It seemed like good karma, nearly two years ago, when Curious Theatre Branch moved up to Rogers Park into the former home of the No Exit Cafe, on the northeast corner of Lunt and Glenwood. Curious’s new digs would be just steps away from the neighborhood’s alternative-culture anchor, the Heartland Cafe, and would be the latest addition to a fledgling arts district that 49th Ward alderman Joe Moore was doing his best to establish. Curious, a stalwart of the Chicago fringe theater scene, took a five-year lease on the storefront and spent $10,000 to outfit it as an intimate 50-seat space. It opened in January 2003. But the territory turned out to be a little rougher than they’d imagined. Beau O’Reilly, a Curious cofounder, says that over the last year their corner has become a nexus for the kind of street life that drives even adventurous audiences away: pimps, prostitutes, drug dealers, and, most recently, bands of juveniles terrorizing the neighborhood by beating up passersby. This year’s Rhinoceros Theater Festival, the company’s 15th annual smorgasbord of new work, opening September 17, will be its last event there.

The festival, which has been held in multiple venues in the past, was scheduled entirely at Curious this year in hopes of getting audiences used to the location. “Our intention was to focus on the neighborhood and the theater, thinking people haven’t really adjusted to our moving that far north,” he says. Since the troupe lost its cozy digs in the former Lunar Cabaret on the 2800 block of Lincoln, audiences have decreased while costs have gone up. The rent at Lunar was a bargain at $850 a month; they’re now paying nearly twice as much. And while problems with sound coming into the theater from the street and from apartments above have mostly been solved, O’Reilly says, problems with the neighborhood have escalated. “There was always a rough element on the street, but we thought they didn’t care about us and we didn’t worry about them,” he says. That changed last summer, when a hip-hop show at the neighboring Cocoabean Expressions coffee shop erupted into a fight. When the shop’s owner tried to break it up, he was beaten so badly he required hospitalization. “That’s when I noticed how much the gangs of kids were hanging around,” O’Reilly says.

After that there were a couple of incidents involving kids bursting into the theater and of items being stolen during rehearsals. Curious scheduled earlier starting times, at 7 PM, and arranged parking for patrons in the nearby Heartland Cafe lot, but this summer word got around that a gang of kids was beating up people on Lunt Street, apparently just for kicks. O’Reilly, who witnessed one attack and heard about others, says it was a “group of five or six kids, black kids, surrounding a man, usually white. Two kids would ask for money, and then others would come from nowhere and start beating him. Once one of our actors intervened; the kids came at him with aerials they had ripped off cars.” When Curious did a Beckett production, audience members, mostly college students, went out at intermission, were greeted by a “gang of kids, right on the corner, fighting and fussing,” and came right back in. “They couldn’t stand on the corner and smoke their cigarettes and talk because it was scary,” O’Reilly says. In the background, he adds, there were even scarier occurrences: “Someone was beaten to death in the alley July Fourth, and there’ve been a couple of [CTA] train deaths.” The police haven’t connected the deaths with the juvenile violence, O’Reilly says, but “there’s a difficulty going on in the hood that seems to have increased.”

Meryl Reinken, who works at the Heartland, says they’ve seen the problem too, and that it’s happened more times than have been reported. “You don’t know how to deal with it; they are such young kids, 7 to 15 years old. In three or four cases people came in here after it happened with busted lips, bumps, and bruises. I’ve heard of two cases where they had to go to the hospital.” Reinken thinks it’s had an effect on the Heartland’s late-night bar business, and owner Michael James says fewer people have been sitting on the patio, though the cool summer had something to do with that. He says the neighborhood’s getting an influx of people at both extremes of the economic scale and that without a federally funded jobs program the last couple of years and with few community organizers on the street interacting with the kids, there’s nothing for them to do. Still, he speculates, maybe Curious just hasn’t found its local audience yet. “We’ve got four active stages,” James says. And Lifeline Theatre, a block and a half south of Curious–where it’s been for 18 years–just finished one of its strongest seasons for ticket sales, according to artistic director Dorothy Milne, with its last show, Strong Poison, selling at 89 percent of capacity including some added performances.

Last week police arrested five people, two of them adults, in connection with the beatings, and O’Reilly says the police have been more visible. But Curious can’t afford to hang around to see if things improve: for the first time in 18 years, the company will be itinerant. It’s proving harder than O’Reilly expected to find rental venues, but he expects the writer-driven ensemble, which has been running on about $50,000 a year, to survive. They’ve committed to doing the 2005 PAC/edge Performance Festival and will do a winter show at Prop Thtr, and they’re slated for a spring slot at Link’s Hall. The future of the Rhino fest after this year might be more dicey; O’Reilly says he’s unwilling to take on debt to keep it going. He’s also nervous about talking about all this, “because it could mean that nobody comes to the Rhino,” which continues through November 20. “But I also want our audiences to know that we care about their safety. We’re having early starting times, we have a parking lot set up that’s very close, we’re adding lights to the front of the theater, and the cops have been made aware of what we’re trying to do here. That’s probably all we really can do.” O’Reilly says the space at Lunt and Glenwood turned out to be a “great place to do theater–except from 7 to 10 on weekend nights.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.