Return of the Ivanhoe

Producer Doug Bragan is wasting no time organizing a 1994-’95 season for the theater he owns at 750 W. Wellington, which as of August 1 will once again be known as the Ivanhoe Theater. And if need be, Bragan appears prepared to risk a fight with Actors’ Equity to implement his strategy of presenting both union and nonunion productions.

For the past five years Bragan, who has been busy producing theater for high school audiences and the Off-Off Loop Theater Festival, has leased his theater to Michael Leavitt and Fox Theatricals, who changed the name to the Wellington Theater and have had mixed success there. Now that he is about to regain control of the building, Bragan intends to add a 200-seat second stage and offer a four-show subscription for $63. First up on the 500-seat main stage in August is a nonunion Pegasus Players production of the classic Gershwin musical Strike Up the Band, which Bragan plans to run for ten weeks with a $29 top ticket price. Appropriately enough, the first production on the second stage this fall will be Geoff Callaway’s new adaptation of Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe. Also under consideration for the subscription season are a new musical about famed cartoonist Rube Goldberg, a musical from New Tuners Theatre, The Glass Menagerie, and Othello.

When Bragan brought the now-defunct Absolute Theatre Company’s non-Equity production of Ironhand to the Ivanhoe in 1983, Actors’ Equity picketed the shows in protest. No shows employing union actors played the Ivanhoe for two years thereafter; in retrospect Bragan says that’s because he was offended by the picketing. But this time around Bragan maintains he is not looking for trouble with the actors’ union, which he quietly contacted a couple of weeks ago to sound them out about his intentions. “My plan is to keep the Ivanhoe full, and my only concern is producing good theater.”

Tad Currie, regional director for Actors’ Equity, sounded a note of distress about Bragan’s arrangement with Pegasus but said Equity’s regional governing board would have the final say on the matter. “This could be a concern because it moves Pegasus into a large theater where it will compete directly against theater companies that do employ union actors,” says Currie. “If Pegasus wishes to up its profile, we will have to decide what is the appropriate action to take.” Equity has been trying unsuccessfully to get Pegasus to employ union actors for six to eight months.

If Bragan can avoid a battle with Actors’ Equity, he stands to benefit financially from bringing in nonunion productions. His running costs for Strike Up the Band should be significantly lower than those of most of the city’s unionized theater companies, not only because he’s employing nonunion actors but also because he’s offering only five performances a week instead of the typical eight. Bragan says bringing in both union and nonunion shows is the only way to increase production at the city’s large off-Loop theaters. He points out that under Leavitt and Fox, the Ivanhoe was lit for only 33 of the last 63 months, while the Apollo, also controlled by Leavitt and Fox, has been dark for approximately two of the last three years. “Nobody is making much money, and there isn’t a lot of investment capital out there,” says Bragan, “so it’s essential to structure deals in a way that will reduce the risk involved for the producers.” Bragan also argues that producers must make theatergoing as user-friendly as possible if they want to sell tickets. Toward that end he has instituted a no-service-charge policy for tickets ordered by phone. (The number is 335-8499.) Should his strategy ultimately fail, he is prepared to turn the property over to movie-theater developers. Explains Bragan: “I have a firm proposal for a multiscreen movie theater complex on my desk that could make me a lot more money than I’ll probably realize from keeping it a live theater, but I want to produce theater.”

Cullen’s Comeback?

Three years ago Michael Cullen, Sheila Henaghan, and Howard Platt disbanded after an almost decade-long reign as the city’s highest-profile commercial producing organization–a group whose actions sometimes generated controversy but also brought a sense of excitement to the local theater business. Now it looks as if at least one of the three is emerging with a new plan of action. Last week Michael Cullen refused comment about his intentions, but restaurateur Joe Carlucci, Cullen’s partner in a proposed restaurant/theater complex on Southport near the Music Box, indicated he expects it to be operating by the end of 1994. In recent weeks Cullen has been hosting meetings with potential investors, who have been shown a model of the facility, and Cullen is believed to be close to raising the capital needed to build and open the theater half of the complex.

Filmmakers Turns 20

Chicago Filmmakers celebrates its 20th anniversary this month, and staffers at the not-for-profit organization are understandably proud of having survived so long in an increasingly hostile cultural environment. In the last couple of years, Filmmakers’ annual grant from the Illinois Arts Council has dwindled from $60,000 to $30,000, says executive director Brenda Webb. Given that kind of cutback, the organization had no recourse but to cut overhead, and last August it moved from Belmont and Southport to a cheaper address on Division.

To celebrate its anniversary and raise funds, Filmmakers is hosting a benefit party Saturday at its new home at 1543 W. Division; the entertainment will include Jewish rapper Jew Boy Kain, a rockabilly band called Twang Bang, a montage of Chicago-related newsreel and commercial footage from the 1930s to the 1960s, and performance group the Loofah Method. Over the past two decades the group has focused on helping young moviemakers hone their craft by providing film production courses, film equipment at low rental rates, and regular showcases of independent films. Most of the filmmakers associated with the organization work on very personal projects with sociopolitical themes. Filmmakers also presents an annual gay and lesbian film festival, the second oldest in the country.

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