Go With What They Know Northlight

Theatre’s artistic director, B.J. Jones, may have hit upon a strategy that will pull the company out of its $200,000 deficit. Under his predecessor, Russell Vandenbroucke, Northlight concentrated on untested new work, but with Jones at the helm the company has presented more high-profile plays, includ-ing Paula Vogel’s Pulitzer Prize-winning How I Learned to Drive and David Mamet’s The Old Neighborhood, which opened this week. Acquiring Broadway and off-Broadway properties with a substantial buzz usually requires a greater financial investment than presenting new work, but in one case the strategy has paid off handsome-ly: Northlight’s critically acclaimed 1998 production of Master Class, the Terrence McNally play about opera legend Maria Callas, generated more single-ticket sales than Vandenbroucke’s entire last season, and managing director Richard Friedman predicts that total ticket revenue from Jones’s first season will top $1 million, up from $700,000 last year.

This week Master Class opened at the prestigious Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto for a six-week run. Columbia Artists Management, Inc., a New York-based theatrical producer, bought the rights to Northlight’s production for $20,000, and Northlight will get a percentage of the box office too, which could boost its take by another $10,000. The Canadian staging features Northlight’s set, lighting, costume design, and supporting cast, but Elizabeth Ashley will play Callas, replacing Carmen Roman, an ensemble member at American Theater Company.

This weekend, along with the Mamet play, Northlight will present Sakina’s Restaurant, Aasif Mandvi’s one-man show about Indian immigrants in Manhattan, and How I Learned to Drive will open at the Alliance Studio Theater in Atlanta, which coproduced; with a show in Springfield and a children’s theater production, the company will be staging six shows at once. Not bad for a first season, but Jones is already plotting the 1999-2000 roster, which will mark Northlight’s 25th anniversary; the last production will be the Chicago premiere of Side Show, a musical about Siamese twins that flopped on Broadway but was nominated for four Tony Awards. After delivering sextuplets, twins should be no problem.

SweetCorn Ripe for a Move

Two more Chicago theater companies are struggling to survive the north side’s gentrification. Since February 1998 Sweetback Productions and Corn Productions have shared the SweetCorn Playhouse near Clark and Winona in Uptown, but the space is part of a storefront complex that’s being converted into condos with price tags of about $150,000. “No leases beyond May are being signed at this time,” says Scott Delevitt of Kass Management Services, Inc., which handles the property. Sweetback ensemble member Steve Hickson says the company is operating on the assumption that it will have to find a new home, but so far it has no leads. “We would like to stay in the same neighborhood, because this has worked well for us,” he says. Sweetback and Corn haven’t decided whether to share another space or go their separate ways, but Sweetback is going ahead with plans to open a new show, Joan Crawford Goes to Hell, next month.

Saturday Morning Cartoons

When local producer Michael Leavitt took his revi-val of You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown to Broadway, he expected to tap into the cult following that Charles M. Schulz’s comic strip inspired during the 60s. But since it opened in February to mixed reviews, the show has been averaging only 50 percent of capacity at the Ambassador Theatre, just enough to break even. Now Leavitt is making a radical departure from the typical Broadway performance schedule in order to capitalize on the show’s popularity with families: Tues-day and Wednesday performances have been replaced by a Thursday matinee, a Saturday morning performance, and a second show on Sunday. The producers are also offering a half-price children’s ticket with every full-price adult ticket, and a new 30-second TV spot began runn-ing earlier this month. If the show can hang on until ear-ly May, a few Tony Award nominations might give it a second wind.

Fishing for Dollars

Live Bait Theater wants to construct a second stage in the south space of its building near Clark and Irving Park. The room has housed a succession of cafes, but Sharon Evans, artistic director for Live Bait, says the company frequently hears from artists and small theater companies who need a 40- to 50-seat venue (the main stage seats about 70). Evans says Live Bait would have to rely on grants to cover most or all of the build-out expenses. “It would cost us about $40,000 to do the job right,” she explains. “Plus we might have more overhead to run a second stage.” The compa-ny hopes to know within a few weeks whether the fund-ing will materialize; plans call for the space to be ready this fall.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): B.J. Jones and Richard Friedman.