Down and Up With American Blues Theatre

American Blues Theatre celebrates its tenth anniversary on Sunday with Tom and Jerry, a new play by founding member Rick Cleveland. Cleveland, Jim Leaming, actor Ed Blatchford, and director William Payne established American Blues in 1986 to present plays that address the spirit of the midwest and the workingman. “We weren’t looking to do the hottest new thing from New York, but rather works that speak to the blue-collar working class,” says Leaming. The company’s first production was Cleveland’s Dogman’s Last Stand. Works by Sam Shepard and Eugene O’Neill, among other playwrights, followed.

Emboldened by its early success, American Blues began hiring more costly Actors’ Equity talent in 1988. Then, in 1991, disaster struck with the mounting of Keith Reddin’s Peacekeeper. Though it was beautifully produced, the show opened in the dead of summer and audiences never materialized. In debt, the company reduced its schedule to one play a season and reverted to non-Equity status. In the meantime, many of its founding members moved away: Cleveland and Blatchford headed for Los Angeles and Payne took a teaching job at a university in Duluth.

In 1993, its finances much improved, American Blues moved into its current home, a former warehouse at 1909 W. Byron. Since then the company has upgraded the 138-seat facility, most recently expanding the lobby and adding a greenroom. Still, like so many small Chicago theater companies, American Blues has lagged in establishing a solid business framework. The group, which has an operating budget of around $120,000, only recently hired a part-time business manager. Whatever the group’s administrative shortcomings, its artistic spirit and communal bonds remain strong after ten years. According to American Blues artistic director Carmen Roman, who recently returned after a year as an understudy on the national tour of Angels in America, “It’s always been hard to do theater, but I enjoy working with the people here, who have character and integrity.”

Cash Woes Hobble Dance Fest

The annual Spring Festival of Dance is facing a severe budget crunch. According to Joyce Moffatt, who’s orchestrating the 1996 festival, the event’s budget will be around $70,000, down from just over $200,000 last spring. Over the past two years the dance festival has used up the $250,000 surplus it inherited from the defunct Civic Stages Chicago, which originally presented the event. Civic Stages ceased to exist in 1993, when Lyric Opera of Chicago purchased the Civic Opera House and Civic Theatre. According to Moffatt, the Chicago Community Trust, which had been overseeing the festival since Civic Stages shut down, has not made an outright grant for the 1996 event, and at least two gifts that supported last year’s festival won’t be repeated–an unspecified gift of marketing funds from Lexus automobiles and a $50,000 grant from the Elizabeth Morse Genius Trust.

Around $175,000 of last year’s budget went toward marketing, specifically the production of a glossy four-color ticket brochure and a substantial amount of newspaper advertising. This year Moffatt spent $30,000 on a brochure; it will be two-color instead of four and generally less elaborate than in past seasons. Moffatt hasn’t given up on finding additional festival funding from untapped corporate or foundation sources. “We remain hopeful,” she says.

On the Cityfront

Meanwhile, ground is now scheduled to be broken in early December for the 1,500-seat theater at Cityfront Center. That is slightly later than the November date theater general manager Joyce Moffatt had originally hoped for, but apparently the project will remain on schedule for a late 1997 opening. Moffatt says the delay was caused by financial complications. Because some of the donations made to cover construction costs are being paid out over many years, a bank loan had to be arranged so the building contractor could be paid.

But as the theater moves nearer to reality, a source close to the project says many of the groups expected to be its principal tenants are worrying about the cost of performing in the space. However, sources on the administrative staffs of the groups say their leaders are reluctant to express these concerns too strongly for fear of alienating foundation executives who sit on the theater’s board of directors.

Several weeks ago the groups asked the theater to hire an outside consultant to crunch the numbers one more time before construction begins, but they were rebuffed by the theater’s board of directors. Moffatt says she has reworked the rate card presented to the groups last spring and is now offering a significantly lower basic daily rental fee. But another source says the lower fee doesn’t include union stagehand costs, which are expected to be high. Several of the 11 proposed tenants have already reduced the number of dates they will commit to performing in the new facility, and Joseph Holmes Chicago Dance Theatre reportedly has pulled out altogether.

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