Further Crumbling at Wisdom Bridge

Plagued for several years by financial problems and administrative turmoil, Wisdom Bridge Theatre once again is fighting for its life. Earlier this month the theater’s board of directors took the ominous step of indefinitely suspending paychecks to the entire staff, including the top administrator, producing director Jeffrey Ortmann. Most or all of the staff–who number approximately ten–are said to be carrying on their duties without pay. Though board cochairman John Conlon anticipates the payroll suspension will last only a month or two, he wont offer any guarantees. “Cash flow is a problem,” says Conlon, “and ticket sales haven’t been covering our artistic costs,” an indication that perhaps the theater company is living dangerously hand-to-mouth.

During the early 1980s, under the artistic leadership. of Robert Falls, Wisdom Bridge was one of the local theater community’s crown jewels. But things have changed. In anticipation of a tough year, Wisdom Bridge’s operating budget for the season has been trimmed to a lean $900,000, down from around $1.3 million in recent years. Wisdom Bridge also is struggling with an accrued deficit of several hundred thousand dollars. In the past, says Conlon, the board of directors probably would have voted to continue paying the staff despite the theater’s financial difficulties. But this time they opted for a different approach. “We’re not going to dig the hole deeper,” he says. “We still want to be able to pay our bills as they become due.”

Whether that is possible, however, depends on several factors over which the Wisdom Bridge staff and board do not have total control. Conlon says the theater is counting on strong ticket sales from its current production, Athol Fugard’s My Children! My Africa!, to improve cash flow, but almost every local company has reported difficulty moving tickets in the current depressed economy, even for critically acclaimed productions. My Children! My Africa! received a generally favorable review in the Tribune last week, but Falsettoland, Wisdom Bridge’s first production of the season, also received some positive notices and never became a long-running hit.

Conlon says the board is looking to various foundations for grants, though he concedes that most philanthropic groups aren’t giving out as much money as they once did. If Wisdom, Bridge can remain in business until June, Conlon said, the board will have more information about where the general economy is headed and should be able to make some hard decisions about the company’s future.

Phone Tix: Theater League Tries Convenience

In an effort to boost sluggish Hot Tix sales, the League Of Chicago Theatres will soon begin experimenting with telephone ticket orders and credit card payments. If successful, the experiment could increase Hot Tix income and ease the League’s recent cash crunch. But processing credit card orders and communicating phone sales to individual theaters also means a lot more work for the organization, currently short-staffed and leaderless following former executive director Keryl McCords departure last week.

The phone-order service, which starts February 4, will initially include only a handful of member theaters. Customers will be able to order a limited number of discounted day-of-performance tickets by calling 312-HOT-TIXX, supplying a credit card number, and then picking up tickets at the theater box office before the performance. A broader range of discounted tickets will be available at the three freestanding Hot Tix booths, which will also accept credit cards (the six recently opened outlets in Rose Records stores will continue to take cash only). Customers will pay a hefty service charge for the phone service: theater tickets with an original face value of $35 or more incur a charge of $3.35 per ticket at a Hot Tix booth, but by phone the charge mounts to $4.85.

Some of the League’s board members believe that if phone-order ticket sales go well, they could start to eat into walk-up business at the outlets. On the other hand, marketing director Karen Barger said credit-card acceptance could increase the operation’s gross revenue by as much as 10 percent annually. The League currently pulls in about $200,000 a year from Hot Tix, a little less than half of its current operating budget.

Cultural Center Update

The mayor’s wife now has a formal hand in determining the future of the Chicago Cultural Center. Maggie Daley has been named chairman of the newly formed Chicago Cultural Committee, which will raise money and work with Commissioner Lois Weisberg on long-range plans for the center. According to a Department of Cultural Affairs spokeswoman, Daley will get to handpick her fellow committee members.

So far Weisberg has $2 million from the federal government for external building improvements. She’d like to raise more to create an atrium in the center of the building that could serve as a performance space and connect the center to the underground pedway that hooks up to other Loop buildings. Meanwhile, inside the building, she’s had a floor set up for dance performances and is unveiling an art gallery that’ll display work from neighborhood art centers and a makeshift cafe that’ll serve coffee and pastries. The Museum of Broadcast Communications expects to begin rebuilding its new space in the center this spring.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Steven D. Arazmus.