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For nearly a decade, Latino Chicago Theater Company has occupied a former firehouse at 1625 N. Damen. But now the group wants to move from the booming Bucktown neighborhood. An outright sale of its property is only one of several options being considered, according to Juan Ramirez, Latino Chicago’s director of programs and outreach.

The theater bought the firehouse from the city for $35,000 ten years ago, before the neighborhood became a popular entertainment district. “There weren’t even parking meters here when we moved in,” notes Ramirez, who marvels that the theater’s home may now be worth as much as $500,000. Ramirez says his group is concerned that it no longer connects with many Latinos in its present location. “We are looking at other possibilities in Humboldt Park and on the south side near the steel mills on the Indiana border.” Putting the theater company closer to Hispanic communities would make it easier to build a core of supporters. “That audience generally does not go to theater,” says Ramirez.

But if Latino Chicago decides to unload its Damen Avenue home, it must sell the building to another cultural organization. “Those were the terms in our sale agreement with the city,” explains Ramirez. A time-share arrangement among several theater companies is one possibility. Each would pay a fee to Latino Chicago for part ownership of the property and a chunk of time to use the theater. Ramirez says a time-share arrangement would allow Latino Chicago to open another space while retaining a presence in Bucktown.

“Rent” – Free Living

The typical New Yorker may not see much west of the Hudson, but the producers of Rent, the Tony Award-winning musical, have decided to look before they leap into Chicago.

A few weeks ago executives from a Manhattan ad agency arrived here to study how to attract crowds to Rent’s upcoming engagement at the Shubert Theatre. The firm, Serino-Coyne, specializes in marketing the tours of Broadway shows. Rent will settle in for a 12-week engagement here starting November 5, and if these marketers get their way the run will be extended for at least another 12 weeks.

Rent marketing chief Laura Matalon says she pushed for the formation of focus groups to help understand what persuades people outside of New York to go to the theater. “There is an assumption everyone will respond to what people in New York do,” Matalon says. “Rent is a part of the landscape every day in New York, but that is not the way it is on the road.” So Matalon teamed with Serino-Coyne’s Sandy Block to create two focus groups, each comprised of ten women between the ages of 35 and 65. According to Block, the groups were all female because the agency’s experience has shown that women typically make the decisions about what plays to see and they’re generally more open than men about discussing their theatergoing experiences. The women selected for the groups came from both the city and the suburbs and were carefully screened to ensure that none were theater subscribers. Block says her firm wanted to talk to occasional, single-ticket buyers because they make up the majority of those who see touring productions. “We didn’t want people who go to everything,” says Block.

The goal of each focus group was to gauge women’s “level of awareness and interest” about Rent. What Block and Matalon discovered, to their surprise, was that most women knew little about the musical. Rent had been hyped in numerous newspapers and periodicals (including on the cover of Newsweek), so both Matalon and Block had incorrectly assumed most group members would already know about the show. “Only one in ten of the women had even heard of Rent,” notes Matalon. Block adds, “These people don’t pay much attention to what is happening in the New York theater until it comes to where they are or until they visit New York.” Matalon says she was shocked to discover that nobody in one focus group subscribed to a daily newspaper, perhaps the major conduit for disseminating theater news.

Block asked the women what most influenced them to buy theater tickets. The news was not good for critics. Across the board, the women said that word-of-mouth was the single most important factor. “Most of them really wouldn’t make a move without hearing from someone they trusted that they should see a show,” says Matalon. And what would motivate these women to begin that important word-of-mouth buzz? Matalon says Rent’s story–which follows a group of down-and-out bohemians living in New York City–did not appeal to many of them. “Why would I want to go see a show about a bunch of lowlifes?” wondered one participant. When Block started talking about the awards the show had won, the women said they would be more inclined to see it.

A detailed analysis of the focus groups is still being compiled, but look for Rent’s marketers to concentrate on the prizes and the music. Much of the radio advertising consists of 60-second spots, with an excerpt from a single song and a brief voice-over at the beginning and end. Television commercials used when the national touring production opened in Boston last November are being reworked to elicit a more “emotional” response. Print ads in Chicago will also have more detailed information than the New York ads, which usually include only the show’s logo and a phone number for tickets. But no matter how sophisticated the marketing effort, Block says Rent will still be a tough sell on the road because the musical is for a younger audience, at least as far as touring shows are concerned. “Phantom and Les Miserables are familiar to people outside of New York because they have been touring around for so long. But that’s not the case with Rent.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Juan Ramirez by J.B. Spector.