LOW Blow

After 18 years as artistic director of Light Opera Works, Philip Kraus was sacked by voice mail. Frank Soberski, president of LOW’s board, called Kraus in early February and bluntly informed him that his annual contract would not be renewed for the 1999-2000 season. Kraus was stunned: “I certainly wasn’t planning to resign.” When the board issued a press release in mid-March, it named Kraus “artistic director emeritus” but gave no explanation for the change. General manager Bridget McDonough, who founded LOW with Kraus and two others in 1980, refused to comment and promptly left town on vacation. Last week Soberski finally explained that the board felt Kraus had spread himself too thin, teaching at DePaul University and performing with Lyric Opera of Chicago and other companies across the nation. “I never thought my schedule was an issue,” says Kraus. He argues that his other commitments only enhanced LOW’s reputation and that even after 18 years LOW couldn’t pay him a livable wage.

In fact Kraus fell victim to an ideological rift that isolated him from McDonough and the board. Kraus considered LOW “a purveyor of serious art” committed to operettas no one else in Chicago would touch. “I am proud of the fact we dusted off a piece like The Duchess of Chicago,” he says, referring to the forgotten relic by Austrian expatriate Emmerich Kalman that was presented last fall. McDonough, back from vacation, insisted that LOW will continue to present operettas, but according to one former board member she often complained that her friends didn’t even know what an operetta was. An internal memorandum from 1995 states that LOW began trying to “freshen the company’s image” in the early 90s by using terms like “Broadway, musicals, music theater, and musical theater” in its marketing materials and grant proposals. The memo suggests that McDonough took these steps on her own, feeling the company “needed renewal and rejuvenation,” and that “much of this was done over the artistic director’s objections and often without his knowledge.”

Shortly after that memo was circulated, says Kraus, he resigned from the board. “It seemed prudent to leave the board because I wasn’t in agreement with the way the company was moving ahead.” Soberski became president, McDonough’s title changed from managing director to general manager, and the president initiated a new reporting structure that cut Kraus out of the loop, making McDonough the sole liaison between the board and the administrative staff. “I requested minutes of the board meetings be sent to me,” says Kraus, “but they were never forthcoming.” He says McDonough came up with the idea of a second stage that would offer small-scale musicals to complement the main-stage productions at Northwestern University’s Cahn Auditorium. Kraus chose The Fantasticks as the first musical; it debuted last fall at the 260-seat theater located inside Evanston’s YMCA Child Care Center.

Kraus’s track record as a director did nothing to endear him to the board; his operettas were hobbled by clumsy staging and ham-handed comedy that drew mixed reviews and failed to attract the younger audience McDonough coveted. But the past season may have sealed his fate: after the New Year’s blizzard forced LOW to cancel one performance of its final production, The Desert Song, it had to dip heavily into its reserve fund to cover the resulting $30,000 deficit and still went $15,000 into the red. McDonough says LOW will conduct a national search for Kraus’s replacement, which could take several months. (One local director who’s angling for the job is Bill Pullinsi, a musical-comedy veteran of the Candlelight Dinner Playhouse who directed LOW’s poorly reviewed The Desert Song.) Kraus says he has a contract to serve as a consultant on next season’s first production, La Belle Helene, and a verbal commitment to perform in The Mikado. But apparently that’s up in the air. Comments McDonough: “No contract has been signed for that.”

Organic Donors Sought

As tipped in this column, Ina Marlowe is moving Organic Theater Company to the north suburbs. Organic will take up residence at the same YMCA child-care facility where Light Opera Works stages one show a year. The artistic director has also named two associate directors: Jonathan Wilson, a professor at Loyola University, and Bill Pullinsi. Marlowe continues to deny that Organic is in dire financial straits, but sources say she’s been soliciting funds from several high-profile foundations; she’s also cut one play from the company’s current season and held next year’s schedule to three. So what happened to the money netted from the old Organic Theater building at 3319 N. Clark? The building sold for approximately $1.2 million, and the company is believed to have netted around $750,000, but Marlowe won’t comment on where it went. Asked the same question, a spokesperson for the company replied, “I don’t know, and I don’t want to know.”

Occasional Users

A new study by the Arts Marketing Center of the Arts & Business Council of Chicago spells out the difficulty of attracting what it calls “light” or “medium” arts users (also known as “philistines”). According to the study, medium users participate in about 13 arts-related activities a year, generally less challenging and structured activities like museums, galleries, and art fairs, whereas light users–nearly a third of the metropolitan Chicago population–devote only 5 percent of their leisure time to the arts. What’s more, many of the city’s arts organizations lack the marketing funds required to attract many of these users. “An arts group really needs to put about 15 to 25 percent of its operating budget into marketing to do an effective job,” explains Deborah Obalil of the AMC, who authored the report. “But our research indicates that most of the small and medium-size arts groups allocate no more than 3 to 8 percent of their budget for marketing.” Because light and medium users feel uncomfortable buying theater tickets unless they know what they’re getting, the study endorses packaging plays in a festival format or designing a Web site that allows patrons to comment on performances. But it also cautions against deep ticket discounting: light users, who generally limit themselves to big downtown shows, may equate low prices with nonprofessional productions.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Philip Kraus uncredited photo.