Dark Times at the Northlight?

An upbeat public relations campaign launched last month hasn’t entirely obscured the grim realities confronting Evanston’s Northlight Theatre, which at 19 is one of the oldest local midsize companies. For the third time in as many years, the company is searching for a new managing director. Kimberly Sleight, a marketing pro brought in last year from the corporate sector, will leave at the end of July to seek employment once more in the corporate world. “I don’t think this is the right place for me to be at this point in my career,” explains Sleight, who was reluctant to provide much detail about her brief year at Northlight. But one thing she did not accomplish was reducing the theater’s accrued deficit of several hun dred thousand dollars; the deficit actually increased in the just-ended fiscal year, sources say, due to overly optimistic projections regarding unearned income and subscription revenue.

David Seidman, the immediate past chairman of Northlight’s board of directors, says the board knew they were taking a chance when they hired someone who had never run a theater company. “In terms of her career to date,” says Seidman, “we knew it was high risk whether the Northlight position would be satisfying to her, but we felt it was a risk worth taking.” They’re now in the final stages of interviewing candidates to succeed Sleight; the two leading contenders are both from Chicago, and both have significant theater management experience on their resumes. A decision could come within four weeks, says Seidman, which means the new hire could be on board by the start of the 1993-’94 season.

Sleight’s exit comes right after that of business manager Michael Van Allen, an actor who says he wanted to get out of the theater industry’s business side and explore artistic opportunities. (A new business manager also is expected to be in place in several weeks.) On top of these departures, the board decided earlier this year that it would be financially prudent to cut the existing administrative staff by a third. So out went the associate marketing and development directors, a bookkeeper, and an assistant box-office staffer, leaving a company with a $1.2-million annual operating budget with a full-time staff of eight. Seidman says Northlight will try to ease the burden on remaining employees by handling some chores jointly with other theater companies.

Staff changes aren’t the only dicey matters facing the Northlight. Within the next six months the company must decide where to stage its productions for 1994-’95 and beyond. For the past two seasons it has been making do at the Coronet Theatre, a former movie house in south Evanston, where the company moved after it was forced to vacate its longtime home in an Evanston school that was being returned to service. But Seidman says the board has decided to leave the Coronet after next season unless they can negotiate a more reasonable lease: “The move to the Coronet has doubled our expenses.” One option would be to move back and forth between two other venues, which Seidman declines, to name. “None of our options are perfect,” he admits.

Whether Northlight survives the current upheaval may depend on the success of its future productions, which remain under the control of artistic director Russell Vandenbroucke. Though Vandenbroucke has sought out new and occasionally challenging work in recent years, the production quality has been erratic, a problem that seems to have deeply affected the box-office take. Curiously, Northlight is touting the fact that last season’s gospel musical Smoke on the Mountain cleared more in single-ticket sales than the company made in the entire previous season. That claim may speak to the popularity of Smoke on the Mountain, but it also suggests that the previous season’s attendance was dangerously low. Artistic directors may not want to hear it, but audiences are no longer willing to go to the theater just because it’s there. To survive the diffilcult months ahead, Northlight will have to grapple with that fact too.

Party Canceled

David Dillon’s Party, the freewheeling sexual romp that helped keep Bailiwick Repertory afloat with a lucrative seven-month run last winter and spring, won’t be going into the Bailiwick lineup again this month as had been hoped. Plans to remount the production were scrapped last week when Bailiwick backed away from leasing a vacant space adjacent to the Theatre Building. The company had hoped to turn the space into a studio theater, but a study of the building earlier this month concluded that about $65,000 in renovations would be required to bring it up to code, an expense Bailiwick can’t shoulder. Bailiwick’s earlier run of Party marked Dillon’s debut as a playwright; he also directed it (and has directed and produced theater in Chicago before). Dillon is currently looking for commercial producers willing to put up $50,000 for a run of Party elsewhere. “This show made a ton of money for Bailiwick,” he says, “and I can’t believe there aren’t producers who would be willing to run with it.”

Notes From Underfoot

The water dripping into pots and pans inside two galleries at the Museum of Contemporary Art is no accident–it took the museum’s Don Meckley and his team a full three weeks to put in place Russian artist Ilya Kabakov’s elaborate and amusing installation “Incident at the Museum, or Water Music.” To create the environment of a provincial Russian art museum with a leaky roof, Meckley installed 800 feet of rubber tubing in the ceiling and beneath false floors in the two rooms. Holes in the bottom of every pot and pan allow the water-which drips in a melodious pattern carefully orchestrated by Kabakov’s collaborator, composer Vladimir Tarasov–to drain through to the tubing beneath the floor and, with the aid of suction pumps, return to each gallery’s main peristaltic pump to begin a new drip cycle. Meckley and chief curator Robert Francis were working right up until the installation’s opening last Friday to ensure all was in proper working order. Asked about his experience with water-oriented events, Francis said his previous employer, the Tate Museum in England, frequently battled a leaky roof.

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