theater. Harris and her husband, Irving, also were major contributors to a new music theater in Aspen, Colorado, that bears the Harris name.

Last November Guthman said the theater’s advisory board had agreed not to name the facility for a donor, no matter how large his or her contribution. Last week she reiterated that stance, saying as well that she had

been reelected chairman of the advisory board in November and was planning to serve out another term of

at least a year. Stay tuned.

Hot Spot for Hot Tix

Hot Tix is coming to North Michigan Avenue. After trying for several years to open a discount theater-ticket kiosk in one of the city’s most heavily trafficked areas, the League of Chicago Theatres has cut a deal with the developers of Chicago Place, 700 N. Michigan. In May a Hot Tix booth will open on the sixth floor of the mall. While the sixth-floor location may not be readily accessible to Michigan Avenue foot traffic, league marketing director Michael Pauken believes customers will seek it out. The league is also toying with the idea of selling theater-related merchandise in the newest Hot Tix facility.

Though Hot Tix will gain a North Michigan Avenue presence, suburban locations in Oak Park and Arlington Heights are closing in April. The Oak Park outlet had been open since the mid-1980s, and the Arlington Heights booth debuted only two years ago, but apparently neither has been generating enough business. “They were a drain on the league resources,” says Pauken. Beginning in May, Pauken says, all three Hot Tix booths–Chicago Place, State Street, and Evanston–will be open Sundays. Previously discount tickets for Sunday performances have been sold on Saturdays.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/J.B. Spector.