Prop Thtr will probably never produce Stephen Sondheim’s Follies. Yet somehow, the news earlier this month that they will be moving out of their longtime two-venue space in Avondale by October made me envision Carlotta the aging showgirl, crooning “good times and bum times, I’ve seen them all. And, my dear, I’m still here.”
Where “here” will be next for Prop is an open question. But a company that began its life producing in a former strip club (with the pole still onstage) on February 13, 1981—Friday the 13th, no less—knows some things about surviving and adapting to circumstances.
Prop—one of the oldest non-Equity theaters in Chicago—has occupied many addresses over the years. They were in the pregentrification Clybourn corridor in the 1980s, spent time on North Avenue in Wicker Park in the 90s, and have had a couple periods of itinerancy before moving into the double storefront space at 3502-04 North Elston. That building (a combination of a former fastener factory and a shop, Austrian Station, that specialized in Oktoberfest paraphernalia) was originally purchased in early 2003 by Kristen Kunz Vehill, wife of Prop cofounder Scott Vehill, and their friend Jimmy Milano. Milano’s line of work as a bricklayer and Prop’s DIY grassroots aesthetic both led to the name of the corporation that holds title on the building: Brick by Brick.
Over the years, Milano eventually sold his percentage in Brick by Brick to Kunz Vehill and to the family of Stefan Brun, the other Prop cofounder. Prop rented from Brick by Brick and managed the facilities, including rentals and residency arrangements for other companies. (Curious Theatre Branch, cofounded by Brun’s wife, Jenny Magnus, has been producing work, including the long-running Rhino Fest, for many years at Prop.)
So what happened? COVID.
Kunz Vehill, who now owns over 80 percent of the buildings, has seen her self-employment income dry up, and covering the lion’s share of the mortgage was simply not doable as the pandemic has dragged on. “The buildings never made money. I never cared about them making money,” says Kunz Vehill. “At the time the decision [to buy] was made, I felt like real estate was a good investment and it would be nice for Prop to have a permanent home and not be itinerant or moving all the time. It seemed like a sound decision and my whole thing for many years was ‘I don’t care what you guys do, I just want to cover the mortgage and the taxes and the insurance. Just the basic stuff. You guys cover all the rest.'” But with production at a standstill, Prop too has had no revenue coming in, either from their own shows or from the rentals from other companies that helped cover the operating costs.
But even as Prop prepares to leave their longtime address, they are gearing up for some of the most ambitious changes in their history, both structurally and aesthetically.
Their board, now under the leadership of Keith Fort, began embarking on a capital campaign last year, before they knew the company would have to move out. Fort, whose professional background is in managing large events such as the main stage at the Taste of Chicago, says, “You can’t crank up a capital campaign in three months to save this building. It’s just not going to happen, I don’t think. It’s possible we could still see an angel step forward. I have not seen that angel yet and I don’t have one that I can pull out of my hat.” But the fundraising campaign will continue, with different goals in mind than saving the building. It’s the first time Prop has undertaken such a major development initiative.
For current artistic director Olivia Lilley, who took the Prop reins from Brun in 2018 (though Brun remains active with the company), being itinerant for at least the near future, especially in a time when all theaters in Chicago are on hold with productions, feeds into her own preferences for devised and site-specific productions. Devised work, simply put, means productions that feature not the monophonic imprint of one playwright’s voice, but instead bring the voices and ideas of the entire acting ensemble and design team to the table, often by riffing off a variety of existing texts, with a director helping provide a final shape for the show. An example is Lilley’s 2018 production of Neverland, which provided a fresh take on J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan.
Prior to the COVID shutdown, Lilley was working on Diary of an Erotic Life, a devised piece derived from proto-Expressionist Frank Wedekind’s writings, including his famous “Lulu” plays. Those also formed the basis for the 1929 film Pandora’s Box, starring black-haired siren Louise Brooks and Brun’s grandfather, Austrian actor Fritz Kortner. Lilley has also produced site-specific work in the past, including an adaptation of Faust with the Runaways Lab Theater that played in various living rooms around the city.
“I think that what will likely happen is that Prop will find a long-term rehearsal space because we do develop our shows over longer periods of time,” says Lilley. “The thing that is the most ongoing about our programming is the new play development aspect.” (Prop is also one of the founding members of the National New Play Network, a consortium of companies around the country dedicated to fostering and sharing new work.)
