Selling Unidentified Human Remains

Producer Michael Frazier is playing with fire at the Halsted Theatre Centre, and he knows it. “I wanted to add some spice to the theater scene,” says Frazier. So, in a city unaccustomed to having its cultural feathers ruffled, Frazier (with partners Richard Norton and Ted Snowdon) earlier this week unveiled the American premiere of Canadian playwright Brad Fraser’s Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love, the raciest theatrical offering Chicago has encountered in some time, a play laced with graphic scenes of gay and lesbian love, simulated fellatio and bondage, and sexually blunt dialogue.

Boldly mounted by British director Derek Goldby, with a cast primarily made up of New York and Canadian actors, Unidentified Human Remains is putting Frazier’s marketing skills to the supreme test in this generally conservative city. While he hopes to lure a good chunk of the audience that previously supported such relatively tame Halsted Theatre Centre productions as Oil City Symphony, Sammy Cahn: Words and Music, and Forbidden Broadway, he also wants to reach people not frequently seen in theaters, particularly those in the under-30 crowd. To help reach both markets, Frazier has hired an unusual marketing and public relations team that includes Doug Hartzell and Jim Casey, producers of the offbeat camp classic Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, and Maxine Walzer, a veteran publicist who honed her skills publicizing musicals at the Candlelight Dinner Playhouse for three decades. Over the years, Candlelight has produced fine theater, but nothing like the sexually charged powder keg Walzer is now promoting.

Frazier and his marketing team started with a striking print ad designed by advertising executive Neil Posner and artist Kent Williams, the New Yorkers who helped Lincoln Center Theater develop a singular identity in the Big Apple’s hotly competitive theater market. For Unidentified Human Remains, Posner and Williams created a drawing of a nude man and woman entwined suggestively, with the play’s title in a catchy scrawl cascading down around them. For a while Frazier toyed with the idea of subtitling the play “a steamy sex thriller” in print ads, but ultimately decided such a tactic would be too restrictive. “We do not want to label the play for anyone,” says Hartzell. “We’ll let the press label it.”

During previews, Hartzell, Casey, and Walzer arranged special promotions with groups from such disparate locales as Roscoe’s, a gay bar on North Halsted, and the Baja Beach Club, the yuppie refuge on North Pier, hoping to develop some all-important word of mouth in several different market segments. Hartzell also produced a 30-second commercial for cable TV featuring a photo of a couple swathed in sheets.

While Hartzell concentrates on advertising and Casey on the alternative press, Walzer has the difficult job of selling the show to the mainstream media, including WGN TV and radio theater critic Roy Leonard. Through the years Leonard has developed a reputation for delivering his large audience to many of the safe off-Broadway hits (Pump Boys and Dinettes, Driving Miss Daisy) that have played off Loop. But those who know Leonard know that he has a low tolerance for sexually explicit language and action. So it was not surprising to discover that he passed up last Tuesday’s opening-night invitation to Unidentified Human Remains. “He hopes to come see the show later,” says Walzer.

New Theater at Water Tower?

Tony DeSantis, who operated the Drury Lane Water Tower theater before it was converted for movie use, is talking about reopening a legitimate stage in the space now occupied by Cineplex-Odeon. Though DeSantis himself was unavailable for comment, a source at his Drury Lane Oakbrook Terrace says the producer has raised the idea with the management of Water Tower Place, because he’s interested in transferring shows from his Oakbrook Terrace complex into the city. He has also discussed the possibility with Kary Walker of Marriott’s Lincolnshire Theatre, another suburban producer who has expressed interest in transferring shows to a downtown venue. “I have no comment,” says Walker. A spokeswoman for JMB PropertiesUrban Company, managers of Water Tower Place, says she knows of no plan to reopen a legitimate theater at this time.

Daley vs. the Arts

Mayor Richard M. Daley has made his uninspired attitude about the arts in this city abundantly clear in a position statement submitted to the Illinois Arts Alliance. Though his statement, a response to a question about his willingness to increase appropriations to the Department of Cultural Affairs, is cloaked in a lot of bureaucratic verbiage, the mayor basically says he believes in government funding for the arts but won’t be giving the Department of Cultural Affairs any more money from the city’s coffers if he is reelected. Daley is careful to explain that he needs money that might otherwise be earmarked for the arts to fight drug abuse, repair streets, and provide affordable housing. He also says his staff will seek additional philanthropic and corporate support to make up for the city’s stinginess. Arts Alliance executive director Alene Valkanas says she remains optimistic about Daley’s commitment to the arts. The Arts Alliance is conducting a study (funded by the city, ironically) of arts funding in other major markets across the nation. It will present its findings to cultural commissioner Lois “I Don’t Know Anything About Art” Weisberg next month in the hopes the research will provide some ideas that can be adopted locally. But if Chicago wishes to be a true world-class city, Daley and his staff must stop playing around with time-consuming studies and start doing something. Certainly safe streets and decent housing are needed in any city, but so is a vibrant arts scene.

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