Chug Chug, Choo Choo, Ka-Ching!

If they were giving one of those special Tony Awards for creative thinking on arts funding, John Szostek would be a contender. Szostek, an Emmy-winning producer and director who specializes in commedia dell’arte, has pulled off a stunt more amazing than any Harlequin can perform. Though funding for fledgling theater companies is as hard to come by as an open road in a blizzard, he got IDOT to bankroll slick new quarters for his two-year-old troupe, the Piccolo Theatre. That’s IDOT as in Illinois Department of Transportation, the salt truck and blacktop bureaucracy. The soft-spoken, deft-footed Szostek (also a pro at ballroom dancing) waltzed off with $2.4 million in IDOT grants for a cultural center-cum-theater in Evanston. He just had to make one small accommodation: the theater will double as a railroad station.

Szostek was in the box when he started thinking outside of it. Evanston’s old concrete and brick Main Street Metra station has been his office for the last three years in his regular gig as executive director of the Custer’s Last Stand street fair, a job he fell into 21 years ago. Back then Szostek, who’s also an actor and college drama teacher, was a freelance clown who’d performed at the annual event for several years. When he called to make sure he’d be hired again, he was told there’d be no fair. The merchants who had started it were giving up after eight years because they couldn’t find anyone to run it. Unless, of course, he was interested. “I said, ‘I’ve never done this before,'” Szostek recalls. They didn’t blink. Under his stewardship the two-day event has become one of northern Illinois’ largest art fairs, drawing 60,000 people last year. This year’s fair, scheduled for June 16 and 17, will have 300 artists and craftspeople, 30 food booths, three stages, and 100 commercial vendors in blocked-off sections of Custer, Main, Chicago, and Washington streets.

The Main Street station sits in the heart of this area, tucked between the CTA’s Purple Line and the Metra tracks (with Custer Avenue to the west of them). It’s owned by the Union Pacific, which picked up the decrepit 1908 building when it bought the Chicago & North Western railroad a few years back. Thinking it would be a good idea to have people on the premises, UP offered the nonprofit Custer street fair organization office space at a nominal rent. The bare-bones office and workshop suite had been created in the station’s lower level a few years earlier for field engineers who weren’t using it anymore. In 1997 Szostek moved in. “And once I got in here,” he says, “I thought it would be a terrible waste if we didn’t use the rest of the building.”

Most of it has been locked up for a half century. The second floor of the Swiss-style station houses the modest waiting room, with its few benches and tables, familiar to local commuters. But when the depot was new, this was one of a pair of terra-cotta-floored, dark-paneled waiting rooms separated by a two-window ticket office and served by a two-story loading and baggage area with an elevator. In 1955, when a model-railroading group was using the lower level as its clubhouse (with a layout that spanned the length of the building), a burglar broke in and started a fire. It didn’t destroy the building’s 18-inch-thick foundation or brick exterior, but except for the north-side waiting room it turned the upper-level interior into a charred mess. The railroad hauled out the debris and closed off the burned-out rooms.

Sitting beneath this blackened hulk, watching the single waiting room fill with commuters in the early morning and stand empty the rest of the day, Szostek began to muse about what could be done with a damaged space that was in demand only from 5 to 9 AM. In his mind’s eye he began to see a way to restore the building and to realize his own dream of a small theater company with a permanent home. Aware that there was more money available to enhance passenger services than to create an arts center, he came up with a plan to restore the depot to its original condition, more than double the waiting-room area, improve commuter parking, expand food service, and provide ADA access to both platforms–and to use it as a cultural center during the off-hours. It would convert from station to classrooms after nine in the morning, to a 50-seat adult theater in the evening, and to a children’s theater on weekend afternoons. Transportation funding would be the engine; the theater center would get a nearly free ride. With permission from Custer Street Fair Inc., he worked out a 20-year lease with UP, founded the Piccolo Theatre with former students and colleagues, and began to plow through the voluminous, “very technical” application forms for grants from the federal and state governments. The other applicants for these grants were transportation agencies and municipalities rather than nonprofit organizations, Szostek says. “As far as the Union Pacific knows, there isn’t a project like this in their system.”

So far he’s collected $2.8 million, enough to pay for the building’s restoration. About $2.4 million came from IDOT’s “Greenlight” program (which provides funding to improve stations, parking, and access for public transportation); the federal government kicked in $386,000. Szostek needs another $810,000 to pay for theater equipment (recessed lights, a portable stage and seats) and an anticipated half-million-dollar first-year operating budget. Custer Street Fair Inc. is looking for ways to raise that money (fairgoers will be asked to donate $1 each) and for a new name appropriate to its broader mission. The renovation and a mural project for the embankment walls, headed by local artist Jim Parks, will tie in with an “Old Town Evanston” plan under discussion to save the historic shopping area along Main and Custer. Szostek says work will begin on the station in July; the Evanston Arts Depot should be operating next spring. In the meantime, Piccolo will open Dario Fo’s We Won’t Pay, We Won’t Pay at Noyes Cultural Arts Center for a three-week run in August.

Critical Kiss-Off

Breadline Theatre Group instituted a “no critics” policy for Fair Lonesome Souls, cowritten by artistic director Paul Kampf and running through June 16. No press night, and no reviews wanted, according to spokesperson Heather Carpenter. “We’ve found that without a significant amount of name recognition in the city, a good review will only marginally increase ticket sales, but a bad review will kill it,” Carpenter says. As a 40-seat Ravenswood storefront producing only new plays, it’s hard to get critics to come anyway, she adds. “If you get one reviewer, you’re lucky, and then it’s so risky–just one person’s opinion. And the reviewers we tend to get don’t have any frame of reference for this new material. We’ve had a number of instances where the critics didn’t know what to respond to so they wrote about our space. For our last full-length production, American Gothic and Child’s Play, we had one reviewer [Reader critic Nick Green]. He didn’t like it and it really hurt our sales. He came opening weekend; the rest of the run just died. After that American Gothic got a Jeff nomination for best new work.”

Good Hair Night

Just when we had about given up on getting anyone to take hair seriously, the Museum of Contemporary Art announced there’d be a hair color consultation booth at tonight’s “First Fridays” event. Next month: nail art.

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