Staging a Comeback

Today Chris Pretorius hardly recognizes South Africa. “The national flag has changed, the national anthem has changed,” he says. “Suddenly I feel I have no nationality anymore.” But this week the Chicagoan set off for the country he abandoned nine years ago; his new play, Dark Continent, will premiere at the South African National Arts Festival in Grahamstown. An introspective work whose set design draws on Pretorius’s skills as a muralist, Dark Continent concerns a man who falls asleep in his bathtub and wakes to find himself drifting downriver into a chaos not unlike that of South Africa today. “I think a real euphoria that both blacks and whites felt when the country finally left behind apartheid has now changed to despair,” says Pretorius. “The violence in the country is freaking everyone out.”

A direct descendant of Andries Pretorius, who led the Boers to victory in the Blood River Battle, Chris Pretorius earned a degree in visual arts at the Cape Town Art Institute and found work as a designer in the opera and the theater. “I enjoyed manipulating images on the stage,” he explains. During the 80s he established himself as one of South Africa’s leading avant-garde directors, staging about two plays a year, many of them at the prestigious Market Theatre in Johannesburg. But some of his works were controversial: Sunrise City, about the apartheid government’s plan to build casinos in the black homelands, was banned after its opening. Pretorius appealed the decision and won, but he’d grown weary of tangling with the authorities. In 1990 he and his wife at the time, choreographer Robin Orlin, applied for scholarships to study overseas; Pretorius won a theater scholarship in Milan, but the couple moved to Chicago after Orlin was invited to study performance art at the School of the Art Institute. Says Pretorius, “I had heard there was an exciting theater scene here.”

What he found disappointed him. “Everybody seemed to be coming right out of school and starting a theater company, or else they were on their way to becoming a film scriptwriter. I think there was a real lack of quality control.” He directed I, Figaro for Curious Theatre Branch and The Lulu Sex Tragedies for Prop Theatre, but overtures to the Goodman and Steppenwolf got him nowhere. Scott Vehill, artistic director at Prop, calls Pretorius “an amazing director and designer with a very strong visual sense….I think he was defeated in this theater community.” But Jonathon Lavan, managing director of the company, says Pretorius was “used to getting his way and very demanding.” Eager to become self-sufficient, Pretorius took a job painting murals for local artist Thomas Melvin and later established his own firm, Christiaan Pretorius Studio. The company has completed projects for architect Stanley Tigerman, and Pretorius recently designed a new nightclub at the Empress River Casino in Joliet.

The success of his firm has enabled Pretorius to restart his theater career. Several months ago he decided to write something about South Africa and called Lynette Marais, director of the National Arts Festival, to propose a play. “I was sort of making up what I intended to do as I was speaking to her,” he says. But Marais accepted his proposal, and according to Pretorius his homecoming has become big news in South Africa. Working on the third floor of a loft building in Bucktown, he constructed the scenery for Dark Continent and rehearsed the play with South African actor Neels Coetzee. After the premiere, Dark Continent will be staged in Leipzig and possibly Berlin.

SFX in Effect

This Sunday marks the final performance of Ragtime, the Livent Inc. production that opened the restored Oriental Theater last November. Box office figures for early June indicate that the show was playing to half-empty houses, and for the past few weeks the Oriental has been offering two-for-one ticket specials to all but the Saturday-night performances. But the Chicago engagement’s sad limp to the finish line only mirrors the sorry state of its bankrupt production company, which is selling its remaining physical assets–theaters in Toronto, New York, and Chicago–to the New York-based SFX Entertainment, Inc. Unless a court-sanctioned auction flushes out a higher bidder at the last minute, SFX will purchase Livent’s theaters for $115 million, which will help pay off a portion of the bankrupt company’s $200 million debt.

Robert Sillerman, chairman of SFX, has said repeatedly that he’s not interested in developing new theatrical properties, preferring instead to create a chain of venues and mount tours of other producers’ proven shows. Pace Theatrical Group, a division of SFX, is expected to tour a scaled-down production of Ragtime as well as Livent’s Fosse, which nabbed a Tony Award for best musical. When the Oriental sale is consummated in late September, SFX will enjoy a formidable presence in the Loop–MagicWorks Entertainment, its recently acquired management company, also controls the Palace Theater in partnership with Fox Theatricals. Doug Kridler, whose Chicago Association for the Performing Arts books and operates the Chicago Theatre, worries that SFX’s acquisition of the Oriental will give it too much booking power; rather than go head-to-head with SFX in presenting theater, Kridler’s organization is trying to establish the Chicago as a venue for concerts and nonprofit programs that can fill its 3,600 seats.

Should They Stay or Should They Go?

The board of directors for the Chicago Dance Coalition has hired Matthew Brockmeier of the Chicago Music Alliance to manage the CDC for at least the next six months; he’ll oversee programming and administration while working with the board to develop a new long-term strategy. The board has been trying to decide how the CDC should function ever since executive director Gerard Seguin resigned in February, citing a lack of commitment from the board and the dance community at large. Some board members agree with Seguin that the coalition should be dissolved to allow for a new grassroots organization to emerge, while others think it should simply hire an executive director who can provide more leadership; according to Brockmeier, all options are still on the table.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J.B. Spector.