Low Sodium Getting the Hook?

“I am calling on all the loyal citizens to rise up,” rattles one

side. “We are preparing for violence,” warns the other. The rhetoric is as hot and edgy as a war zone dispatch, but the battlefield is a storefront in Wrigleyville, a tempest in a teapot. This week Stage Left Theatre, in its 20th year as “Chicago’s only theatre company dedicated to producing plays that raise the level of debate on social and political issues,” found itself embroiled in a nasty public debate with its late-night-improv tenant, Low Sodium Entertainment. Aaron Haber, Low Sodium’s founder, accuses Stage Left of “artistic and class snobbery” in an attempt to boot them.

Low Sodium has been renting the 50-seat space on Friday and Saturday nights for two and a half years, performing three audience-interactive, bring-your-own-beer shows each night and soliciting patrons by handing out flyers in the neighborhood. Their agreement with Stage Left has allowed them to renew indefinitely, but now, says Haber in a call-to-action letter to the Low Sodium mailing list, Stage Left is trying to make changes that amount to “a sinister plot to close down the shows you love.” Under a new contract, no alcohol will be allowed in the theater, leafleting in front will be forbidden, the rent will nearly double, and there’s no guarantee of renewal after the nine-week agreement expires. Stage Left is “attempting to put Low Sodium out of business,” Haber says. Though his troupe has been kicked out of a string of venues in the past (jealousy, he says, or a personality conflict) he claims they’ve been exemplary tenants in the Sheffield space: “We’ve kissed so much ass we have cheek prints on our faces.”

“We’ve given them a new agreement; they’re choosing not to sign it,” answers Stage Left artistic director Jessi Hill. The theater’s management has just noticed that Low Sodium is doing not one (or two) but three shows a night and therefore ought to be paying more rent; that “it is simply not legal” to have liquor on the premises; and that it can’t tie itself up in leases beyond the length of a single run. Things took a sudden turn for the worse, Hill says, after Stage Left decided to mount its own late-night show this fall and Low Sodium’s street pamphleteers began stealing its audience. Hill says she’s happy for the improv group to stay on within the terms of the new agreement, but “they want to sabotage us. There were ten messages on the machine this morning telling us we’re being unreasonable.” Haber, she adds, “basically said that my life would get very ugly.” If they don’t sign, says Hill, they’ll be making a permanent Stage Left exit after Saturday’s performance.

Chagrin Falls: It Killed

Meanwhile, in prime time at Stage Left: “We got some shitty jobs, some of us,” laments one of the characters in Mia McCullough’s play Chagrin Falls, going into the last weekend of its run. Over the last nine years, since she graduated from Northwestern University, McCullough’s had her share of those, “trying to find something that didn’t suck the life out of me while I was writing.” She was temping as an animal keeper at Lincoln Park Zoo–snuffing chicks and mice so captive reptiles could dine on fresh kill–when she got the idea for Chagrin Falls. Set in a town that lives off a slaughterhouse and a prison, the play is a meditation on institutional killing dressed as a soap opera. McCullough started working on it two years ago, shaped it through a series of four public readings, and got a couple of important breaks at the very first one, at Chicago Dramatists. She was paired with Stage Left managing director Kevin Heckman–who immediately expressed interest in a full production–and veteran off-Loop actor Morgan McCabe began to hone a remarkable performance as one of the major characters, the town barkeep. Chagrin Falls premiered under Heckman’s direction (with McCabe in the cast) at Stage Left this fall to admiring reviews. Last week McCullough learned it’s been nominated for the American Theatre Critics Association national New Play Award, where it’ll meet some stiff competition: among the two dozen or so other scripts in contention this year is Cyber Serenade, a satirical comedy she wrote four years ago. (Cyber Serenade got its first production last summer in Talent, Oregon, where it happened to be seen by critics attending the annual ATCA meeting in nearby Ashland.) Chagrin Falls has already won the 2001 Julie Harris Playwright Award sponsored by the Beverly Hills Theatre Guild; in case anyone out there is interested, McCullough’s adapting it as a screenplay.

Guild Complex

More than 3,000 Chicago area members of the Screen Actors Guild will learn the results of a national election this week that could affect the branch’s future. The battle for the national SAG presidency between Valerie Harper and Melissa Gilbert is playing out as a struggle between Los Angeles and the rest of the county. Outgoing branch president Eileen Parkinson says, “Gilbert has a good grasp of the value of maintaining the branches and offices; [Harper] has what I would describe as a more provincial view. Under Harper I think we would see a continuation of the movement to solidify the power base in Hollywood.” Branch members have always had to deal with the fact that some people think Hollywood is SAG, Parkinson says, “but in the last two years they’ve garnered a power base.” In Chicago the union shares an office with the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, and many members are dual cardholders. Incoming SAG branch president Lisa Lewis says Harper favors a controversial study by the consulting firm Towers Perrin that suggests a reduction in the number of branches. “One of the things we fear is they might separate the Chicago office from AFTRA,” Lewis says. The national board, described by Lewis as fractured and contentious, last month adopted one of the study’s other recommendations: it downsized itself in a way that gives Los Angeles a clear voting majority. Ballots for Harper and Gilbert have already been cast; election results will be announced November 5.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Bruce Powell.