Comeback Kids

“No matter what’s hap-pened, we’ve always said, ‘We will prevail, we will go on,'” declares Alice Martin, board secretary for Stage Left Theatre. That sort of spirit explains how the small, politically progressive troupe has managed to survive for 18 seasons while many of its contemporaries have vanished. Last year City Hall closed the company’s 50-seat venue at Sheffield and Roscoe because it lacked the proper place-of-public-amusement license. The confusion delayed the mailing of a sales brochure to potential subscribers, and when the smoke cleared Stage Left had sold only 75 subscriptions. Now the company faces another in a series of managerial transitions: after eight seasons as artistic director, Drew Martin (no relation to Alice) is stepping down. Though he remains a member of the ensemble and may direct one show a year in upcoming seasons, Martin and his wife recently had their first child, and his Stage Left salary will no longer pay the bills. Jessi Hill and Kevin Heckman are the new coartistic directors; Heckman will work part-time and Hill will run the office full-time, handling many of the day-to-day administrative chores.

Hill was raised in Denver, earned an undergraduate degree in directing from the University of Northern Colorado, and moved to Chicago three years ago. She’s made what she considers a pretty good living as a freelance scenic designer and artist while trying to break into the city’s tight-knit directing ranks, and in her spare time she’s directed a few shows, including Private Passage and The Sensitive Swashbuckler at Stage Left. Hill joined the troupe because of its political orientation, but last spring, when the ensemble asked her to replace Drew Martin, she had to take an $8,000 pay cut. At the moment she’s concentrating on this year’s subscription brochure. “We’ve exceeded 200 subscribers in years past, and we should be able to get there again.” The four-play season kicks off on October 5 with a remounting of last season’s big success: Police Deaf Near Far, about a tragic breakdown in communication between deaf and hearing people, which won ensemble member David Rush a Joseph Jefferson Citation for best new work.

For the long term, Stage Left wants to find a new home that can accommodate 150 people. According to Alice Martin, the board would like the company to remain in Lakeview, but the current venue is too small to allow Stage Left to capitalize on a hit. She applauds Drew Martin for boosting donations over the past couple years; last year, contributed income accounted for about 40 percent of the company’s $120,000 operating budget. That budget will rise to about $130,000 next season, and for the first time Stage Left will be underwritten by some of the city’s larger philanthropic foundations, including Sara Lee and the Chicago Community Trust. Despite all the adversity Stage Left has encountered, its 12-person board of directors has remained loyal. “I don’t think Stage Left will ever be a large organization,” says Drew Martin, “but there is a strong continuity and commitment inside the company.”

All About Eve

Women tend to buy more theater tickets than men, and this fall two off-Loop productions will be competing heavily for female theatergoers. Both are episodic, both examine the experience of womanhood, and yet their gender politics may set them apart. Mom’s the Word, a series of comic vignettes about the joys and frustrations of motherhood directed by Jeremy Cohen, will begin an open-ended run October 3 on the main stage at the Royal George Theatre Center. Five blocks to the north The Vagina Monologues, Eve Ensler’s brazen exploration of female sexuality, will begin a five-week run at the Apollo Theater on September 24. Michael Sampliner, the New York coproducer of Mom’s the Word, professes not to be worried about the competition: “I think our show will be more accessible to the men who see it.” David Stone, who produced The Vagina Monologues off Broadway, says that 80 to 90 percent of its weekday audiences are female, but on weekends women bring husbands, friends, even sons.

The show won an Obie award when it was originally produced in 1996, and since then it’s played in Jerusalem, Berlin, Athens, Zagreb, and London. The Goodman Theatre Studio staged a benefit performance with local actresses in February 1999, and Loyola University Chicago staged another one this past February–both linked to a nationwide day of awareness for violence against women–but the Apollo engagement will be the show’s first commercial run here. The off-Broadway production has been playing to sold-out audiences at the Westside Theatre since October 1999, with Ensler performing the piece solo through mid-January 2000. Stone, a protege of hotshot New York producers Fran and Barry Weissler, has since generated a lot of publicity by frequently recasting it with high-profile actresses, from stage veterans like Rita Moreno, Diahann Carroll, and Judith Ivey to film stars like Marisa Tomei, Claire Danes, and Gina Gershon to wild cards like Ricki Lake, Erica Jong, and Alanis Morissette. (Donna Hanover, the estranged wife of New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani, is to appear in the show in the months ahead.)

Ensler will handle the Apollo engagement herself, and while celebrities might help to fill the 435-seat theater, Stone argues that Ensler brings a singular power to the performance because of her close connection to the material. The feminist writer and performer interviewed many women, ranging from a six-year-old girl to a Bosnian rape survivor, to craft the monologues, which include segments like “The Little Coochi Snorcher That Could,” “The Women Who Loved to Make Vaginas Happy,” and “Reclaiming Cunt.” According to Stone nearly all of the women who’ve seen the New York production are under 50, and many are much younger; the show has also drawn some gay male couples. He thinks The Vagina Monologues can succeed in a theater town like Chicago because it is well-written, provocative art. But with only five weeks of performances before the show moves to San Francisco, he’ll have to sell a lot of tickets fast to see a profit from the run.a

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