The Amazing Expanding Debt-Free Theater Company

With so many of Chicago’s large and small theater companies tightening their belts, it’s encouraging to see at least one company–American Blues Theatre–being reborn and revitalized. For the last few weeks the ensemble has been refurbishing its new 4,500-square-foot space at 1909 W. Byron into a flexible 140-seat performance space, a green room, and administrative offices. “We’re growing because of the opportunity we saw in this space,” explains producing director Mary M. Badger. Located in a stable, accessible neighborhood northwest of the heavy concentration of off-Loop theater activity near Clark and Belmont, the new facility is adjacent to the former Quicksilver Cafe; an Italian restaurant is supposed to open in that space around the time American Blues Theatre premieres Gary Leon Hill’s Food From Trash on September 17.

Though founded in 1985, American Blues Theatre is not one of the most recognizable names in local theater. During the past two years, the company’s only productions have been two evenings of one-acts by a number of playwrights who now live or got their start in Chicago. In 1990 American Blues went into semihibernation after its superb production of Keith Reddin’s Peacekeeper at the Theatre Building lost tens of thousands of dollars due to a combination of high production values and small audiences. Several years later Carmen Roman, one of the company’s two artistic directors, remains somewhat puzzled by Peacekeeper’s poor performance. “One thing that may have hurt us,” explains Roman, “is that it played in midsummer, when it’s always tougher to get people into a theater.” The company curtailed its production schedule while it sought to repay the losses.

But no one associated with the organization talked about disbanding. Over the past two years the company has methodically erased the red ink, expanded its board of directors, clarified its artistic goals, and pieced together a business plan that originally called for the company to move into a new home sometime toward the end of 1996. “We are about three years ahead in our plan now,” notes Roman. She says the company’s debt-free status has made it easier to raise funds to help with the move: “When we ask people for money, they can be sure it’s not going to pay off old debts.” With a budget of approximately $136,000, the company will produce three plays in the 1993-’94 season and rent out its new facility to other companies between productions.

Shattered Globe Goes Modular

Perhaps no Chicago theater company has managed to do more with a tiny stage than the enterprising Shattered Globe Theatre, which for the past two years has occupied a 52-seat storefront space at 2856 N. Halsted. But beginning with the September 14 opening of Stephen Dietz’s God’s Country, Shattered Globe’s first production of the 1993-’94 season, the miniature proscenium playing area will be gone. The company has torn out its cramped raised stage and turned the formerly stationary seats into banks of seats that can be moved around to create different kinds of more spacious playing areas. “The modular seating will allow us to build a playing area that goes further out into what had been the old seating space,” explains ensemble president Brian Pudil.

Remains: Should It Stay or Should It Go?

Last season Remains Theatre lurched through some difficult artistic misfires and administrative changes, and it looks as if the upcoming season may not be any easier. Chief among the company’s concerns is the possible redevelopment of the comfortable space it occupies inside the financially troubled 1800 N. Clybourn mall. Real estate developer Chuck Malk has informed the company that he’s in the process of trying to buy the building, and that if he succeeds he plans to build a parking lot in the center section, which is where Remains is currently located. But Remains producing director R.P. Sekon says that based on his discussions with Malk, it appears the developer’s timetable is up in the air. That of course leaves Remains uncertain about whether it will have the use of its present space for any or all of the upcoming season. Sekon says Malk has offered to help the theater company find an alternative location, but the longer Remains delays, the more difficult it could be to secure a suitable space and organize a season (the company already has two plays on the roster for ’93-’94). For the moment, Sekon says, Remains will stay put until it hears more from Malk. As for Malk, he isn’t talking: “I don’t like to discuss my real estate projects with the media.”

Ballet Brush-off

Ballet Chicago seems forever in the midst of administrative upheaval. The latest development involves John Schmitz, who, after being given the troupe’s top business-side post in the wake of Randall Green’s firing more than a year ago, was demoted in June to development director. Schmitz lost the title of general manager to Colleen Lober, who has been keeping a low profile since her arrival. Now Schmitz is gone for good; he announced his resignation Monday. “I was looking for more creative challenges for my personal career,” he says. But sources familiar with developments at the ballet company say Schmitz only learned he was in the process of being replaced again when an ad for a Ballet Chicago development director in an arts-management trade publication was recently brought to his attention. Lober did not return phone calls. Ballet Chicago is reportedly moving forward with plans to premiere its first full-length ballet, Hansel and Gretel, next spring at Steppenwolf.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Steven D. Arazmus.