Sean Cercone

The evening of Tuesday, November 9, was huge for Sean Cercone, executive director and producer for Chicago Muse, the organization formerly known as Theatre Building Chicago. There was no hint of the controversy of the last 16 months—during which the 34-year-old nonprofit changed its focus, sold its iconic home at 1225 W. Belmont, and shed all of its staff except Cercone—as the now nomadic theater company launched its first effort, The Story of My Life, on the main stage at Victory Gardens. Champagne flowed and cameras flashed in the lobby, and just before the curtain went up a clearly excited, tuxedo-clad Cercone told the audience, “These are the moments we dream about: a brand-new production and a brand-new company in the city that is truly the soul of American theater.”

He didn’t focus on the fact that this “brand-new production” is actually a second chance for the musical by Neil Bartram and Brian Hill, which flopped after five performances on Broadway last winter, or that the “brand-new company” is headed by the same board that scuttled Theatre Building Chicago. But he did explain what’s radically new about Chicago Muse. The Story of My Life was selected for production by a reading committee of 50 people, Cercone said—none of them theater pros. “We believe our audience should be our artistic director.”

The next morning, with word out that the show was Jeff recommended, Cercone recalled the impetus for change at TBC and outlined the experimental strategy he dreamed up for Chicago Muse.

Two years ago, during a strategic planning session, the board decided that TBC had strayed from its mission, he says. It was supposed to be creating new work, but was mostly just functioning as a landlord, renting its three stages out to other companies. Determined to “right the course,” the board hired Cercone last January because of his “passion for new musical development.”

(The board’s interpretation is debatable. TBC’s purpose as stated in its charter includes both “creating and presenting live performances” and “providing physical facilities and/or management services.”)

A former producing artistic director at Akron’s Carousel Dinner Theatre, which closed in January 2009, Cercone “tried to figure out exactly what we were going to do with the organization.” He says that by the time he got there both the occupancy rate and attendance for shows at TBC had begun to decline, and it looked like that would lead to major deficits in future years. “Based on that, we were going to have to make some changes in the financial structure. The other option was to sell the building and start from scratch—and that’s what the board decided to do.”

During his years at the 800-seat Carousel, Cercone had found that “it’s very hard to get an audience to see anything new. They want to see Wicked again and again. We produced Fiddler on the Roof for the fifth time, and it did 34,000 people over eight weeks. And we produced White Christmas and did 52,000 people over ten weeks. And I’m thinking there’s so many beautiful new stories. How do you get another Fiddler on the Roof if you’re not creating new work?”

On the other hand, he understood the public’s caution. They “spend a lot of money on their theater tickets and they want to know that they’re going to have a good experience,” he says. “We get to test-drive our cars before we buy them. We even get a slice of roast beef at the deli before we buy a pound. But you don’t get to test-drive your theater experience. So I was asking, ‘How do you engage the audience in a way that will allow them to participate in that process?’ And it just came to me: Why don’t we have people read the shows that we’re considering and allow them to evaluate them?”

As a board member of the National Alliance for Musical Theatre, Cercone was familiar with a tool they used to pick plays for their annual festival: a survey that graded multiple aspects of book, music, and lyrics on a scale of one to five. Giving the audience that questionnaire, he thought, would do a couple things: “If they like the show, they’re going to become a passionate advocate for it, and that’s going to change their experience. They’ll no longer be a passive consumer that sits back and buys a ticket.” They’ll also be “predisposed” to purchase tickets for the full production of a show they’ve been evaluating.

The system Circone devised is multitiered. It starts with Chicago Muse selling annual memberships—which run $85 to $1,000—and soliciting scripts. Members can take part in four rounds of voting. In the first, scripts are divided among the membership for reading and evaluation, with the dozen or so highest-ranked going on to be read and evaluated by all members. The three winners of this round get staged readings. Members attending the readings then pick one musical to get an Equity-sanctioned showcase production at Chicago Muse’s annual three-show festival. (One of the other two fest entries is chosen by the company’s advisory board, now consisting of 11 industry pros, and one by Cercone alone.) Members can vote again at the fest, selecting one musical for a full production the following season. The inaugural fest is set for June 13-26, 2011, at TBC’s old digs, now called Stage 773.

To jump-start Chicago Muse, Cercone picked a dozen scripts for consideration by an ad hoc reading committee. Their choice, The Story of My Life, went directly to the stage.

Cercone says the membership idea makes sense because baby boomers have proven to be averse to advance planning and subscriptions are in decline. “We started talking about other kinds of models, and American Express came up—you’re not a cardholder, you’re a member. It gives you a sense of ownership.”

He adds that he was determined to create a path to production for the scripts. “There’s a lot of places out there that will develop your show. They’ll give you a reading and maybe they’ll give you a workshop. But it’s very hard to get a new musical produced because it’s so dang expensive. I wanted to make sure that what we were going to do was get more productions to the stage. So there’s this kind of trajectory where it starts with the reading, it goes to a staged reading, it goes to a festival, it goes to a production. Those are tangible things. Its not, ‘We’ll put this reading up and god knows what’ll happen to it after that.'”

The membership program kicked off in late September. As of last week 47 people had ponied up and 111 scripts (seven from Chicago) were in the hopper. Cercone says the operating budget this year is $600,000, but he expects it to be $1 million by the third year. Aside from membership fees, he intends to tap the usual sources of income: ticket sales, grants, and sponsors. Each staged reading is budgeted at up to $10,000, each festival showcase production at up to $30,000, and Chicago Muse will sink $300,000 into each main-stage mounting, including that of The Story of My Life.

The plan calls for each fully produced show to at least break even, Cercone says. But that might be optimistic. On opening night it was clear why The Story of My Life closed so fast in New York. Though he praised the cast in his review, Reader critic Albert Williams called the show “earnest, heartfelt, but monotonous,” and the script “contrived” and “formulaic.”

When the TBC building was sold for $1.5 million, cofounder Ruth Higgins expressed concern that the proceeds could be frittered away on a few productions. This week she reiterated the point by e-mail: “My concern was/is that producing full-scale new works is extremely dangerous . . . one big one can suck up a year or several’s budget.” If she turns out to be right, at least Chicago Muse can blame it on the audience.