SubUrbia Stays Put

Last December when producer Karen Turk and the Roadworks theater company signed a seven-week lease to present their production of Eric Bogosian’s SubUrbia at the Theatre Building they had no way of knowing whether the show would be a hit. Now that it is, they’ll have to pay through the nose to keep it running. According to Turk, on February 28, two days before SubUrbia opened, she learned from Theatre Building management that the Splinter Group had contracted to use the north theater (one of three spaces in the complex) after Roadworks’ lease expired on April 8. Turk says that when she signed a lease for the north theater last December, Theatre Building managing director Joan Mazzonelli told her Roadworks would be given first right of refusal on the space before a lease was signed with another theater company. “We made a verbal agreement,” she says. But Mazzonelli says that no such agreement was part of Roadworks’ contract. “They just see me as the big, bad landlord in all of this,” explains Mazzonelli.

Turk says the buzz about SubUrbia convinced her the show, about a group of troubled teenagers who hang out in the parking lot of a local convenience store, could become a hit. Still, without evidence to support her hunch she wasn’t sure enough to ask Mazzonelli for a lease extension. Because of the first-rights lease agreement she thought she had with the Theatre Building, Turk wasn’t worried about losing the north theater space.

Mazzonelli, however, evidently wasn’t as confident as Turk that SubUrbia would enjoy a long life at the Theatre Building. In January she entered into lease discussions with the Splinter Group, which wanted the Roadworks space to produce its annual Buckets o’ Beckett festival. Splinter Group artistic director Matt O’Brien says he received a copy of a lease agreement for the north theater in late January and signed it February 14, two weeks before Mazzonelli told Turk that the north theater would get a new tenant in early April. Though upset by the news, Turk says she didn’t become really concerned until a couple of weeks into the SubUrbia run, when it became apparent the company had a hit. Turk knew then that moving the show to another venue would be costly and could hurt box-office momentum.

Mazzonelli left it up to Turk and O’Brien to cut a deal, and after several days of back-and-forth offers, O’Brien agreed to move the Beckett festival to the Theatre Building’s south theater, which has a significantly different stage configuration. In return Roadworks agreed to pay for an addition to the south-theater stage and to assist in creating a new stage design for the Beckett productions. O’Brien says the deal is worth between $3,000 and $4,000.

Mazzonelli, meanwhile, defends her right to make the deals she must to keep the Theatre Building spaces lit. She says that in an era of rising costs and decreasing support for the arts the lax leasing policy in effect at the Theatre Building until three years ago is no longer tenable. The old arrangement allowed a theater company to sign a 13-week lease on a space but depart any time after the first two weeks, provided it gave four weeks’ notice. “I used to tremble in my shoes when I would get notice that a company was moving out,” explains Mazzonelli, who says the not-for-profit venue was often left without rental income for long periods while management searched for new tenants. “We were slowly killing ourselves,” she adds. Mazzonelli now prefers that theater companies commit to a minimum of six weeks.

Chicago Artists’ Coalition Moves Out

The Chicago Artists’ Coalition turns 20 this year, but the anniversary isn’t an altogether joyous one. The CAC publishes a monthly newsletter on the local arts scene and for a $30 annual membership fee provides artists access to a slide registry, a credit union, a job referral service, group health insurance, and discounts on art supplies. Like most not-for-profit organizations, the coalition is struggling to maintain its membership levels while facing declines in support from foundations and corporations and a possible loss of its $10,000 annual grant from the endangered National Endowment for the Arts. Over the past three years, CAC membership has dropped from 2,800 to 2,700. That may seem like a relatively small falloff, but to an organization that depends on membership dues for almost half of its $165,000 annual operating budget, any loss is cause for concern, says CAC executive director Arlene Rakoncay.

In an effort to build up its membership, the CAC has sent mailings to universities and arts organizations throughout the midwest and deposited brochures in art-supply stores around the city. However, Rakoncay says most of the members the organization has picked up through the years have come via word of mouth.

On top of the struggle to maintain its membership, at the end of May the CAC will be forced to leave the headquarters it has occupied for the past 14 years at 5 W. Grand; the River North building is being turned into yet another eatery. In the meantime Rakoncay says the CAC is eyeing new quarters nearby on East Hubbard Street and planning an April 18 open house to raise funds for the move.

Navy Pier Adds On

Another entertainment option appears to be in the works for the new Navy Pier, along with a new producing force for the city’s theater industry. Discussions are under way that could lead to the construction of an indoor proscenium theater adjacent to the outdoor Skyline Stage, which opened last summer. Sources close to negotiations say Marriott’s Lincolnshire Theatre’s Kary Walker would team up with the Royal Group, which includes Robert Perkins and Jujamcyn Theaters, to operate the new facility. Walker is the producer who over the past 15 years has transformed the Marriott’s in-the-round facility into one of the nation’s most successful subscription musical theaters. Its subscriber base is said to be nearing 40,000. The Royal Group currently owns and operates the Royal George Theatre Center on North Halsted. Given Walker’s expertise, musical theater would probably be a major component in the programming mix at the new theater. Seating is projected to be between 800 and 1,000.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Peter Barreras.