Raven’s New Roost

Up until about a year ago, Michael Menendian would pop into the Granville Certified Grocery at 6157 N. Clark to pick up a carton of milk before heading home from the Raven Theatre, where he’s artistic and executive director. Raven was just eight blocks north on Clark, so the store was convenient. But in the fall of ’99 he began to notice that it was going downhill. He didn’t pay much attention until a night in early January when he made the milk stop, found the door locked, and realized the store had closed for good. Menendian walked up to the big plate glass windows. Peering between the signs for hot sauce and round steak, he was struck by what he saw in the dimly lit interior—or, rather, what he didn’t see. “The first thing I noticed was no pillars!” he says. “Wider than any building in my dreams—60 feet wide—and no pillars!”

For Menendian, this was opportunity announcing itself, clear as a two-minutes-to-curtain warning. After 15 hard-won years in a former Rogers Park post office, Raven Theatre was about to become homeless. The company—consisting of Menendian; his wife, actress JoAnn Montemurro (who is also the theater’s manager); and five other actors, all with day jobs—had been informed the previous May that the Board of Education would be tearing down their building to put up a new elementary school. The theater had until November 15, 2000, to get out. It had built a following as a non-Equity ensemble producing American classics, and Menendian was convinced its survival depended on finding a new home in or close to the old neighborhood.

Menendian has lived for theater since he was first introduced to it as a blue-collar townie on a scholarship at a fancy, private Boston-area alternative prep school. A Tufts University dropout, he moved to Chicago in ’79, after visiting a friend here and being bowled over by the local theater scene. “I took workshops with Dennis Zacek and Del Close and Paul Sills, and got quite an education,” he says. In the early 80s, Menendian was directing shows for the New Haven Playhouse, a tiny DePaul-area storefront theater and school, when Montemurro, who had just graduated from the Goodman, came in for an audition. Eighteen months later the New Haven actors and director split from the school to form their own company. “We couldn’t keep the New Haven name,” Montemurro says, “but we were casting around for something that would sound like it.” Eureka: the Raven.

They were nomads for two years, mounting a couple shows a season in a variety of rented spaces. Then in ’85 they moved into the old post office at 6931 N. Clark, where it was always cheek by jowl in the lobby, patrons had to walk across the stage to use the restroom, and the toilet could be heard flushing during performances. Still, they managed to figure out their niche, mounting solid, serious, generally safe gems that enjoyed long runs. They made a gutsy decision to eschew subscription sales and preplanned seasons in order to keep the runs open, a strategy Montemurro sums up as “approach it one project at a time and see how it goes.” Their 1998 production of Six Degrees of Separation earned rave reviews and ran for eight months. The final show in that space, A View From the Bridge, ran six months (until its forced closure) and brought home five Jeff awards, including Best Production and, for Menendian, Best Director.

A year after the Granville grocery shut down, Menendian stands in the middle of its 6,000-square-foot, red-white-and-blue linoleum-floored main space, master of all he surveys. Raven closed on the building November 15 and took possession in December, but it didn’t happen easily. “The month leading up to the closing was the most intense time of my life,” he says. The purchase and renovation is a 1.2 million-dollar project—a big bite for the small nonprofit company—and the financial arrangements went down to the wire. There was a lengthy court battle with the Board of Education over settlement for relocation; when it was over, the theater got $43,000 from the board and their former landlord. Then there was the matter of arranging for a line of credit. The Uptown National Bank didn’t give the green light until the beginning of November, Menendian says. “But,” he adds, “a lot of people, including the theater’s board of directors, came through at key moments.” So far they’ve raised $500,000 from private donations, foundation grants, and pledges of state support from Build Illinois or Illinois Arts Council funds. The theater expects to carry a $200,000 mortgage, he says, “so we’re looking at a gap of another $500,000 that’s being worked on over the next two years.”

The new theater will have a total of 9,000 square feet, more than twice the space Raven had in its old home. It will include a 50-seat studio theater up front, where the children’s and “Shorties” experimental series will play. The main stage, in the northeast corner of the building, will have 150 seats wrapped around a 40-by-40-by-60-foot stage (“almost as big as the Goodman’s”), with no audience member more than five rows back. There’ll be a long lobby, a gallery space, and a main-floor waiting room for the actors. Dressing rooms will be upstairs, along with plenty of storage for Raven’s pack-rat collection of costumes and props. If the city permits come through so construction can start this month, the theater will open in May with a production of Marvin’s Room. Menendian makes this prediction standing amid a clutter of abandoned grocery carts, rosy portraits of giant produce, and the big red-and-green letters that spelled out the Granville Certified motto: “Shop Happy Be Happy.” It’ll take dramatic action to accomplish this change of scene, but he’s better equipped than most artistic directors to handle it: for more than 20 years, Menendian’s been taking on home-repair tragedies in his day job as a City of Chicago consumer services investigator.

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