Chicago Theatre Company Gets Its Second Wind

After two years of uncertainty, the eight-year-old Chicago Theatre Company is showing signs of coming back to life. Before things began falling apart in late 1990, the CTC, headquartered in a 100-seat thrust stage theater at 500 E. 67th St., was known for mounting feisty productions that attracted a loyal body of theatergoers. Among its most successful shows were the Jeff Award-winning Have You Seen Zandile? and Po. “We had garnered a following, and audiences believed in what we were doing,” notes Douglas Alan-Mann, who founded the company with Chuck Smith in 1984. Alan-Mann is still with the theater company as producing artistic director. After taking a year’s leave of absence in 1990, Smith resigned in February 1991 and now teaches at Columbia College.

CTC’s problems date back to August 1990, with the decision to bring in Keryl McCord from Oakland, California, as its first executive director. At the time CTC financial backers were pushing for new management initiatives that would help grow and better establish the young theater company, and the board of directors felt McCord was well suited to the task. But according to Alan-Mann, McCord quickly ran into trouble when it became evident she believed she should have total control over the company, including artistic matters. She locked horns with Alan-Mann, and board members began to take sides on the issue.

But McCord did not wait around for the question of managerial control to be resolved. Four months after arriving she left to become executive director of the financially troubled League of Chicago Theatres, a position she would hold for only a year before heading off to Washington, D.C., to join the National Endowment for the Arts. With McCord out, CTC started to fall apart. “When McCord left we lost some of our board members who were her supporters,” explains Alan-Mann, “and others left because they were tired of all the infighting.”

Even worse, McCord’s abrupt departure also meant many of the day-to-day managerial chores weren’t being handled. “Grant proposals weren’t being filled out,” notes Dan Liberty, a funding and development consultant hired in August 1991 to help stabilize a company that had never ended a season with an operating deficit. After McCord’s exit the company’s producing schedule collapsed as well. Alan-Mann says, “We went from doing four shows a season to two to only one.”

But Alan-Mann and Liberty and what was left of the board of directors did not want to give up on CTC. Liberty talked to representatives from philanthropic organizations and discovered they were growing increasingly frustrated with the lack of administrative leadership within the company. The philanthropies suggested CTC hire expensive management-development consultants, but Liberty and Alan-Mann felt that would involve too large a financial risk. Working quietly behind the scenes to reestablish solid leadership, they got their first encouraging sign of success last April when Arts Midwest granted the company $4,000 to hire a management-development consultant named Cheryl Yuen.

With Yuen now on the team, Liberty and his CTC cohorts went back to major supporters to stress that they were serious about rebuilding the company. Some of those to whom CTC pleaded its case evidently liked what they heard. In November of last year the Joyce Foundation awarded the theater company a hefty $25,000 grant earmarked for managerial development, and other corporate and philanthropic backers have followed with other funds. The company has raised more than $61,000 in recent months, and Liberty says it must bring in an additional $23,000 by July 31 to reach its fund-raising goal.

CTC hopes to mount three shows during the current season. The first, Side Pockets, ran last fall; the second, Mens, opened last week; a third production is scheduled for the spring.

Zulu’s Last Run Until Broadway

Theatergoers who snapped up tickets to the two-week pre-Broadway tryout of The Song of Jacob Zulu at the Steppenwolf Theatre are getting a taste of Broadway in more ways than one. Steppenwolf management set a steep top ticket price of $38 for the brief engagement, which began January 30. Steppenwolf managing director Stephen Eich says the short run could gross a whopping $250,000, enough to cover the costs of remounting the show in Chicago. The New York production, capitalized at $1.4 million, will have a top ticket price of $50, the same amount charged for the theater’s last Broadway venture, The Grapes of Wrath. Eich says the show must gross 47 percent of capacity at New York’s Plymouth Theatre to break even each week. The Broadway production’s big straight play competition this spring is certain to be Tony Kushner’s wildly hyped Angels in America.

Brad’s New Baby

A year ago Cubby Bear owner George Loukas unceremoniously fired Brad Altman as the club’s concert booker after an item in this column recounted Altman’s success at transforming the bar into a popular venue for a range of concerts with a special emphasis on country music. After a failed attempt to reprise his Cubby Bear success at the Oak Theatre in Bucktown, Altman now appears to have found a promising concert-booking berth at Whiskey River, the increasingly popular country nightclub that opened last fall on North Clybourn. Last week Altman began booking a series of country acts at the club, and he hopes to make Whiskey River the venue of choice for emerging country recording artists and some of the big names too. “We want to be the place in Chicago to break every single hot young country act of quality,” says Altman, who says there will be no increase in the club’s $4 cover charge for the live entertainment.

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