Help Wanted: Theater Seeks Fearless Leader

In recent years Northlight Theatre has survived mediocre reviews, crippling deficits, flagging subscriptions, and a prolonged period of homelessness after leaving the Coronet Theatre in Evanston. Now artistic director Russell Vandenbroucke will be stepping down in June after 11 years with the company. Vandenbroucke says he plans to stay in the Chicago area and will spend more time writing, teaching, and directing, but sources at Northlight claim that its board nudged Vandenbroucke out the door after a lackluster beginning to the current season, its second at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie.

As one might expect, the official reaction to Vandenbroucke’s announcement was calm and polite. “Russell has been here through thick and thin,” said Northlight board chairman Roland Lieber, “and he has represented us well.” But Vandenbroucke resigned amid the shattered remains of The Glass House, a musical that was savaged by critics and performed far below the company’s expectations at the box office, according to those sources. Unless the remaining productions bring in considerably more revenue than expected, Northlight could end the season in the red, an especially unwelcome possibility during a $2 million capital campaign to cover the build-out of its new home. “We might end up with a deficit,” admits Lieber.

Vandenbroucke came to Chicago with a strong record as a dramaturge and literary manager at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles; at Northlight he wrote Atomic Bombers, adapted Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, and adapted two stories by Truman Capote under the title Holiday Memories. Despite his literary credentials, however, Vandenbroucke failed to raise the 23-year-old company, one of the city’s few remaining midsize nonprofits, into the top ranks of regional theater: his selection of plays was widely perceived as too academic, and though he directed a couple of them every season, he never distinguished himself in that capacity.

As Northlight’s board begins the process of choosing a new artistic director, it will have to decide where the theater should go from here. Sources who will be involved in the process say the company needs a strong leader with a dynamic, accessible artistic vision, someone who can drum up interesting, high-profile plays and talent. That may be a tall order, and the immediate need to begin planning for 1998-’99 might preclude a lengthy hunt. Sources say the board is likely to look for a suitable candidate in the city or an out-of-towner with local ties.

One leading candidate could be Brian Russell, who served as associate artistic director at Northlight before leaving last spring to become artistic director of American Theater Company (formerly American Blues Theatre). Lieber declined to comment on any potential candidates, but Russell, reached late last week, did not rule himself out: “I don’t know how I could not give an offer serious thought.” Other candidates might include Mary Zimmerman and David Petrarca from the Goodman Theatre; Eric Simonson from Steppenwolf; Kyle Donnelly, associate director at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C.; and Strawdog Theatre artistic director Richard Shavzin.

While the board conducts its search, managing director Richard Friedman will help select two or three 1998-’99 productions that could be listed in a sales brochure for prospective subscribers; the new artistic director will then fill in the remaining slots. Sources say one possibility is a production of Master Class, Terrence McNally’s play about prima donna Maria Callas, to star Patti LuPone. Northlight would mount the production before it goes on a national tour. Not long ago the play ran at the Shubert in a touring production that starred Faye Dunaway.

Centre East: Shows Will Go On

Northlight isn’t the only organization at the North Shore Center with resumes to read: last week Nida Tautvydas, acting executive director of the nonprofit presenting organization Centre East, left to assume a new post as director of the Wheeler Opera House in Aspen. Tautvydas was unavailable for comment, but Centre East board chairman Harry Tankus says that a search for her successor will begin immediately. At least one source familiar with developments said that Centre East, the North Shore Center, and the village of Skokie had discussed scrapping Centre East’s series of mostly one-night presentations, a move that would open the center’s main stage to longer-running and potentially more lucrative bookings. But Tankus denied that any such action was imminent and affirmed that Centre East will have a 1998-’99 season: “The village of Skokie is totally behind Centre East.”

Tautvydas’s predecessor, Dorothy Litwin, founded Centre East and helped to mastermind the $20 million-plus North Shore Center, but she left the organization last year as its presentations in the new facility began to lose money. Litwin had hoped to build a 1,500-seat theater, but budget constraints limited the center to an 845-seat main stage that’s much too small for the kind of shows Litwin successfully produced in Centre East’s old facility. Sources say that increased marketing efforts have decreased Centre East’s losses, but attendance at many performances this season remained spotty. “We did better than we had projected,” says Tankus. Tautvydas left during the booking for next season; Tankus says that staff members at the North Shore Center (whom he would not identify) will help negotiate contracts and finalize the upcoming schedule.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Russell Vandenbroucke uncredited photo.