Is Roadworks Roadkill?

At the end of December, Roadworks Productions issued a puzzling press release. The scrappy, highly regarded company was canceling its next show at the Chopin Theatre just two weeks before the scheduled opening. “Roadworks greatly appreciates the hard work put in by all of the artists involved with Orange Lemon Egg Canary,” the release read. “While we have complete faith in their abilities, we believe it is in the best interest of everyone involved not to continue with the production at this time….Roadworks plans to use the Chopin space for workshops and events that will be open to the public.” Calls to Roadworks for an explanation went unanswered, and word on the street was that they’d canceled the rest of their season as well. By the end of January the group had moved out of their Wicker Park office and seemed to have vanished. There were no Roadworks events at the Chopin, and the company’s phone was disconnected without so much as a forwarding number.

It was a surprising turn. Since its founding in 1992 by a group of Northwestern University theater majors headed by Abby Epstein and Debbie Bisno, Roadworks had regularly attracted top-quality talent and earned great press. The New York Times called it “the prototype Chicago ensemble–talented, fortunate, and ambitious” in 1998, and it was regarded by locals as the next big thing in off-Loop theater. Roadworks was the first Chicago theater to produce work by the likes of Mike Leigh and Kenneth Lonergan, and while the company took plenty of risks it still collected more than 40 Joseph Jefferson nominations and awards. In 2002, after ten years of nomadic existence, the company took up residence at the Chopin, planning to produce four shows each season there. Last fall it mounted David Mamet’s Boston Marriage, and the group’s holiday show was a revival of a reliable hit, David Sedaris’s SantaLand Diaries.

So what happened? Debt, says artistic director and designer Geoffrey M. Curley. Over the years Roadworks’ founders have moved on, following their careers out of Chicago, and there have been changes in the company’s staff and board, but the problem, according to Curley, is financial–caused by a drop in donations from both foundations and individuals. Curley says Roadworks has accumulated debt of more than $20,000 and is having difficulty raising money. Given the company’s annual budget of $280,000 and its minimal full-time staff of three, that doesn’t sound like an amount that should shut it down, but Curley says the group wanted to call things to a halt before the situation got worse. While SantaLand sold well, shows like the Mamet don’t make enough to cover costs: “We never even budget for a play to pay for itself through ticket sales. We shoot for 25 to 35 percent,” says Curley. Development director Meg Levad’s job was axed in December, leaving only Curley and managing director Jason Rissman. And they have in fact canceled the rest of Roadworks’ season–subscribers were informed by e-mail last weekend that they would be stiffed on tickets to the two remaining scheduled productions.

Board president Marko Iglendza didn’t return calls, but Curley says Roadworks currently has no “substantially major” donors. (Unlike some of Steppenwolf’s and Lookingglass’s founding members, Roadworks’ founders haven’t achieved the celebrity status that can bring in large audiences and donations.) The company lost a couple foundation grants recently, and those that are coming in are coming late. In addition, Roadworks’ supporters are mostly too young to be big givers: with 75 percent of its audience between the ages of 18 and 40, there isn’t a lot of exposure to the demographic group most likely to write fat checks at the end of the year.

Shade Murray, Roadworks’ artistic director from 1999 to 2001 (when he left to join Writers’ Theatre), says Roadworks benefited from the financial bubble of the mid-90s, when “our target market in the private sector was amassing money very quickly. When the e-bubble burst, we had to get in line for more traditional revenue streams, and that takes time. If the people who were attending your benefits find themselves unemployed, you have to start over.”

Orange Lemon Egg Canary director (and Goodman Theatre literary director) Rick DesRochers says the cancellation– three weeks into rehearsals–took him by surprise. He’s hoping to mount a New York production of Rinne Groff’s play independently of Roadworks. The Chopin Theatre was left with an empty space this month, but owner Zygmunt Dyrkacz says Defiant Theatre will take Roadworks’ slot in May. Curley says that Roadworks’ board and staff are meeting and he hopes they’ll come to a decision in the next month or two: “We’re trying to figure out where the organization should be.” He believes the shutdown may make it harder to find funders in the future. “But at least we won’t be hurting people,” he says. This could be a temporary detour–or it could be the end of the road.

Missing Persons

It wasn’t one of Eileen Harakal’s better days. Last week the umbrella organization Museums in the Park reported that attendance had been down by a half million in 2003 at its nine member institutions, and the biggest drop–22 percent–had come at the Art Institute, where Harakal’s vice president for audience development and public affairs. It wasn’t true, Harakal says, “but the next thing we knew the Tribune was calling.”

The error was the Art Institute’s. According to Harakal, monthly attendance numbers had been reported to Museums in the Park by an employee in the museum’s visitor services department. “The January through May numbers were OK, but the June through December numbers were wrong. There was a disconnect between the form she was filling out [for them] and our form.” After scrutinizing the records, Harakal says, staff members realized nearly 300,000 visitors had been overlooked; attendance was down by only 2 percent.

A reported 18 percent drop at the Chicago Historical Society, on the other hand, was accurate. CHS spokesperson Maureen King says 2003 suffered by comparison with unusually high attendance the year before, when the museum hosted two popular special exhibits. Other big drops: 16 percent at the Field Museum, 16 percent at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, 15 percent at the Museum of Science and Industry. But the Mexican Fine Arts Center was up 56 percent, thanks to a Frida Kahlo-Diego Rivera exhibit. Museums in the Park executive director Jacqueline Atkins says attendance for the nine museums peaked at 8.8 million in the good old days of 2000.

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