Out With the Show

Last spring Kathy Scambiatterra was holding rehearsals for Arthur Miller’s seldom produced 1964 play, After the Fall. As her vision of the work expanded, Scambiatterra–artistic director of the Artistic Home Acting Ensemble–realized her company needed more room. “I searched high and low for the kind of space which would allow us to perform the show environmentally,” Scambiatterra says, “sort of the way Mary Zimmerman does.”

At around that time Zimmerman was presenting Eleven Rooms of Proust, which called for the audience to wander about a sprawling Ravenswood warehouse to witness a series of tableaux suggested by Remembrance of Things Past. That production was briefly shut down by city inspectors due to code violations–unlike a traditional theater, the warehouse lacked brightly lit exit signs.

As a newcomer on the theater scene, Artistic Home feared similar problems, so they made the rounds of city agencies, asking for advice. The Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs hooked them up with their alderman, Ted Matlak, who in turn led them to realtor Al Johnson. And that’s how they met landlord Marc Duchon.

In mid-August Duchon offered the group the vacant Matz Funeral Home at 2058 W. Belmont. It seemed like a nice fit. “This place is like no funeral home you’ve ever seen,” Scambiatterra says. “It has vaulted ceilings with sky scenes painted on. It’s beautiful. I thought, this is the perfect place for this play.”

Duchon told Artistic Home he planned to demolish the building for condos but thought it would take six months to get his hands on the required permits. With a six-week run set to open October 21, Scambiatterra agreed to take over the space for three months. After consulting a lawyer, she asked Duchon to sign a one-page contract spelling out the terms of the agreement. Rent was $1,000 a month.

A few problems remained: there was no heat, and neither of the building’s bathrooms worked. The company said it would fix the heating, Scambiatterra says, if Duchon agreed to pay for it. She says Duchon told her he’d supply one toilet if she supplied the other. She then gave him a check for September rent.

Artistic Home completed its casting, signed contracts with actors, secured designers, and sent announcements. It was also negotiating with Actors’ Equity because one ensemble member belonged to the union. Scambiatterra was in rehearsals on September 8 when she got a call from her producer, Jared Leal, who said Duchon had called another ensemble member to let them know his permits had come in early–he now planned to demolish the place in three weeks.

On September 10, the company’s managing director, Amy Rising, discussed a possible buyout of their lease with Duchon. An itemized list of expenses–including actors’ salaries, designers’ fees, and royalties–was drawn up. The bill came to $13,640; Duchon balked. “It seems high,” Scambiatterra admits, but she believed the group had invested too much to back out. “We thought we were going to incur too much damage integritywise.”

Duchon offered to pay for another space if the group would move, but Scambiatterra told him nothing he suggested suited their needs. “One of the spaces was above a pizza parlor,” she says, “and we’d have to build a black-box performance space–that’s not what we wanted to do.” Duchon thinks he was being more than fair: “They were paying $1,000 a month to use about 6,000 square feet, but it costs us $14,000 a month to have that building sit there. I was doing them a huge favor to begin with.”

Duchon claims he had agreed to rent the funeral home as “a place to rehearse, not a place to put a performance on.” But the signed agreement does say the space would be used for a “production of After the Fall” ending in November. Duchon says he never agreed to help with the bathrooms or the heating. “I’m knocking the building down–I’m not going to put a heating system in.”

“Marc seemed to us to be an extremely good guy there to help us out,” Scambiatterra says. “But I think he thought, well, if the permits come through then fine, I’ll just tell them to leave. If they don’t come through then those actors will give me $1,000 a month.

“To him we were like Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, a let’s-put-on-a-show kind of thing,” she says. “That more than anything made me say, ‘I think I’m going to fight this.’ That may not have been the smartest thing to do, but he was just dismissing us.”

The group plowed ahead. During construction on the space one afternoon, Scambiatterra’s husband, John Mossman, and company member William Tellman were confronted by a contractor who told them they weren’t allowed to make any changes to the building. Mossman replied that as leaseholders they had a right to be there. When Duchon arrived, Scambiatterra claims, he was threatening to “bring 100 people in there every day to tear things up.”

“Things got hot,” Duchon concedes. The cops were called, and the theater’s lawyers advised them to press charges. “Now the show was disintegrating,” Scambiatterra says. “We had a very short time in which to produce it.”

Artistic Home ended up filing a request for a restraining order and $100,000 in punitive damages. “I don’t need $100,000,” Scambiatterra says. “I deferred to a lawyer’s position to get Marc away from us.”

Under the terms of an agreement drafted by Judge Thomas Durkin, the group was allowed to stay if it paid rent for the two remaining months. But by now, Scambiatterra says, the actors and designers had lost heart. “No one wanted to deal with such an iffy situation–and there was no heat.” Artistic Home used the space only for an October 28 fund-raiser.

“The show’s not happening,” Scambiatterra says. “We’re out $3,000 after two years of raising $8,000 for the first production. That’s hard.”

On December 6 both sides will return to court for a final status hearing to decide if the terms of Judge Durkin’s agreement were fulfilled. “That’s when I’ll decide whether I sue Marc,” Scambiatterra says.

Duchon says he’s glad it’s almost over. “They’re out December first. We’re moving in on the second to tear the building down.”

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