Front and Center

The Village of Skokie is dusting off the hot seat for Ruth Higgins. On December 1 the founder and former manager of the Theatre Building on Belmont will become general manager of the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, the third since the center opened a little more than a year ago. Built by the village to the tune of at least $20 million, the facility has been plagued by disorganization, but Higgins thinks that with her considerable experience in not-for-profit Chicago theater she’ll put the center on the right track.

“I’ll have to be part Mother Teresa and part Gandhi to keep peace among the natives,” says Higgins. As general manager she’ll answer not only to the village but to Professional Facilities Management, a theatrical administration company contracted by Skokie to manage and operate the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts. Luckily for her, the village has set up a separate foundation to handle fund-raising, but Higgins will have no shortage of headaches, including a poorly staffed box office, scattershot marketing, low attendance, and a dearth of summer bookings. Having operated three small spaces at the Theatre Building, she should have no trouble with the center’s studio theater, where the principal tenant is Northlight. But Higgins has never booked anything like the main stage, an 850-seat space that’s 1,200 seats too small to attract the sort of blockbusters that would bring people out in droves. Centre East and the Skokie Valley Symphony have used the main stage for one-shot concerts, but keeping it filled year-round will be Higgins’s biggest challenge.

As soon as she takes over, Higgins will begin negotiating with Fox Theatricals producer Michael Leavitt to bring in Dennis DeYoung’s new musical The Hunchback of Notre Dame; Leavitt would like to present a six- to eight-week run in late spring 1998. Higgins will also initiate joint promotions with the center’s resident organizations, and she hopes to vary the center’s offerings by reaching out to different arts organizations in the city. But her secret weapon might turn out to be her contacts at the National Alliance of Musical Theaters, a nationwide organization of companies that develop, produce, and promote musical theater. Last summer the Theatre Building and its resident New Tuners Theatre, which Higgins also founded, hosted a weekend-long workshop of musicals in various stages of gestation, many of them sponsored by alliance members.

Higgins opened the Theatre Building 20 years ago with her late husband Byron Schaffer Jr., and after her long tenure she’s decided to let someone else have a crack at managing the space. “Change is good,” she says. “I didn’t want the Theatre Building to succumb to ‘Founder’s Disease.'” Her departure leaves a large hole in the theater’s administrative staff. Managing director Joan Mazzonelli will assume most of Higgins’s responsibilities for now, and Warner Crocker, former artistic director of Pegasus Players, will handle some of the New Tuners business. Crocker was instrumental in pulling off the New Tuners workshop, which will be reprised next summer. For her part Higgins plans to remain on the Theatre Building’s board of directors and to continue producing shows under the New Tuners banner whenever possible.

New Face in the Lookingglass

Lookingglass Theatre Company has reached outside its ensemble for a new managing director. Michael Ryczek, assistant to former Auditorium Theatre executive Dulcie Gilmore, will join Lookingglass on December 1. After nearly seven years working for Gilmore at the Auditorium, Ryczek was one of several staffers to leave the landmark theater after Gilmore resigned last July. Though he’s worked downtown in recent years, Ryczek’s theatrical roots are in the off-Loop scene: “That’s really what I’ve always been interested in.” During the mid-80s he spent five years as artistic director of the now defunct Reflections Theatre Ensemble, which occupied the Calo Theatre on North Clark Street (now housing the Griffin Theatre Company).

Lookingglass artistic director Heidi Stillman explains that the ensemble used to vote for one of its own to fill the managing director post, but the job grew “too complicated and specific.” Lookingglass’s annual budget is currently around $500,000, and Stillman says the nine-year-old company has never operated in the red. As managing director, Ryczek will focus on fund-raising, marketing, and finding a permanent home for the company. Meanwhile Lookingglass opens a revival of its early hit The Arabian Nights in the Steppenwolf Studio Theater on December 5. This fall the revival played Los Angeles and New York City.

One for the Price of Two!

Sony Music is trying to dig deeper into consumers’ pockets with a new option called the “doublepak,” a compact disc and cassette packaged together at a price slightly reduced from the combined cost of both. Sony’s first release to include the doublepak was Mariah Carey’s Butterfly in September. The second was Barbra Streisand’s Higher Ground, released last week, and the third is Celine Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love, which hit record stores on Tuesday.

The new experiment is a curious one; many stores, including the giant Tower Records chain, have been downsizing or phasing out their cassette inventory due to lack of interest. But Joe Kvidera, manager of Tower Records in Lincoln Park, says the doublepak makes sense from a certain perspective. “I don’t think Sony minds producing and selling the cassettes as long as it doesn’t take away from compact disc sales.” Sony has aggressively marketed the new doublepak to retailers, pointing out that “consumers now don’t have to choose between a compact disc and a cassette.”

But despite Sony’s hard-charging efforts Kvidera has noted “virtually no response” to the doublepak at Tower. “We sold four of the Mariah Carey doublepaks, compared to several hundred of the compact disc by itself.” The Streisand doublepak, which lists for $23.99 compared to the CD’s list price of $17.99, is doing no better. A Sony spokesperson maintains the doublepak accounted for about 10 percent of Mariah Carey’s sales. “Certainly not in our store,” counters Kvidera.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Ruth Higgins photo by Eugene Zakusilo.