Directors Seeking Direction

Actors looking for work can audition for directors, but where can directors go when they’re seeking jobs? “They have to work doubly hard to create opportunities for themselves,” says Patricia Acerra, managing director of Bailiwick Repertory. Even more than their New York counterparts, Chicago theater directors have their work cut out for them. As small local companies face a perpetual struggle to survive, the number of large-scale productions continues to drop, and fewer directors get to enjoy the kind of recognition accorded veterans like Robert Falls, Michael Maggio, or Frank Galati. Elizabeth Lucas, who directs children’s shows at Marriott’s Lincolnshire Theatre, knows how tough it is to break into the front ranks at large regional theaters like Steppenwolf or the Goodman: “The more established the theater company, the more likely they are to use experienced directors whose work they’re familiar with.”

To earn a shot at the big time, a director has to get the right people to see his work, so a little over a year ago Lucas and Acerra launched the Chicago Directors’ Fo-rum, an artistic and networking organization that provides local directors with a newsletter, workshops, and social events. According to Lucas, membership has ballooned to nearly 120, and last month the group held its first formal conference, Directions 1998. A dialogue on job opportunities, it brought more than 60 members together with artistic directors from some of the city’s established theaters; among those on hand were Richard Shavzin of Strawdog Theatre Company, Warner Crocker of New Tuners Theatre, and Brian Russell of American Theater Company.

All three agree that up-and-coming talents climb a longer ladder to the top these days. Many directors entering the Chicago workforce find themselves going head-to-head with people who established themselves during local theater’s golden age in the 70s and 80s. “It’s tough and getting tougher for young directors,” says Crocker, “because there are a lot of middle-aged farts like me still hanging around.” Crocker tries to hire promising people for the musical workshops that New Tuners stages each summer, but even he admits that he seldom gives anyone a job unless he’s worked with him personally or seen his work elsewhere. At American Theater Company, Russell is contemplating a program of codirected one-acts next season that would pair emerging directors with more experienced mentors. But Shavzin can point to personal experience when citing a lack of opportunities: Strawdog’s main-stage season has shrunk to three productions a year, usually with only one made available to a director outside the ensemble.

The CDF conference was sponsored in part by the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers, a national union that represents more than 1,200 theater professionals. But the vast majority of the union’s membership works in and around New York City; here in town it has no more than 30 members. Chicago has lost several midsize nonprofit companies in recent years, and several of its commercial venues are owned and operated by out-of-towners. According to Lucas, few CDF members think the new Palace Theatre or Ford Center for the Performing Arts/Oriental

Theater will create job opportunities for Chicago directors: “Most of the directors in the CDF see those as ‘New York’ venues.”

Another MIA at MCA

The exodus from the Museum of Contemporary Art continues. Late last month Lucinda Barnes, curator of collections, announced that she will leave the museum at the end of February to take a new position as director of the Boise Art Museum. The 67-year-old Idaho museum has a staff of 12 and an annual budget of about $1 million. Her departure leaves the MCA with only one full-time curator, Amada Cruz, and several part-time curators, including Lynne Warren. Barnes joins a growing list of staffers to resign over the past year: last spring chief curator Richard Francis quit, then last fall director Kevin Consey announced he would leave this September. Few expect Francis’s position to be filled before the MCA names a new director, but Cruz is slated to be named acting chief curator.

Barnes plays down any connection between her resignation and those of her associates; she says the move to the top executive position at a regional art museum gives her an opportunity to develop new managerial skills. But, responding to the suggestion that it might have something to do with the workload, she says, “We are understaffed, and that has affected the [curatorial] department.”

Livent Lays Off

A few weeks after its New York production of Ragtime opened to mixed reviews, Livent Inc. has downsized. First Norman Zagier, senior vice president in charge of strategic planning for marketing and communications, resigned. Then last Friday, 20 Livent employees were axed, including support staff in the sales department of its Toronto headquarters and front-of-house staff at its Toronto and Vancouver theaters. According to a source familiar with developments, the company’s Toronto production of Phantom of the Opera, a reliable cash cow for almost a decade now, might be drying up and could close next year. But a Livent spokesperson described last week’s layoffs as “primarily seasonal.” It remains to be seen whether any of these developments will affect Chicago’s Ford Center for the Performing Arts/Oriental Theater, now being restored by Livent, or the Chicago debut of Ragtime, scheduled for the Ford Center in October.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Patricia Acerra and Elizabeth Lucas photo by J.B. Spector.