Back in the Pleistocene era (that is, 1986), I spent a few months living downtown in the now-gone Herman Crown Center, a Roosevelt University residence hall that also sheltered students from Columbia College Chicago (where I was enrolled) and the School of the Art Institute. (The building was torn down to make room for Roosevelt’s big expensive blue tower many years later.)
The dorm was right around the corner from the Fine Arts Building and what was then the Fine Arts movie theater, a four-screen complex that showed a variety of art films and independent releases. Which was a great thing for anyone living downtown at that time, because it seemed like there was virtually nothing else going on back then (in the days before the Chicago Theater District) in the Loop on weekends. (I also waitressed for about a week at the now-shuttered Artists Cafe on the ground floor of the Fine Arts, but that’s a different story.)
I vaguely remembered at the time that the Fine Arts theaters had once been the Studebaker, a live performance venue where my parents would sometimes trek in from the suburbs. At that time, I had no idea that the Fine Arts Building also was a major player in the early days of the “little theater” movement in Chicago. In fact, as Shannon Epplett writes in the new anthology from Northwestern University Press, Makeshift Chicago Stages: A Century of Theater and Performance, “In the quest to stage the new drama emerging at the beginning of the twentieth century within the Fine Arts Building’s walls, new practices of creating and utilizing makeshift stages developed, which have come to be emblematic of theater practice in Chicago.” Among other tenants, husband and wife Maurice Browne and Ellen Van Volkenburg opened the Chicago Little Theatre at the Fine Arts, presenting then-groundbreaking work by Henrik Ibsen, George Bernard Shaw, and J.M. Synge, along with classical Greek dramas.
Now the Fine Arts is ready to embark on its ambitious next chapter, as a $3 million renovation by the Berger Realty Group gives new life to the Studebaker and the smaller Playhouse next door. Jacob Harvey, formerly the artistic director of the Greenhouse Theater Center, has just been hired as the first-ever managing artistic director for the theaters at the Fine Arts.
The renovations and vision for the Fine Arts stretches back to at least 2005, when the late real estate mogul Bob Berger (who also owned Wicker Park’s Flat Iron Building) purchased the ten-story Michigan Avenue landmark for more than $10 million. Originally built in 1884 by Solon Spencer Beman as a showroom for the Studebaker carriage company, the Fine Arts has since housed—in addition to theaters—bookstores, nonprofit organizations, rare instrument dealers, and studios for a variety of artists. The Studebaker itself reopened in 2016 for live performances, and has since presented work by Chicago Opera Theater, the Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival, and the Chicago Jazz Orchestra.
But what Harvey and Erica Berger (Bob Berger’s daughter, who now oversees the Fine Arts Building for Berger Realty Group) hope to unveil goes beyond the venerable atmosphere and history.
Says Harvey, “Part of what I believe is so appealing about the Fine Arts Building is this sort of melting pot of the arts community. That it’s the fine and performing arts, you know, and a lot of the way I think about it is what happens in the Fine Arts Building, what happens on the stages in the Fine Arts Building, should not only be extremely representative of the arts community at large in Chicago, but also the arts consumers of Chicago.”
He notes that the Fine Arts was one of the first places he visited with friends in 2014, when he was first considering a move to Chicago. “We rode up the elevators. We walked down the halls. We looked at the paintings, we stopped in at the sheet music store, we had a coffee at the Artists Cafe.” (The cafe closed in February 2019; finding a good anchor restaurant tenant for the space is a priority for the Fine Arts management team.)
Both Harvey and Erica Berger point out that the recent loss of rental houses like the Royal George and Stage 773 (which is moving away from being a multiple-theater venue in favor of being an “immersive art playground,” as executive director Jill Valentine told the Tribune) means that there is a need for more spaces like the Studebaker and Playhouse. The plans right now call for the remodeled Studebaker to hold around 600-650 seats (a size that is hard to come by in the Chicago rental market), and for the Playhouse to offer flexible seating that could contain a maximum of 400, depending on the needs of the company.
The hope is that in addition to providing performance spaces for companies already in residence at the Fine Arts, the theaters can eventually incorporate organizations from across the city who are looking for an affordable downtown presence.
Berger says, “We hosted a conference called Breakout at the Studebaker a few years back, which did a lot of work engaging folks in town and out of town with social entrepreneurs on the south and west side. And that was when I really realized, because of our location, we have a huge opportunity to create more interdependence and interconnectivity and coalitions between folks in all different parts of the city. We’re just more accessible and we’re further south, so that would be a dream of mine to have more collaboration across different parts of town and have that live at our theater.”
Harvey also points out that, especially with the loss of the Royal George, there is a need for a midsize rental house downtown that can host out-of-town artists looking for a Chicago foothold. “Producers, theater companies, when they plan their tours or they plan something out of town, Chicago is always a place where people say they want to come, but are unaware of the options that they have here that are not, you know, partnering with a giant nonprofit or being part of the Broadway in Chicago machine. So there is an in-between place where a small tour or an out-of-town production can happen and sort of help fill that void.”
Using the existing tenants as part of the creative fabric is also in the works, according to Harvey. And that doesn’t mean just the performing arts tenants; Harvey floats the idea of partnering with the Dial Bookshop for readings tied into performances, for example.
Rentals are already filling the calendar next spring for the Studebaker, according to Harvey, and the Playhouse should be available shortly afterward.
Building the next part of the Fine Arts Building’s history, in Harvey’s view, honors what came before.
“This is the home of one of the original artist colonies in Chicago. So a big part of what I’m undertaking on top of, or included with, building out these performance spaces to be functional again is also to rebrand and rebuild awareness of this artistic hub in the middle of downtown that’s right across the street basically from the Art Institute, and reintroduce the public and the arts community to this building.”
Playwright plaudits and opportunities
Every year, the American Theatre Critics Association selects the winners of the prestigious Harold and Mimi Steinberg/ATCA New Play Award, recognizing the best plays to open outside New York City the previous year. Despite the truncated nature of the 2020 season, Chicago productions and playwrights cleaned up this year. The top prize of $25,000 went to J. Nicole Brooks for Her Honor Jane Byrne, which had just opened at Lookingglass before the shutdown and which is slated for a remount there this fall. Additionally, Brett Neveu and Jason Narducy received a Steinberg citation for their punk-rock musical Verböten at House Theatre, and khat knotahaiku’s graveyard shift, which had its world premiere at the Goodman, also received a citation. (The citations come with a $7,500 purse.) ATCA’s M. Elizabeth Osborn Prize and $1,000 went to Douglas Williams for SHIP, produced at Philadelphia’s Azuka Theatre.