In Their Nature to Nuture

When members and friends of Chicago Dramatists gather at the Mercury Theater on July 12 for a benefit reading of play excerpts, they’ll be celebrating not only the group’s 20th anniversary but its continued success in preserving an endangered species–new plays by new writers. “Over the last year we counted up 221 productions or awards given to playwrights we work with,” boasts Russ Tutterow, the group’s artistic director. Of the five plays nominated for best new work in last year’s Jeff Awards, three were developed at Chicago Dramatists. Irrepressibly optimistic about the future, Tutterow has spent the last 13 years presiding over an expanding circle of writers; last year alone, he estimates, the group worked with more than 500 aspiring authors. A lucky group of 25, handpicked by Tutterow, were named resident playwrights, but many more took classes, participated in a workshop for short plays, or attended one of the group’s Saturday afternoon readings.

“As a theater town, Chicago has opened up and become more enlightened about new plays,” says Tutterow. Yet even he admits that few newcomers can make a decent living writing for the stage alone; theater companies beset by deficits and declining attendance can seldom afford to stage an untested work, so even the most talented authors must be creative in forging a career. Rebecca Gilman, a Chicago Dramatists resident whose play Spinning Into Butter ended a successful run at the Goodman Studio Theatre last week, was recently asked to pen a new work for London’s prestigious Royal Court Theatre (her play about the Richard Speck murders, The Crime of the Century, will open this fall at the Circle Theatre in Forest Park). But most writers supplement their income with TV and film work. Rick Cleveland, another alumnus, headed to the west coast several years ago but continues to write for the stage as well.

The Chicago Dramatists Workshop was founded in 1979 as a networking and support group for local authors who wanted to critique each other’s work. Meade Palidofsky, one of the founders, thinks the group served a real purpose but describes its early membership as “free spirits” and thinks that turning the reins over to Tutterow in 1986 saved it. “Russ turned it into a really well run organization.” Three years ago the group dropped “Workshop” from its name to counter the impression that it was a school. Since 1988 it’s operated from a spacious complex of offices, classrooms, and a theater at 1105 W. Chicago. Five or six years ago Tutterow considered moving to a less isolated spot, but a wave of renovation, loft construction, and new restaurants has changed the neighborhood dramatically.

Tutterow would like to earn a national reputation for Chicago Dramatists, pull in more playwrights from outside the city, and add a second full production starting next year, but the group may not be able to grow much without a significant increase in revenue. Tutterow and producing director Robin Stanton are the only full-time employees, and the group operates on an annual budget of only $160,000. About 60 percent of this is charitable contributions; the rest comes from ticket sales, class enrollment, theater rentals, and a $95 membership fee that permits writers to participate in readings and receive written critiques. Yet growth is less of a priority to Tutterow than adhering to the group’s original purpose. “We’re really the only theater company in Chicago devoted solely to developing new plays and nurturing playwrights,” he says, “and in 20 years our mission hasn’t changed.”

Here to Stay

Last week the world-class Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra chose its music director for the year 2002, passing over the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s Daniel Barenboim for Simon Rattle, former chief conductor of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in England. Many insiders had expected Barenboim to win the post: he’s more seasoned than Rattle, already has close ties to the orchestra, and for the last seven years has served as music director of the Staatsoper, the opera house in the former East Berlin. Barenboim and his family live in Berlin, and the Sunday before the Berlin Philharmonic was to vote on the director, the New York Times named Barenboim as front-runner. Not only does Rattle’s victory show which way the wind blows in the classical music business, but it may also carry long-term implications for the CSO.

In choosing Rattle, a younger conductor with a more dynamic image, the Berlin Philharmonic suggested that consummate artistry only goes so far in this age of graying audiences, declining ticket sales, and sagging subscriptions. The day before the Berlin vote, New York Times music critic Anthony Tommasini extolled Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor of the San Francisco Symphony, for his success in attracting new, younger audiences to challenging programs. Tommasini suggested that Tilson Thomas, an outgoing, somewhat theatrical resident of the Bay Area, has broken down some of the elitist barriers surrounding classical music, and he strongly urged other orchestras to take note of his accomplishments and methods. In contrast, Barenboim is an absentee music director with major commitments in Europe, and he’s failed to make a strong connection with the CSO’s existing audiences, let alone the younger listenership the orchestra sorely needs.

Had Barenboim gotten the Berlin gig, he might have relinquished his position at the CSO when his contract expired at the end of the 2002-3 season. But now, even if ticket sales for classical music fail to rebound, the CSO may have to stick with Barenboim. He may not be charismatic, but he is an internationally respected conductor, and no less than nine American orchestras–including the New York Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra–will be trying to fill vacancies at the podium after 2002. The CSO’s financial health over the next two years will be a key factor. A spokesperson said it finished its 1999 fiscal year on June 30 “solidly in the black,” despite reports of a deficit from a well-placed source on the staff. The red ink may have been eliminated by ticket sales to the Shostakovich festival at the end of the season and aggressive last-minute fund-raising, but the final figures won’t be released until the fall, following an audit.

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