Serious Child’s Play

Griffin Theatre suddenly had kids as neighbors when it moved from the Elston Avenue loft where it had started in 1988 to its current home in the Calo Theatre, a former vaudeville house on North Clark Street, in 1991. Managing director William Massolia recalls that people started asking right away if they did children’s plays. They never had before, but “there were so many kids in the neighborhood,” Massolia says, “we thought, well, you should serve your community.” They staged a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale in 1993, and the next year they followed a teacher’s offhand suggestion that they dramatize Sid Fleischman’s Newbery Medal-winning junior novel, The Whipping Boy. Kids were reading the book in school, Massolia says, and soon after it opened the phone began to ring. Schools wanted to know if the show could come to them; the Chicago Public Library booked it for several branches. Now the tail is wagging the beast. Griffin’s kids’ shows are providing 60 percent of the theater’s annual revenue of about $200,000 and will probably grow by half every year for the foreseeable future. And though the company is hot enough to have a buzz in Los Angeles and New York for its adult offerings, says Massolia, the kids’ work has become a major component of its identity. One of Griffin’s main goals over the next couple of years, he says, is to be a “nationally recognized leader in the production of children’s theater.”

Nearly every grant-hungry Chicago theater is casting itself in the role of educator or social service agency these days, but Griffin’s got an enviable niche. Since the success of The Whipping Boy, it’s produced a string of plays mostly based on fiction written by contemporary authors for grades three through seven. Massolia, the company’s resident playwright as well as its head of business, does the adapting; artistic director and cofounder Richard Barletta directs. The roster includes two shows touring nationally–There’s a Boy in the Girls’ Bathroom and Catherine, Called Birdy–and a larger number being staged statewide. Frindle, now playing at Metropolis Performing Arts Centre in Arlington Heights, where Griffin has done six shows over the last two years, may be typical. “These are not shows for three-year-olds,” says Massolia. The set is minimal, there’s no music or gimmicks, and the story–well acted by a half dozen versatile non-Equity professionals–is humorous but talky. It demands (and rewards) careful attention from its Skittles-popping audience of scrubbed 8- to 12-year-olds. And if it leaves a saccharine aftertaste, it’s only being true to its source. Massolia says one of the shows, Romeo and Juliet Are Alive and Well and Living in Maple Bend, is getting a Broadway-quality production by a German company this year. And later this month There’s a Boy in the Girls’ Bathroom will play for an expected cumulative audience of 10,000 at two major performing arts venues in Florida.

Griffin also produces Massolia’s adult fare–innovative shows like Shakespeare’s Dog, Ash Can Alley, and Loving Little Egypt. But the biggest stir the company’s made so far came with Henry and the Second Gunman, written by former Cheers producer Tom Leopold. “We had virtually every film company calling us for a copy of that script,” says Massolia. “Disney, Paramount, even Spielberg’s office called. In the end, Miramax bought it for Harvey Keitel; it’s being made by October Films.” Griffin hasn’t sold any other plays as movies yet, but its advisory board now includes Keitel’s producing partner, the director of feature film programs for Sundance Institute, and a development executive from Brillstein-Grey Entertainment. Griffin’s main stage, expanding from three to four productions this year, opens O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness! this weekend. Massolia hopes this will be the last year Barletta has to pay his bills by renovating three-flats.

Big Game Hunting

A delegation of 11 Chicagoans will head to Johannesburg this week in an attempt to bring the 2006 Gay Games to the Windy City. Nearly three years of work and close to $300,000 have already gone into the effort, says Chicago 2006 board member Kevin Boyer. The city made it through the first round of competition last May to become one of four finalists. If the local team can beat out Atlanta, Los Angeles, and Montreal, the games will be played July 8-15, 2006, at McCormick Place, Millennium Park, and about 30 other locations. Twenty thousand people are expected to compete; they’d draw an audience of 250,000 tourists and probably another 250,000 Chicagoans. Boyer says Chicago 2006 has the full support of the mayor’s office, and it recently received a $22,000 grant from the state to help pay for the Johannesburg trip.

The Gay Games–which are open to competitors of all sexual persuasions–began in 1982 in San Francisco and are held every four years. Vancouver, New York, and Amsterdam have hosted past games; Sydney is the 2002 site. The Chicago delegation, armed with a seven-minute video showcasing the city and eight individual presentations outlining plans for everything from public relations to transportation, will have 45 minutes to make its case before 63 voting members of the Federation of Gay Games board. “We assumed Montreal would be the team to beat,” Boyer says. But Atlanta might also have an edge. Both of those cities have bid before, while this is Chicago’s first attempt. A site visit at the end of July went well in spite of flash floods that had cars marooned on expressways; Boyer says officials were impressed with the way the city handled it. “Even if we don’t win, the visibility will benefit the city,” he says. “Chicago has not exactly been known as a gay mecca.”

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