League of Chicago Theatres Ponders the State of the Art

The League of Chicago Theatres convenes this weekend at the Alpine Valley Lodge in East Troy, Wisconsin, for what has become an annual searching of souls. There’ll be seminars on topics ranging from theatrical success stories to marketing and artistic standards, but really the gathering will be trying to figure out what’s ahead for the city’s theater industry. “Nobody has any money,” lamented one veteran local theater executive at a recent play opening.

Last year’s retreat was tumultuous. The League’s former executive director, Diane Olmen, resigned the night before the meeting started. Meanwhile the commercial theaters were trying to gain more seats on the board of directors, which the not-for-profit companies thought was unfair.

The mood this year is markedly less belligerent. But the organization’s concerns–the need to find new funding and new audiences–are as pressing as ever, and the League’s new executive director, Keryl McCord, is getting a clearer picture of the magnitude of her challenge. “There are days when I’ve questioned my sanity,” says McCord, who’s been in her post now for five months. But she’s optimistic: “I think an attitudinal change needs to be made,” she says, adding, “Those of us in the industry need to empower ourselves with the knowledge that Chicago is the theater capital of the nation.”

Maybe so, but not many theater companies here make it for the long haul. Even the well-established commercial producing team of Michael Cullen, Sheila Henaghan, and Howard Platt collapsed during the past year, and industry rumors suggest at least a couple of long-standing not-for-profit companies may close in the year ahead. Meanwhile, upstart theater companies continue to operate for a season or two, then fall by the wayside due to lack of funding, poor administration, or better opportunities elsewhere for the actors.

Some emerging theater companies, such as the American Blues Theatre and the Commons Theatre, have tried to move forward by mounting ambitious productions (the Commons’ adaptation of Dostoyevski’s The Lower Depths last fall, American Blues Theatre’s Peacekeeper last summer), only to find that they can’t sell enough tickets. Their losses force them to bow out of the scene for extended periods, and without ongoing visibility they lose contact with audiences and funding sources that could help them grow and prosper.

McCord isn’t worried about how short-lived individual theater companies are; the important thing, she argues, is that there’s work out there to see. But she is concerned about audiences; about half of all theatergoers, she says, see only one, two, or three shows a year. By next spring the League expects to have completed a massive marketing survey designed to examine the entertainment habits of these occasional theatergoers. “We want to know where else they spend their entertainment dollars and what would make them go to the theater more often,” says McCord.

Before the League can help its constituent theater groups solve their problems, though, it must put its own house in order. McCord and her restructured staff are trying to collect about $20,000 in unpaid bills for past-due League membership fees and display advertising placed through the League office during the previous administration. The cash-strapped organization accepted a loan from Les Miserables producer Cameron Mackintosh to put a fresh coat of paint on the State Street Hot Tix booth, its primary point of contact with the public. But more work still needs to be done at that booth and at the satellite booth in Evanston.

Off Off Loop Festival: Off the Calendar?

The future of the Off Off Loop Theater Festival is in jeopardy. Producer Doug Bragan says he does not plan to mount the festival next year after losing more than $20,000 on this year’s event, which ended a five-week run at the Theatre Building June 2. Bragan blames the losses–more than half of the money put into the project–in large part on the absence of reviews in the city’s daily newspapers. The Tribune and the Sun-Times each reviewed only one of the six evenings of one-acts in the festival. “Audiences in this town don’t think something has opened until they see a review of it,” complains Bragan, “and that hurt us.” He also believes he would have trouble getting the companies he might want next year if they can’t be assured of getting reviewed.

Room Wanted

Put Susan Lipman, executive director of Chamber Music Chicago, at the top of the list of arts administrators clamoring for a new, midsize performance space for music in the Loop. Chamber Music Chicago, which presents an annual subscription season of chamber music artists, incurred a $76,000 deficit in the just-ended fiscal year. Lipman says her organization has suffered financially in recent years because it has been forced to book its artists into venues such as Orchestra Hall, which is too large and expensive for the group’s needs. “Orchestra Hall has cost us in the neighborhood of $13,000 for a one-night rental,” says Lipman. Booking concerts into the smaller, more affordable Blackstone Theatre has become more and more difficult over past years because available rental dates are scarce and the ones that are available are confirmed too late to enable CMC to effectively market its season.

Terminator 2 Starts Strong

The hype has paid off for Terminator 2, at least in the early going. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s latest picture was the big winner at area box offices last weekend, averaging a whopping $25,000 per screen for the three-day period. But local exhibitors weren’t ready to say whether the special-effects-laden movie will make back its $90-millon-plus production cost. “We’ll know that in a couple of weeks,” said one exhibitor. Meanwhile director Mike Nichols’s Regarding Henry opened last weekend to decidedly mixed reviews and an average of only $7,500 per screen in the Chicago area. Walt Disney’s rerelease of 101 Dalmatians outperformed the Nichols picture, averaging $9,600 per screen in its first weekend.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J. Alexander newberry.