Artistic Licenses: Are City Building Codes Unfair to Small Theaters?

The city’s Department of Inspectional Services has mailed warnings to hundreds of theater companies and nightclubs indicating that it will be stepping up inspections and reminding them they risk being shut down unless their properties are up to code and properly licensed. This latest crackdown is likely to make life more difficult than it already is for many small, impoverished off-Loop theater companies that operate out of storefronts or other makeshift theaters, and it could squelch plans new companies might have to open their own spaces.

“If the city is really out to close you down they can, because the codes are so complex and byzantine,” says John Ragir, executive producer of the Live Bait Theater, which owns and operates one of the city’s most comfortable off-Loop theater spaces at 3914 N. Clark.

The process of getting a theater space up to code can go on for years and years, according to Clare Nolan-Long, artistic director of Blind Parrot Productions. Last summer Blind Parrot abandoned its space at 1121 N. Ashland after lengthy battles with an uncooperative landlord and building inspectors. Nolan-Long blames her company’s problems on the lack of clarity in the building codes. “The codes can be interpreted very differently from inspector to inspector,” she says.

Inspectional Services commissioner Dan Weil said he sympathizes with companies who’ve had trouble getting spaces up to code. “If there are problems,” says Weil, “we have people who are available to meet with the theater companies.” But Mary Badger, president of the League of Chicago Theatres, isn’t convinced Weil’s concerns are entirely motivated by safety. “This kind of threat comes along whenever the city is trying to generate more money,” she says; the city will do just that if it can identify enough companies who still haven’t bought the required “license for public assembly.”

Weil says he is simply trying to prevent trouble–his office would be the first to feel the heat of public outrage if there were a fatal fire at a storefront theater, for example. Still fresh in Weil’s mind is a disastrous fire at a New York nightclub that killed more than 200 people several years ago; when the club was discovered to have been in violation of New York City building codes, city officials reacted with a vengeance, he says, subsequently closing more than 2,000 public spaces.

Briar Street’s Nonprofit Plan

The Briar Street Theatre could soon become a permanent home for two or three of the city’s not-for-profit theaters. Phil Eickhoff, Briar Street’s general manager, is considering bringing in several companies whose productions would add up to a subscription season covering all or most of the year. Eickhoff has talked to several groups, including Shakespeare Repertory, Lifeline Theatre, Interplay, and the Next Theatre Company. He says all of them have expressed interest in the project, especially Shakespeare Rep, which has plans to expand its season in the years ahead and already feels cramped in its space at the Ruth Page Foundation building on North Dearborn.

If the participating theater companies are to be able to keep most of their ticket revenues, Eickhoff estimates he’ll need to raise about $500,000 in annual corporate or philanthropic underwriting to maintain the building. He concedes he’d like to move away from booking for-profit shows because of the continuing scarcity of good productions and the constant uncertainty about box office potential. Briar Street’s current tenant, a musical revue called The Problem Is Women; The Problem Is Men, was savaged by the critics and will close later this month after a run of little more than two months. Another commercial production, Mixed Emotions, a comedy starring Betsy Palmer and Tom Troupe, begins previews there December 6.

The Good Times Killed in New York

All the hype the New York media could muster wasn’t enough to turn cartoonist Lynda Barry’s controversial adaptation of The Good Times Are Killing Me into a long-running hit. The show closes in New York on November 24, about four months after it moved from the Second Stage to the off-Broadway Minetta Lane Theater. Last week the show’s New York producers were hard-pressed to explain exactly why audiences for The Good Times had dwindled away. They seemed reluctant to concede that the show could have failed to live up to its hype. When this writer saw the New York production last September, it seemed little more than a pleasant, slightly downbeat, modestly produced adaptation of Barry’s novel, not well served by two children cast in key roles or by its steep $35 top ticket price. Barry, who adapted the novel herself for the New York production, provoked considerable outrage in Chicago theater circles when she repeatedly referred in interviews to the original production at the City Lit Theater as a “staged reading.” Ironically City Lit’s so-called staged reading ran longer than New York’s “full-fledged” production.

Meanwhile, the same kind of hype that surrounded The Good Times has started up for the New York premiere of Chicago playwright Scott McPherson’s Marvin’s Room, opening December 8 at Playwrights Horizons. The New York Times gave McPherson the royal treatment: the lead front-page story in last Sunday’s Arts section. In it McPherson took a swipe at Chicago critics for not seeing the parallels between his play and the AIDS crisis.

Christmas Battle of the Divas

The battle for Christmas box-office supremacy between two of Hollywood’s hottest divas, Barbra Streisand and Bette Midler, heated up in Chicago last week. Columbia Pictures, which releases Streisand’s The Prince of Tides next month, and Twentieth Century-Fox, which opens Midler’s For the Boys on November 27, scheduled exhibitor screenings of the two pictures at the same hour on the same day last week. When exhibitors complained about the snafu, Columbia finally gave in and changed its screening time. Though The Prince of Tides has been bandied about as a strong Academy Award contender, local insiders are worried about its box-office appeal. Streisand “hasn’t had a commercial picture in years,” said one grumpy exhibitor.

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