Moving Mr. Green

Under artistic director B.J. Jones, Northlight Theatre has made a dramatic comeback after years of declining ticket sales. But next month the nonprofit company will undertake a huge gamble by closing its highly successful production of Jeff Baron’s Visiting Mr. Green at the 348-seat North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie and reopening it as a commercial venture on the 440-seat main stage at the Royal George Theatre Center. The two-man play stars Chicago favorite Mike Nussbaum as an aging Jewish widower and Guy Adkins as a gay man who’s ordered by a judge to visit him after nearly running him over. The production has drawn mixed reviews, but Richard Friedman, managing director for Northlight, predicts that when the play ends its six-week run in Skokie on November 7 it will have racked up $300,000 in ticket sales. Earlier this month the Northlight production caught the eye of New Yorker Alan Schuster, who bought the Royal George last fall. Baron’s play had run for nearly two years off-Broadway, and Schuster’s confidence in the property, coupled with the strong box office in Skokie, convinced Friedman and Northlight’s board of directors to remount the show commercially: its six-week run at the Royal George opens November 19.

Transferring a nonprofit play to the commercial arena can be a tricky business. The expense of remounting the play in a new theater is met by commercial investors–in this case, Northlight–who hope for a significant dividend. Without funds from the nonprofit company’s season budget, the production must pay its own theater rental and marketing costs, and without the benefit of subscriptions, tickets sell on the strength of the play alone. Weekly operating expenses tend to be much higher for an independent show, and if Visiting Mr. Green proves less popular at the Royal George, Northlight could wind up taking a bath. Two years ago Northlight carried out a commercial transfer of Always…Patsy Cline, staging it for a combined 13 months at the Apollo Theater and later the Victory Gardens complex, but despite its long run the show never turned a profit. “We could never make back the $40,000 it cost us to move the show,” says Friedman, “though we didn’t lose any money on operating expenses.” The red ink didn’t affect Northlight directly, because the transfer was bankrolled by a separate producing entity that included Friedman, Apollo Theater operator Rob Kolson, and several Northlight board members. But for Visiting Mr. Green Northlight itself will be rolling the dice.

“Our board believes this will only help the theater in the long run,” says Friedman. Northlight wants to dispel the perception that it’s strictly a suburban theater company, and it plans to use the Royal George engagement to cross-promote its next production in Skokie, the musical Dinah Was, which opens December 1. Schuster, eager to fill a hole in his schedule caused by the expected November 7 closing of Love, Janis, is cutting Northlight a deal on the rent, but the company is still shelling out $20,000 to move the show. Weekly operating expenses will total between $25,000 and $30,000, depending on how much Northlight sinks into marketing and advertising. Friedman estimates that Visiting Mr. Green must play to 30 percent of capacity each week to cover those expenses, but before the production shows a profit it will have to pay off the moving expenses. To build interest Northlight is pricing all tickets at $25 the first week; after that they’ll revert to $34 to $42, with Tuesday performances remaining at $25. “It may be tough to do better than break even the first couple of weeks,” he says, “but we hope to do well during Christmas week and generate a nice profit on the show.”

CSO Fights the Blahs

Following months of speculation and reports of numerous empty seats at subscription concerts, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra has confirmed that its ticket sales have dropped substantially. According to the CSO’s report for fiscal 1999, which ended June 30, overall ticket revenue fell 6 percent last year–from $20.9 million to $19.7 million–and revenue for the orchestra’s own concerts declined 4.3 percent. At the same time operating expenses have continued to climb, from $48.9 million to $53.7 million. Ticket revenue accounted for only 37 percent of the orchestra’s operating budget, down sharply from 42 percent last year. That puts the CSO at the low end of the scale in terms of balancing earned and contributed income: according to the most recent figures available, the Boston Symphony Orchestra covers 42 percent of its budget with ticket revenue, at the San Francisco Symphony that figure is 46 percent, and at the Philadelphia Orchestra it’s 55 percent.

Speaking at the CSO’s annual meeting last week, president Henry Fogel never directly addressed the decline in ticket revenue, but others on the orchestra’s administrative staff insist that boosting sales has become a top priority. “We have to deal with the fact that people today have a lot more choices about what to do with their free time,” says Tom Hallett, vice president for finance and administration. “We have got to figure out how to market to what is now a rapidly changing marketplace.” The CSO also appears to be embracing the blockbuster programming that museums have used to boost attendance: its hugely successful Shostakovich festival in May helped it realize a slim $17,000 budget surplus this year, and Fogel also alluded to a major international music festival the orchestra will mount in 2003.

The president and his administrative team must also address growing unrest within the orchestra. “Frustration is at an unprecedented level,” says one longtime player. Some orchestra members voice their support for music director Daniel Barenboim, who’s just been given a new three-year contract despite a predilection for modern music that can be box-office poison. But others complain that lackluster programming contributes to the orchestra’s woes. “Large chunks of our repertoire are being ignored,” says musician Stephen Lester, “and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Chorus isn’t being used as much as it used to be.” Recordings featuring the orchestra have plummeted as well; Lester says the CSO will make only one new recording this year. “I can remember when it wasn’t uncommon for the number of recordings to be in the double digits.” Another player argues that the CSO’s huge increase in community outreach is turning it into “a big social agency” and diverting attention from its primary mission–presenting great concerts. According to the report, the CSO’s budget for education and community outreach more than doubled last year, from $406,000 to over $1 million, though Hallett argues that education-related activities help the orchestra raise funds for a variety of other purposes.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.