Curious Position

Things could get more curious in the near future for the Curious Theatre Branch. The experimental company, which by its own description has been “emerging” for 15 years, will lose its 60-seat Lakeview home a year from now, an event that’s likely to be a catalyst for other changes. Founded in 1988 by Beau O’Reilly and Jenny Magnus, the resolutely antiauthoritarian fringe troupe has produced 56 new plays to date (none published; few ever produced by anyone else) in a collaborative and communal damn-the-box-office environment. Group decision making takes the place of a firm directorial hand, and the theater’s board of directors has never bothered to convene. But O’Reilly says he came away from a recent company meeting sure of only two things: “Our commitment is to new work, and we all like each other.” These days, he says, “there are some people in the company who want more directors, some who want a [stronger] board of directors, some who want a bigger budget, some who want a building. And then there are some people who just want to stay small and simple. I’m pretty much on that side.”

Well, maybe not so small. A 120-seat theater with a bigger stage and a separate rehearsal space would be ideal, O’Reilly says. When Curious moved from its previous storefront location in Wicker Park to its current quarters at the Lunar Cabaret, 2827 N. Lincoln, seven years ago, the idea was to create a combination restaurant and performance space, presenting theater at least once a week and music every night, plus the occasional film. The Full Moon Cafe served “handcrafted” food cooked by troupe members, Curious was the resident company, and the house band was Maestro Subgum and the Whole–the Curious players in their musical incarnation. The building had been purchased by O’Reilly’s brother-in-law, Miki Greenberg, who’s also Subgum’s pianist, to provide a place for the troupe to live, earn their keep (and a part ownership in the business), and do their art. But when the restaurant continued to lose money after three years, Greenberg closed it and sold the building to his family. The theater stayed on as a tenant. Now Greenberg, who’s been running the cafe at the Old Town School of Folk Music, wants the space back to turn it into a food and music venue.

Could Curious disappear? Definitely not, says O’Reilly. “The worst possible thing would be that we’d be without a space for a while.” Lots of good companies work that way, he adds, but Curious produces ten months out of the year–six of its own shows, plus the annual Rhinoceros Theater Festival–so a home seems like a necessity. They’re talking to other companies about sharing space, but again, the heavy schedule would be a problem. And they’re not looking to pull back on the number of shows. Four of the ten company members are playwrights; the work keeps coming. For a new theater of their own, they’ll need a commodity they’ve never had: money. Curious, with annual budgets in the $50,000 range, was sustained through the last half of the 90s by a six-year MacArthur Foundation grant that totaled $67,500 and a smaller multiyear grant from the Driehaus Foundation. Both grants expired a year ago. Now, O’Reilly says, “We’re in this funny place–too little to get big grants, but not little enough to get small grants.” A functioning board could help but, “I’m a little bit from Missouri about [that],” he says. “We’re exploring it.”

Whiskey in Blue, one of 32 plays O’Reilly has penned for Curious, which had a run at Lunar Cabaret in 2000, opens March 8 for three weeks at the city’s Storefront Theater.

It Just Ain’t Natural

Last spring the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum retooled its mission statement: “To expand the public’s knowledge of nature and environmental science to promote greater understanding of midwestern environmental issues and how those issues relate to the rest of the world.” The constraints of that mission were the first explanation offered when the museum canceled a controversial stamp art show scheduled to open last month. “It’s art; we’re nature,” a museum official said. So how does “American Originals: Treasures From the National Archives,” which opened a week later, fit in? The talking points that got Nixon through a meeting with Elvis are fascinating, but–they’re history.

All the Schmooze You Can Eat

“We had a reception for Michael Phillips a few weeks ago,” says Bailiwick Arts Center artistic director David Zak, “and afterward we were all just hanging out going, boy, this is what the league retreat used to be like–talking about marketing, talking about ideas, talking about what was happening. Rusty Hernandez, my producer, and I had this idea, and we went to Carrie Kaufman [publisher of PerformInk] and said let’s see if we can make something informal happen.” The result is Theater Dish, the first of what’s expected to be a quarterly series of dinners, discussions, and networking for theater folk. Zak envisioned a pizza-and-beer night, but when Kaufman mentioned it over lunch to Sunny Fischer of the Driehaus Foundation, Fischer offered to pop for a catered dinner. The free event is set for March 25 at Bailiwick, featuring survival stories from a panel of theater founders–Etel Billig (Illinois Theatre Center), Marcelle McVay (Victory Gardens), Jackie Taylor (Black Ensemble Theater), Scott Vehill (Prop Theatre), and Zak–who will tell how they got to the 20-year mark.

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