Buff Bods Do Boffo Biz

For David Dillon the party never ends. In 1992 the director accepted an invitation to stage a late-night show for Bailiwick Repertory. He wanted to do an uplifting play about gay men, but over the next two weeks he read 40 scripts without finding one. “Everything I looked at seemed to be talking about how miserable, awful, and painful it was to be gay.” Finally Dillon decided to write the script himself. Party, about a group of gay friends enjoying an evening of sexually oriented fun and games, opened in November 1992 at Bailiwick and became an instant success. It played to large crowds for almost two years, ran for a year in New York, and has since been produced in 22 other markets, including Los Angeles, Miami, Boston, Toronto, Mexico City, and London. It’s currently running in Buffalo and Fort Lauderdale and in the next few months will open in Raleigh, North Carolina, and Birmingham, Alabama. This weekend Dillon brings Party back to the Bailiwick for a four-week revival directed by Kevin P. Hill, and the homecoming engagement gives him a chance to measure how far the play has taken him. “I did the first draft in four days,” he marvels, “and it’s been going on for nearly eight years now.”

An active member of the local theater community for years, Dillon cofounded City Lit Theater Company, coproduced the Chicago premiere of Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart, and brought Quentin Crisp to the Ivanhoe. When Party became a hit, no one quite knew whether people were coming for the sexual content and onstage nudity or whether they were responding to, as Dillon phrases it, “a play about friendship and heart.” But local producer Libby Mages found the show hilarious and tipped her friend Michael Leavitt, a producer with Fox Theatricals. Leavitt optioned Party for New York, and four months after it finally closed in Chicago, the show was in previews off-Broadway. Leavitt brought seven other New York producers in on the venture, and Dillon, director of the new production, had to struggle to preserve his theme of gay friendship amid suggestions that he emphasize the play’s sex and nudity.

Advance ticket sales were healthy. “There had been a ton of advance publicity, and Party already had a good reputation from its long run in Chicago,” says Dillon. But the New York critics can stop a play cold, and the night the New York Times review was due out, Dillon and the cast were planning to retire to a bar near the theater and wait. Unfortunately one of the cast members fell ill, and Dillon had to go on for him. When the final curtain fell, a naked Dillon raced into the theater wings to find one of the producers clutching a copy of the Times notice, a glowing review by Stephen Holden. “When I read it my mouth dropped open.” Party won other good reviews in New York, and with favorable word of mouth the off-Broadway production ran until 1995.

That fall Dillon headed to LA to stage Party in the 869-seat Henry Fonda Theatre. It was too large for such an intimate show, the LA critics were less supportive, and the show ran less than six months. Its popularity in Chicago led to a lesbian sequel, Girl Party (written with Virginia Smiley), and a last installment, Third Party. But by 1996 the grind of keeping the franchise going was wearing Dillon down: “I needed something more peaceful, some structure in my life.” He decided to settle down in Los Angeles, though he did travel to London in 1998 to revamp Party for its West End premiere. For two years he’s been a press agent for the Laguna Playhouse, and lately he’s been writing again. “When you have something to say, that is when you sit down and write.” He’s completed the first draft of a new play called A Family Affair, about a father who comes out to his young gay son. Bailiwick has already expressed interest in the work, and Dillon’s new agent will get a copy of the script when he’s finished a rewrite. “This play is a bit of departure for me,” says Dillon. “Way more mainstream, with not a penis to be seen.”

Fancy Footwork

We wanted an extraordinary event to open our new theater,” says Phil Reynolds, executive director of the Dance Center of Columbia College. He’s got it: White Oak Dance Project, the modern dance troupe founded by Mikhail Baryshnikov, will formally open the 275-seat venue at 1306 S. Michigan with a residency from November 15 through 19. To date the troupe has performed only three Chicago engagements, in 1990, 1994, and 1998, all three at the Auditorium or the Arie Crown. According to Christina Sterner, general manager for White Oak, the center’s theater is the smallest venue ever to host the troupe: “We normally get booked into theaters seating between 1,200 and 1,500 people.” Reynolds says the Dance Center will have to come up with a financial subsidy to cover the expense of the engagement but also hold the top ticket price down to $60 (comparable to what the troupe commands at larger venues).

Reynolds began negotiating for White Oak in early 1999, but a proposed engagement that spring never got off the ground. When Reynolds and Bonnie Brooks, the new chair of the dance department, began planning the gala opening for the $4.3-million, 33,000-square-foot Dance Center, Reynolds approached the troupe again. According to Sterner the size of the theater was a stumbling block; while plusher and better equipped than the old facility in Uptown, it still didn’t meet the troupe’s needs. “There is no fly space in the theater, so we will have to roll in our video projection screen instead of lowering it in,” she explains, “and there is less backstage space and fewer dressing rooms.” Reynolds thinks that White Oak accepted the engagement because of the Dance Center’s reputation and its track record with many choreographers who’ve worked with the company, including Trisha Brown and David Gordon. Another factor was the center’s decision to commission a new work from Gordon (whose Pickup Performance Company was managed by Brooks during the 80s); the piece, tentatively called “For the Love of Rehearsal,” is set to six preludes from Bach’s Cello Suite.

Mutating Management

Welz Kauffman will become the new president and CEO of Ravinia Festival, replacing Zarin Mehta. The 39-year-old Kauffman has signed a three-year contract with Ravinia and will assume his new job on October 1. From 1995 until this year Kauffman was artistic administrator for the New York Philharmonic, helping to program the orchestra’s season. He left that position to become director of artistic planning for the Los Angeles Philharmonic but held that job for only two months before signing with Ravinia. David Weinberg, chairman of Ravinia’s board of directors, characterizes Kauffman as “a real rising star” who is “comfortable with a wide variety of music.” Weinberg says that Mehta and Ravinia music director Christoph Eschenbach have already programmed much of the classical music for next summer, but among the projects Kauffman oversaw at the New York Philharmonic was a concert performance of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd starring Patti Lupone. Kauffman hints that similar fare might become part of Ravinia Festival in future seasons.

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