Room at the Top

Jacqui Russell knows what she’s up against. “It could be a bit forbidding,” says the new managing director of Lookingglass Theatre Company. “They’ve all known each other for so long.” Formed a decade ago by a small circle of Northwestern University grads, the Lookingglass ensemble has seldom paid much attention to business advice. But earlier this year the company struck a verbal agreement with the city to permanently lease space in the Chicago Avenue Water Pumping Station south of Water Tower Place, and since then it’s become more receptive to someone who can work a calculator. After two years as director of education and outreach for Lookingglass, Russell has proven herself a talented administrator, and the company has chosen her as an interim replacement for Michael Ryczek, who’s resigned to pursue his acting career. David Kersnar, the company’s coartistic director, says she’ll be considered a prime candidate for the position if things go smoothly over the next six months.

Russell studied film production at New York University in the 80s but later moved into theater because it seemed to offer more opportunities for women. For five years she ran the children’s program at the Old Town School of Folk Music, which she expanded to include musical theater. During her two years at Lookingglass she’s proved so adept at fund-raising that the education program’s budget has gone from $110,000 to $310,000 and the number of outreach programs has quadrupled to include a studio theater series and an innovative class in which kids establish acting techniques by studying animals at the zoo. In her new role Russell wants to expand the company’s fund-raising efforts, but she also recognizes the need to boost earned income, because foundations and corporations are reluctant to fund general operating costs: “More and more they’re interested in supplying funds only for projects that have an educational connection.”

Kersnar says that two of the ensemble’s star members, actor David Schwimmer and director Mary Zimmerman, will probably be involved in new projects next season, but that might not translate into more black ink: Zimmerman’s critically acclaimed play Metamorphoses ran for seven months at the Ivanhoe Theater but barely managed to break even. A large percentage of the show’s revenue went for theater rental, the large cast was paid union wages, and the set’s reflecting pool had to be meticulously maintained. “We had to have people come in every night just to dry out the actors’ costumes,” says Russell. The expense of renting a theater will be greatly reduced when Lookingglass signs a lease at the pumping station, but it will have to raise a considerable chunk of money for construction, and its annual operating budget of $900,000 will grow significantly with the additional overhead. Kersnar says that Lookingglass could be in its new home as early as December 2000, but the exact timing is still unclear: “The city moves at its own pace.”

South Loop: Now Open for Dinner

In the early 90s the Near West Side was a culinary waste-land. Then Jerry Kleiner opened Vivo on Randolph near Halsted, and today the area is flooded with trendy restaurants. Last month Kleiner took another step into uncharted territory, opening Gioco, a rustic Italian eatery on Wabash near 13th Street. This time he may not have to wait long for his gamble to pay off: in early January a second major restaurant, the Chicago Firehouse Restaurant, is scheduled to open nearby. Matthew O’Malley, owner of the Schoolyard Tavern in Lakeview, has purchased a landmark 1905 Chicago firehouse at Michigan and 14th Street and is converting it into a meat-and-potatoes restaurant with separate casual and fine-dining rooms. “We’re spending millions,” boasts O’Malley, “and when we’re through we will have a truly unique space.” O’Malley recently moved from Lakeview to the Near South Side, and he says that Mayor Daley, who also lives near the historic building, has met with him for an update on the new project.

Both Kleiner and O’Malley know their biggest obstacle will be drumming up diners. “Since we opened we’ve been out there promoting constantly with the conventions at McCormick Place and the nearby museums,” says Kleiner. He estimates that only a tenth of his clientele comes from the immediate neighborhood, where new town houses and converted loft spaces are selling for as much as $1 million: “The people who live around here are too busy paying off their mortgages to be able to afford to go out to eat.” But O’Malley thinks he’ll get more neighborhood diners because his 40-seat casual room offers a less expensive menu. “I want people in the area to feel like they can drop by three or four times a month for a good inexpensive meal.”

Dinah Make a Profit?

Dinah Was, the musical biography of jazz diva Dinah Washington that opened last week at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie, holds the dubious distinction of being Northlight Theatre’s most expensive production ever. The show debuted off-Broadway in May 1998, and this summer Northlight struck a deal for a $250,000 touring coproduction in partnership with the Dallas Theater Center, the Philadelphia Theatre Company, and the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. Unfortunately Northlight had drawn up its 1999-2000 budget before the deal was done, and the show wound up costing $30,000 more than it had anticipated, including performance rights for the many standards in the score and some high-priced New York talent to duplicate the original production design. The show is being presented on the North Shore Center’s 850-seat main stage, so Northlight managing director Richard Friedman hopes it will generate more income than it would have in the company’s usual 350-seat space.

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