For years the Chicago Park District’s Theatre on the Lake was a wasting asset, used only by community theater groups based in the neighborhood parks for annual productions of Brigadoon or The Mousetrap. That changed in 1996, when staff led by Marj Halperin, then director of the Park District’s marketing and program support, made it into the theatrical equivalent of the Grant Park Music Festival: a publicly underwritten venue that made professional performances available to people who might not otherwise see them. Presenters benefited as well: Theatre on the Lake became a sort of nirvana for off-Loop theaters, a place where their best shows could have a weeklong afterlife and capture the attention of new audiences. Now, after seven years of presenting the cream of the Chicago theater crop to sellout crowds, Theatre on the Lake is losing its $130,000 operating subsidy.

But instead of reacting with gloom and doom, the parties involved seem to be taking the cut in stride, happy to be keeping the theater alive in a period of straitened local-government finances, including a $20 million shortfall at the Park District. The good news, says Park District cultural arts manager Jean de St. Aubin, is that the loss isn’t really the financial disaster it might appear to be.

“Every year Theatre on the Lake projects we’re going to make x amount of money. And every year we would project a little bit more–$90,000, then $111,000–but when it came to the end of the year our revenues were always much greater than our projection, and the excess went into the Park District general fund.” Though these “rebates” have never equaled the amount of the subsidy, says de St. Aubin–who didn’t provide specific amounts–they have increased every year. She also notes that Theatre on the Lake isn’t disappearing from the Park District’s operating budget. “Most of our expenses happen before the season starts, so the Park District fronts the money, and as the revenues come in they go back into the Park District.” In 2003, then, the Park District will go from being Theatre on the Lake’s funder to being its lender.

The Park District will continue to provide infrastructure, including de St. Aubin’s time (she also supervises the Grant Park Music Festival, whose $2 million subsidy didn’t disappear) and the building itself, scheduled for renovation at the end of the summer to make it suitable for year-round use. “There are other things, day camps and after-school programs, that need to continue to be subsidized,” says de St. Aubin. “We can support ourselves, so we should. I don’t want it to look like this administration is turning its back on the arts, because it’s not. We’ve developed 12 cultural centers around the city over the past three years.” (These centers are parks buildings that have been enhanced to make them suitable for performances and where arts groups like the Albany Park Theatre Project or the Chicago Moving Company are in residence.)

Notes Theatre on the Lake artistic director Curt Columbus, “[The Park District is] still going to put up banners and put up lights and do janitoring. The big capital project is still in the works. In a year when 900 people are not going to have jobs at the Park District, they’re not asking us to cut people–just pay for our programming.”

To do that they’ll lengthen the season, giving the popular Second City show a second week. They’ll also look for corporate sponsors and raise subscription prices from $80 to $95 and single-ticket prices from $12 to $15. And therein lies the potential bad news. Columbus worries about the impact of a price hike on theatergoers 18 to 35. “If it’s another $15 for the subscription, will we lose younger people?”

More significant is the price hike’s potential impact on the audience’s racial, ethnic, and neighborhood diversity, unique in a largely segregated theater community. “Our theaters come from all over the city,” says Columbus, “and then our subscribers go to see their shows.” He cites a Lincoln Park couple who last year subscribed to the African-American Chicago Theatre Company after seeing one of its productions at Theatre on the Lake. Lincoln Park couples are unlikely to be put off by $15 tickets, and Columbus notes that Chicago Theatre Company patrons already pay more than that when they see the company at its home. But to the extent that Theatre on the Lake–like the Grant Park Music Festival–exists to put the arts within reach of those who don’t already have access, it’s worth asking whether it’s true that because the program can sustain itself, it should. It’s a question that will soon face every arts group: whether subsidizing new audiences when money is tight constitutes a pie-in-the-sky extravagance or a necessary investment in the future.

Halperin, now executive director of the League of Chicago Theatres, has offered to have “the league provide testimonials to potential sponsors, if that will show [Theatre on the Lake’s] importance to the community as a whole,” though the league itself will not provide financial support. De St. Aubin stresses that participating theater companies, which get reimbursed for their production costs for the week, will still be paid the same: “This is not going to hurt the artistic community at all.”

Park District press secretary Angelynne Amores points out that asking Theatre on the Lake to support itself isn’t just a reaction to the budget shortfall but is in keeping with a general shift in funding the parks. “The Park District used to rely heavily on property taxes, but since [former superintendent] Forrest Claypool was here he started switching the budget from tax reliant to revenue generating–privatizing the harbors, golf, parking, Soldier Field.” This may be cold comfort to those being “privatized” for the first time; but Columbus sees himself at the front of a long line. “Anyone who sits in an artistic director chair in this economy needs to figure out how we’re going to stick to doing the work we value,” he says. “There’s no blame to be cast. Everybody in the theater community’s going to go through this–if not now, wait six months. And it’s our collective responsibility to handle it. This is the whole reason we do theater, to be there when people need us, and not be whiny bitches about it.”

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