Losing the Blues

When American Blues Theatre was established in 1985, its founders dedicated the company to the spirit of the working class, and true to that spirit it’s been scraping by ever since, flush one year and deep in debt the next. After many years without a home to call its own the troupe moved into a former warehouse at 1909 W. Byron, near the intersection of Lincoln and Irving Park, but the area had little foot traffic and few decent restaurants. Most of the people who started the company were no longer deeply involved in it, and its board of directors was in flux, a situation that hampered fund-raising efforts. But the group may finally have found its winning ticket in artistic director Brian Russell, who came on board in February of 1997. Russell’s first full season might not have been an unqualified success, but he’s taught the company the merits of living large.

As an associate artistic director at Northlight Theatre, Russell had been looking for a challenge as well as a chance to call the shots creatively. His new job gave him both. The company had a ragtag schedule, minuscule advertising budgets, and very little name recognition: many people seemed to think its shows featured 12-bar blues. Russell convinced the board to rename the group, and last August it became the American Theater Company. Almost as soon as he took over, Russell proposed an increase in the annual operating budget of more than 100 percent, from $75,000 to $170,000, and he proceeded to round up the money through a combination of grants, donations, and aggressive ticket sales. Under Russell the company’s grant income tripled (from organizations like the Illinois Arts Council, Chicago Community Trust, the Olsen Foundation, and the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelly Foundation). Personal donations have been matched by corporate gifts, and ticket sales throughout the year kept the cash flowing. “We will be short about $1,200,” says Russell of the season’s numbers, “and that isn’t bad considering how much we grew the budget this year.”

The board also charged Russell with sharpening the ATC’s artistic focus, and under him the company mounted its first full season. The program included classics like William Inge’s Bus Stop and an adaptation of Moliere titled Scapin, but the ATC also presented William Mastrosimone’s off-Broadway play A Stone Carver and a world premiere of Edward Mast’s The Million Bells of Ocean. Reviews for the season were mixed, but audiences clearly voted for comedy: Moliere sold the greatest number of tickets, Mast the least, though Russell insists that the latter was the greatest artistic success of the season. The four-play schedule allowed Russell to start building a subscriber base, and he managed to sell 325 subscriptions, more than double the number he’d projected. An audience survey confirmed his hunches about what brought patrons into the theater: 55 percent of those surveyed said they were attracted by word of mouth, 10 percent cited positive reviews, and 6 percent responded to paid advertising.

In addition to putting the company’s art and finances in order, Russell actually wound up doing most of the administrative work himself. At the beginning of the season he’d brought in a board member to serve as managing director of the company. “She was largely donating her services,” Russell explains, “because we were only able to pay her about $400 a month.” But an illness forced her to resign the job and her seat on the board last November; Russell assumed her duties along with his own, a move he now concedes was a mistake: “It was a little like juggling 19 balls at once, knowing you’ve got to drop 6 or 7 of them.” But this August Ron Kelly will join the ATC as full-time administrative director, which will allow Russell to focus on creative decisions.

Having weathered his first season in reasonably good shape, Russell is nervously raising the bar for his second. He’s hiked the budget again–to $210,000–and the schedule will be less familiar, even to serious theatergoers. Only the season opener, The Threepenny Opera, is a known quantity; Russell hopes to extend the run several weeks if the production is a hit. The other three productions are Christopher Kyle’s The Monogamist, the world premiere of Mast’s One Day Only, and the Chicago premiere of Mark Geisser’s Pledge of Allegiance. Despite the more daring schedule, Russell wants to increase the subscriber list to 650. “We already have 195 people signed up,” he says. Russell thinks the company will benefit from the changing neighborhood; a couple of good restaurants have opened nearby, and new town homes are going up. “More and more people will begin to find out where we are.”

The Last Impressionist?

American impressionist Mary Cassatt may not be as familiar to the general public as Monet, Degas, or Renoir, but this fall the Art Institute of Chicago will mount an exhibition of her work using the same marketing strategy that helped produce blockbuster exhibitions by her three contemporaries. “We think the formula works, so we really aren’t changing anything,” says Eileen Harakal, public affairs director for the museum. The Art Institute began its marketing blitz with a full-page ad in the Sunday New York Times; this will be followed by a flurry of ads in various media before the October 13 opening. “We try to target publications that tourists will look at, as well as the local and regional newspapers,” says Harakal. Radio spots will provide more detail about the artist and her work, and local hotels will push packages assembled around the exhibit. “Mary Cassatt: Modern Woman,” featuring nearly 100 works, will run through January 10; according to Harakal it will be the Art Institute’s last major show of impressionist paintings for a while. Early this week the museum had sold 28,700 tickets to the Cassatt show, and it hopes to draw 350,000 visitors, compared to the 500,000 who attended last year’s Renoir exhibit.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Brian Russell photo by Jim Alexander Newberry.