Doing It for the Kids

Just when I thought I couldn’t bear to hear another post-9/11 sob story–warranted or not–someone told me about Child’s Play Touring Theatre. The Chicago-based acting company, which makes theater out of stories and poems written by kids, was started by June and Victor Podagrosi more than 25 years ago. Though it’s had a low profile at home, it’s been a real success story, touring nationally, performing for four million elementary school kids, and appearing at venues like Wolf Trap, BAM, and the Goodman (where it will run a summer camp this year). Over the years CPTT has developed a variety of programs, but its innovative initial idea is what continues to drive it: when the company’s booked, kids are asked to submit written work, and at least one of their pieces gets incorporated into the performance at their school. The formula turned CPTT into a near-million-dollar-a-year nonprofit that regularly earned 75 percent of its income and kept three troupes of actors working steadily.

Then came 9/11. Field trips for schoolkids suddenly disappeared, and donors’ checks and bookings dried up simultaneously. The company lost $76,000 before it knew what hit it, and two years later things still haven’t turned around. In the past, says June, “we never had to worry about our market. Now, every day I wake up faced with the reality that I don’t have enough money for payroll.”

The Podagrosis met at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in the 70s and founded CPTT there. June was a graduate student in dance, Victor in theater. He was teaching at nearby Parkland College when someone suggested acting out his students’ stories. June says Victor got hooked on their fresh voices right away, and the first performance, held at Parkland, was an immediate hit. For the next four years Child’s Play was based at a Champaign performing arts center, as the Podagrosis refined their concept and began touring schools. When the center was demolished in 1982 they moved to Chicago, working out of the basement of their apartment building in Logan Square. They landed an agent, added a second and then a third company, had a baby, and socked money away for the time when they could have a permanent venue–a real children’s theater–in Chicago. Then, in 1995, when he was 41, Victor had a fatal heart attack. “Our son was only eight years old,” June says. “It was devastating. But a week after he was buried, I was back at work.”

June says it took the company five years to recover from Victor’s death, but prior to 9/11 it was racking up record numbers. It had branched into things like violence prevention programs, which drew $100,000 a year in underwriting from the state’s attorney’s office, and commissions for shows at venues like Joanne Woodward’s Westport Country Playhouse in Connecticut. In the wake of 9/11, however, Podagrosi’s reconsidering the touring business that’s been the company’s mainstay. “We lowered our fees,” she says. “We used to get as much as $4,000 a day at larger venues on the road. Now school shows are only $1,200, but they’re still not selling.” She’s thinking that what the company needs is the permanent venue Victor dreamed of. But there’s no money for it. The company’s cushion of $126,000 has been sapped, and a fund-raiser that brought in $100,000 last fall only momentarily balanced the books. (A second benefit is set for April 25; see for details.)

“It’s hand-to-mouth,” Podagrosi says. “We’ve maxed out our lines of credit….I have 15 employees and I wasn’t able to make payroll last time. I had to write a personal check. But I’m not gonna let this company die. We need cash, we need to build our board, and we need people to help us figure out the business side of things. I think if we do the right things and get the right people involved, it can still happen.”

And if it doesn’t? “I don’t want to think about that.”

Backstage Player

Last Friday Marty Higginbotham delivered a charged performance–one part Andy Griffith, one part Clint Eastwood–as the small-town sheriff in Brett Neveu’s American Dead at American Theater Company, then rushed to Black Ensemble Theater with a videocam to shoot their latest. On Saturday he taped shows at Shattered Globe and Porchlight, then turned in two more American Dead performances. An ensemble member at ATC, Higginbotham is also chief cameraman, computer whiz, and CEO at the Stage Channel, a theater Web site, video service, and marketing company he started three years ago, eyeing local companies and the League of Chicago Theaters as his target customers. It turned out that the league wasn’t interested, but he went ahead anyway, marketing directly to individual theaters and potential audience members.

Before the Stage Channel, Higginbotham’s day job was as an independent database developer with large corporate clients. He’d participated in enough e-business start-ups to know that he didn’t want to take on any investors or incur any debt with this one. He runs his business out of his Lincoln Square apartment and plans to grow it on revenue–“slow and steady,” he says. His core service is the Web site, which features streaming video previews and links to theater sites where patrons can buy tickets. (This week he initiated a system that allows theaters to enter listings information themselves, eliminating the most labor-intensive part of the project.) He’s also licensing e-mail software to individual theaters that will allow them to keep in touch with their patrons: a monthly starter package that costs $40 and can generate up to 1,000 e-mails. And last month he launched the Stage Phone, a voice-activated toll-free number that tells callers what’s playing where and when.

So far most of the revenue is coming from the video gigs. He shoots tape for press releases and theater archives, charging according to the number of seats in the theater and the number of scenes shot. “I love doing it,” he says. “And I think coming at it from the other side of the camera, as a stage actor and director, is a major strength.” Higginbotham initially tried charging theaters for putting their streaming video on the Stage Channel, but when some of the companies didn’t go for it and the technology got cheaper, he backed away. Future possibilities for income are tantalizing, however–there could be charges for featured listings on the Stage Phone, or restaurant advertising on the Stage Channel site, which he says gets 300,000 hits a month (the League of Chicago Theaters reports an incredible two million monthly hits at its site). And he’s rolling out new features, including online discount coupons, in the next eight weeks. He’s planning to expand, pitching to theater organizations and potential media partners–newspapers, for example–in some other cities this summer.

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