Orchestral Association Goes to Plan B

The powers that be at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra have gone back to the drawing board and come up with an expansion plan to replace what now appears to be an unworkable proposal to buy the Borg-Warner building next door to Orchestra Hall. That plan, announced last summer, was to raze the Borg-Warner structure and erect a new one that would include office space, a recital hall, rehearsal facilities, a music library, and a cafe, among numerous other amenities. At an Orchestral Association trustee meeting last week, an alternate plan was presented that involves building an L-shaped structure behind Orchestra Hall on the southeast corner of Wabash and Adams. A CSO trustee present at last week’s board meeting said the new proposal would cost about the same as the Borg-Warner plan (just under $100 million including land acquisition) and encompass most if not all of the same elements. What would be missing in the new proposal, of course, is the more prestigious and imposing Michigan Avenue frontage. The new proposal would also require building through, or over, the alley that runs between Michigan and Wabash and would mean the view from the facility would be of the noisy Loop el tracks.

These latest developments in the CSO’s search for space were precipitated by the refusal of Borg-Warner CEO and chairman Donald Trauscht to move out of the company’s headquarters. A CSO trustee said the Orchestral Association had been proceeding under the misguided assumption that buying out the 20-some leases in the building (Borg-Warner occupies most of the space) would not present a problem because of a long-ago handshake understanding with arts-friendly Jim Bere, the deceased former Borg-Warner chairman. Apparently no one at Orchestra Hall counted on Trauscht taking a different stand on the matter, even after being offered what one trustee called an attractive buy-out proposal. A spokesman for Trauscht last week confirmed that Borg-Warner intends to remain at 200 S. Michigan at least until the current lease expires, in 1999. Notes the spokesman: “Borg-Warner has just become a public company, and Mr. Trauscht believes a move to another location right now would be too disruptive.”

In the two months or so since it became evident that Trauscht intends to stay where he is, a source said some of the trustees had appealed to Mayor Daley to pressure Borg-Warner to move out, but the mayor refused. That left the orchestra leaders with little choice but to consider other options. Now the sudden and substantial change in plans has left some trustees upset over the project’s sloppy handling. Notes one unhappy trustee: “If this had been a major corporation, let’s face it, the guys in charge of this would have been out on their asses right now.” No firm deal as yet has been cut with the owner of the Wabash Avenue property. But even once the Orchestral Association is officially ready to proceed on Wabash, a source says the trustees may go back to Trauscht one more time.

Merger on Lincoln Avenue

The boards of directors of Body Politic Theatre and Victory Gardens Theater have agreed to a merger, an action that could become a blueprint for the future of Chicago’s other underattended and underfunded resident theater companies. Now sources say all that remain are the deal’s details, which could be ironed out by the first of the year. The likely scenario would entail Victory Gardens acquiring Body Politic’s second-floor theater and office space in their shared building at 2257-61 N. Lincoln. According to an agreement between the two companies when they jointly acquired the building more than a decade ago, the entire property would be valued at $380,000 for the purposes of a buy-out by either of them. By those terms, and factoring in the outstanding mortgage on the building, Victory Gardens will have to ante up about $120,000 to take control of the entire building, according to a source familiar with the negotiations. Most likely Victory Gardens initially would rent out the Body Politic space until it can boost its budget sufficiently to cover the costs of mounting productions in both spaces on a regular basis. Victory Gardens would also be expected to pick up key members of the Body Politic board and whatever is left of the company’s dwindling subscriber base. Just exactly what vestiges of Body Politic would remain to remind the public of its existence is uncertain at this point; perhaps the theater’s name would be attached to the upstairs space.

International Theatre Fest News

Jane Nicholl Sahlins, executive director and cofounder of the biennial International Theatre Festival of Chicago, won’t be announcing the lineup for next spring’s program until mid or late January, but one item known to be on the agenda is the American premiere of a new play from Alan Ayckbourn. The working title is Communicating Doors; Ayckbourn wrote the first draft last fall. Sahlins has seen the script but so far has not shared it with anyone else around here, not even local producers who might be interested in picking it up for a commercial run after its limited engagement during the festival. Sahlins maintains she is under orders from Ayckbourn not to pass around the script. It will be given its first workshop performance next February at a theater Ayckbourn runs in Scarborough, a small town in the north of England, and Sahlins indicated that changes were likely to be made in the script based on that initial production. The prolific Ayckbourn’s most recent work, Time of My Life, was given its world premiere in London’s West End earlier in the fall, but it did not impress critics and the run lasted only a few weeks.