“We wanted to build a space for performance that wasn’t dangerous,” explains Sharon Evans, artistic director of the new Live Bait Theater, which opens its doors to Chicago audiences for the first time this weekend. “I once saw a woman and her chair fall off a riser in a gallery. Who wants to go through that to see a performance?”

In addition to providing a safe environment for the more adventurous theatergoer, Live Bait Theater will offer an artistic haven to Chicago performance artists, who have traditionally presented their work in one- or two-night engagements in out-of-the-way, underequipped spaces. Evans hopes that her new theater, located on the outskirts of Wrigleyville, will become the Rolls-Royce of alternative performance spaces.

“If you’re just starting out,” Evans explains, “you perform at Randolph Street Gallery. Then you might move to N.A.M.E. gallery, and then to MoMing. After that, there’s no place to go. We hope to give artists that extra step.”

The theater, with both flexible and fixed seating, was built from scratch on the ground floor of a building that Evans owns. Adjacent to the theater will be a cafe, where Evans hopes artists and audience members will meet to exchange ideas and information.

Evans, best known to Chicago audiences for her successful Portrait of a Shiksa at the Organic Lab Theater earlier this year, has been performing in Chicago for eight years. Her years of legwork made her see how badly a facility like Live Bait was needed, and the theater has been a cooperative–almost a family–endeavor: Evanss husband, John Ragir, is executive producer, and her sister, Catherine Evans, is comanaging director, along with Curt Columbus.

“Performance people never have their performances mounted the way they should be,” she says. “When I used to perform, I would have one technical rehearsal, and then the next night there would be four critics in the first row watching me. No one in the theater in his right mind would do that.

“Certainly a performance aesthetic is quite different from a theater aesthetic,” she continues. “But that doesn’t mean that you can’t take the good aspects of survival in the theater and apply them to performance. A two-day preview, which is really peanuts, could make the difference between disaster and success.”

Operating her own theater allows Evans not only unprecedented control over her own work but the opportunity to present other artists with a level of professional production not available anywhere else in the city. To open Live Bait, Evans will present James Grigsby, a veteran Chicago performance artist, in an evening called Terminal Madness. The program will consist of the screening of a film, Trust Me, a collaboration between Grigsby and Chicago filmmaker Tom Finerty, and Grigsby’s newest live performance piece, Terminal Madness. The show’s six-week run is an unheard-of phenomenon in the performance community.

Confronted with the prospect of sustaining a six-week run–his longest previous run was four days–Grigsby is understandably both scared and excited. “Performance is like walking a tightrope,” he explains. “Probably without a net.” But Grigsby sees this production as opportunity to examine his work more critically than might have been possible otherwise.

“We’re willing to accept certain kinds of technical limitations when we see work in a gallery, limitations that we would not allow in the theater,” he says. “We’re in a way more magnanimous to our colleagues, when the fact is that if the work is performed under the best of conditions, it might not hold up. We make excuses for technical limitations when the problem might be in the work itself.”

Evans hopes her investment will pay off in the nurturing of mature Chicago artists. “I would love to present a performance artist a year for a six-week run,” she says, “just to fertilize the environment.

“There are very few performance artists who have reached a mature stage, even on a national level,” she continues. “I’m 34, so I’m just entering into my productive age. I’ve learned my craft, and now hopefully I’ll do some good work.”

Terminal Madness opens Friday, September 9, at Live Bait Theater, 3914 N. Clark. Performances are Fridays and Sundays at 8 PM, and Saturdays at 8 and 10, through October 16. Call 871-1212 for information and reservations.

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