She adds, “I mean, I am very sad. I am mourning. Absolutely. But I’m also excited for all of Prop’s board and staff and all of the eyes that are on the programming, on what we’re producing, on what we’re developing. And then also being able to start to kind of integrate some of the demands from We See You White American Theater and other documents of that nature to really be anti-racist in all aspects of Prop.” Lilley, who is Iranian and Irish, notes, “Only myself and one other person on Prop’s staff are people of color, and I’m also white passing.” Diversifying the board is a goal for Prop, as it is for many other primarily white-led cultural institutions.
As Brun points out in an e-mail, “Much of the history of our work at Prop, even before Olivia, was about increasing the feeling of ownership in the artistic work by performers and designers. The term ‘devising,’ though of more recent origin, combines well with our long-years ‘floating-hierarchy’ approach: allowing individual viewpoints within the work, temporary authority over the process at appointed times. So now it becomes much more important to be available to all of Chicago’s population.”
What that means in practical terms, according to both Brun and Lilley, is that the focus will remain not on physical capital, but human capital. “One of the other main components of Prop’s model is that an actor is paid equal to a designer. Everyone is paid equally. Fifty percent of ticket sales go to the artists,” says Lilley. Brun lists the priorities going forward as “1. Space use to gather safely and rehearse and meet. 2. Show production and promotion costs. 3. Payments for working artists, along the lines being developed by the current staff and board.”
Several years ago, I wrote a chapter about Prop for a book project on Chicago’s “established alternatives”: companies that have been in operation for decades without ever feeling the need to grow into larger institutions with spiffy new facilities. That project never got published, but the picture that emerged from the research I did at the time was of a company that wanted to make space for theater artists and audiences who didn’t necessarily feel like they belonged anywhere else. Some of that openness undoubtedly also came from their long association via Curious with Rhino Fest, which has always provided opportunities for people who don’t have tons of previous experience writing for the stage, but still have interesting voices and aesthetic viewpoints.
Kunz Vehill notes that her long association with Prop “allowed me to feel like a theater kid even though I’m not a theater kid. It absolutely has to do with the fact that Prop has always had many different groups in there at any single time, and was always literally open door. You could wander in and out of the building and sit in the lobby for a few minutes and just talk to people.” Families and families of affinity have also always been a part of the Prop world. The Avondale space has an apartment upstairs that has provided shelter for various Prop-affiliated artists over the years, and walking into the lobby and seeing the kids of Prop and Curious ensemble members and other artists all hanging out together was a common experience.
Kunz Vehill notes that Paula Killen, a former Chicago solo performer now based in Los Angeles, posted a memory about Prop on Facebook in response to the announcement about the impending sale. Killen was in town to perform at Prop with her son, then four years old, in tow. At the same time, Professor Irwin Corey, the stand-up comic and activist whose improvisational work presaged that of comedians such as Lenny Bruce, was staying with the Vehills. (Corey, who died at 102 in 2017, had become friendly with Scott Vehill years earlier.) “So Paula posted about how she’s downstairs creating art and her four-year-old son is upstairs with Professor Irwin Corey. Where else does that happen?” asks Kunz Vehill.
As larger theaters with high fixed costs (including buildings) face down the long-term implications of the COVID catastrophe, it may well be that Prop, with its proven tenacity and adaptability, could provide one model of how to survive and thrive once theaters are producing again.
Brun notes, “Founded in 1981 under a president every bit as bad, if more competent, Prop negotiated the fiscal turn away from the arts at its inception also. While who we are able to serve has expanded and diversified, our approach of making the experiment, the new idea, the gist of the story matter far more than the decorations, the fanciness, the culinary pampering or the big egos—will serve us also quite well into the future. I am actually eager to see those who are now empowered to demand better conditions for artistic workers go further and take over the means of producing their own work like Prop Thtr has done the last 40 years.”
Says Lilley, “COVID has allowed us to do a lot more meetings and thinking and processing and we are a very, very strong and united force now. Prop has always been very much about the people—the people creating that space and the community. So is Prop a building, or is Prop what happens between people? I think it’s the latter.” v