Performing Arts Group Thinks Big

An its 35th anniversary season, Performing Arts Chicago is nearly doubling its roster of music, theater, and dance events and hoping to cement its reputation for presenting the best of what’s new and adventurous from around the world. After a comparatively quiet 34th season, in which it presented only 11 attractions as it tried to retire a $179,000 debt, the presenting organization (known as Chamber Music Chicago until 1992) is expanding to 19 events this year after paring its debt down to $28,000. Though that financial improvement–which came mostly through a combination of lowered administrative expenses and significantly increased unearned income–is a step in the right direction, executive director Susan Lipman is still anxious about the ambitious upcoming season. “Everything we’re doing this year is a risk for us,” she says. But she also maintains that the audience base PAC has built up over the years is large enough and trusting enough to support an ambitious and diverse schedule. “We’ve intentionally been developing a crossover audience that will sample more than just music.”

Among the new offerings is the organization’s first-ever theater series, featuring five productions that range from the Handspring Puppet Company of Johannesburg, South Africa, and the Maly Theatre of Saint Petersburg, Russia, to an eight-member British troupe called Stomp that specializes in a nearly wordless theater of percussion, with sounds created by trash cans, oil drums, broomsticks, and even matchboxes. It sounds like a typical International Theatre Festival lineup; hopefully Lipman will have better luck than the theater festival did selling tickets. She’s well aware of the International Theatre Festival’s poor attendance this year; PAC copresented one of the featured attractions, Canadian Robert Lepage’s Needles and Opium. That technically elaborate production at the Vic lost money but was one of the festival’s better-attended offerings.

For most of its history, Chamber Music Chicago had focused exclusively on music-oriented attractions. But a few years ago Lipman and the board of directors decided there was a niche in the marketplace for a presenter with a broader focus. “So much new stuff from all over the world simply wasn’t being seen here,” says Lipman, who’s trying to model her organization after the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York, which imported Peter Brook’s well-publicized theater piece The Mahabharatha a few years back. Lipman shies away from using terms such as “avant-garde” or “cutting edge” to describe many of her group’s events, leaning instead toward “innovative” or “provocative.” She explains, “We don’t live in a time when there is a lot of avant-garde work being done.” Indeed, PAC has coined the term “dejAvant” (a melding of “deja vu” and “avant-garde”) to describe its most out-there acts this season, among them the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, La Compagnie Marie Chouinard dance group from France, and Jane Comfort and Company, a dance troupe headed by the choreographer of the new Stephen Sondheim musical Passion.

Lipman has been among the most vocal of local arts executives on the pressing need for a new midsize theater in Chicago; she blames her organization’s growing deficit in the early 1990s in large part on the absence of a single appropriate venue. No fewer than nine different venues will house this season’s productions, ranging from the new Skyline Stage at Navy Pier to the Shubert Theatre to Park West to Evanston’s Pick-Staiger Hall. To help market her expanded lineup, Lipman has hired Carol Fox, the former marketing director for Hubbard Street Dance Chicago. Fox says she left Hubbard Street because she wanted to work again with a wider range of events; early in her career she handled marketing chores for Centre East, the somewhat more mainstream presenter in Skokie. Some observers consider Fox a key factor in Hubbard Street’s success and believe she will be an asset for Performing Arts Chicago. To spur ticket sales for the upcoming season Lipman and Fox are deemphasizing fixed subscription packages, instead offering a sliding discount on multiple-ticket purchases; a customer who buys tickets to four different events, for example, will get 15 percent knocked off the total price.

Not everyone who knows Lipman is certain she can pull it off; one source who has worked with her says she sometimes gets so caught up in the artistic decisions that she doesn’t pay enough attention to important business details. The upcoming season will certainly prove whether or not she can handle all aspects of her job. For now, Lipman is optimistic. “Over a period of time, audiences have come to trust us, and what makes it all work for us is the quality of the work we present.”

Theater League Tries Marketing

After several years of paying little or no attention to marketing, the League of Chicago Theatres has hired the public relations firm of Clancy & Gapp to begin to raise awareness, both in the city and beyond, of the Chicago theater industry. The league interviewed eight firms for the job and chose Clancy & Gapp in part because their client roster doesn’t include any theater companies, so there could be no conflict of interest. Among the immediate goals of the league’s new PR initiative is the development of a press kit and the establishment of better relations between the league and city government, particularly the city’s convention and tourism bureau. The league also wants to develop closer ties with local hotel and restaurant trade associations. With attendance at many local theaters reportedly falling off in recent months, this push is taking on added significance. Adds D. Clancy, a principal in the firm who has a background in local politics and tourism: “We have to raise the consciousness among a lot of people that theater is one of the commodities we have to sell in this city, so that people will begin to think of theater when they visit here.”

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