The Fool and Its Money

Noble Fool Theater Company is launching previews of its summer show, Woody Allen’s Don’t Drink the Water, this week at its suburban outpost, Pheasant Run Resort in Saint Charles. Since the company walked away from its custom-built two-year-old home in the Loop theater district six weeks ago, after abruptly canceling its shows there, the remote venue is all that’s keeping it afloat. Pheasant Run head David McArdle says he’s committed to the Fool, and its lease agreement runs through next year. But the troupe is facing possible bankruptcy, and exactly what’s left of it is questionable. In April, after its board of directors balked at putting more money in, Noble Fool let staff go, dissolved its ensemble, and laid off artistic director and founding member Jimmy Binns, who’s hanging in there for the moment as director of the Allen comedy. Managing director Paul Botts says it would be easier just to fold, but “we’re attempting to reorganize on the fly.”

Botts won’t disclose the amount of the Fool’s debt, but says the company got into trouble because “you can’t operate a 150-seat theater as a commercial enterprise.” The Loop location, renovated at a cost of $3 million–including $1 million from the city–has 151 main-stage seats plus a 100-seat studio and a 60-seat cabaret. He says the Fool wanted a 200-seat main stage and a 120-seat studio, but “lost the battle for a bigger footprint” in the multiuse building, which is owned by the School of the Art Institute. Rent and utilities ran a steep $15,000 a month, but “we went into that with eyes wide open,” Botts says. According to him, Noble Fool was undone by “unpleasant fund-raising results” that fell far short of the optimistic 30 percent of annual income they’d anticipated and audience expectations the company couldn’t afford to fulfill: “Patrons will not tolerate a north-side storefront experience in the Loop.” The theater had been operating on the edge this past year, and things “came to a head in a shocking hurry,” Botts says. “You get to a point where you can’t keep slashing expenses, and you run out of people to go to.” The budget for the downtown operation was $2.5 million; Pheasant Run added another $1.5 million annually. “By last winter we were creating new budgets calling for 15 percent contributed income,” he notes, but even that was elusive. And ticket sales, which he says averaged 50 to 60 percent of the house, were “not strong enough with a place that small.”

Then there was the problem of the Fool’s mission. Until recently the company’s goal was “to elevate the art of comedy in all its forms,” an endeavor that lacked focus, Botts says. Its new mission, adopted shortly before the company left the city, is “revealing truth through humor.” Botts says the recalibrated Noble Fool will present “works with a point or message, whereas before we were all over the map.” But when asked what the troupe had done previously that it wouldn’t do now, he demurs. The Fool’s 2004-2005 season at the resort’s main stage has the same lineup that had been set for the downtown theater, including the world premiere of Mouse Cop, Eric Pfeffinger’s spoof of homeland security, and a modern-dress Mikado. The troupe’s signature improvised satire, Flanagan’s Wake, will continue running in Pheasant Run’s studio space. Created by Noble Fool’s founders, Flanagan’s Wake is owned by a separate entity made up of its authors; Noble Fool produces the play under a licensing agreement. Vicki Quade, cocreator of Late Nite Catechism, is finalizing a deal to produce it this fall–with a Noble Fool cast–at the Royal George, where Noble Fool staged it before the move to Randolph Street.

Pheasant Run, which offers twice as many seats as the Fool’s downtown venue, has a vested interest in keeping the company alive: the resort reopened its theaters last year after a $4 million renovation and has been promoting the Fool’s residency there. McArdle, who sits on the Noble Fool board, claims “it’s still a perfect marriage. We’re not looking to make money on it; what we hope to do is attract guests to the resort.” He says ticket sales have been at 50 to 60 percent of capacity. The arrangement calls for the resort to get tickets for use in its hotel packages in return for providing the theater space and–if proceeds hit a certain level–to share in them. But for the last few months Pheasant Run has been paying for its seats. Meanwhile,

ComedySportz and Second City, two of the most likely contenders among groups expressing interest in the Loop space, have backed off, citing concerns that include the small stage and limited seating.

Corporate Art’s Reality Check

Corporate curator Lisa Erf asked the most urgent question of the evening at last week’s Artists at Work forum at the Cultural Center: “Are any of us still buying?” The panel of four corporate curators included Adam Brooks of Refco Group, Carol Ehlers of LaSalle Bank, Emily Nixon of Nixon Art Associates, and Erf, who works for Bank One; with the exception of Ehlers, they all answered “not much.” An overflow audience of more than 100, most of them artists who had come to learn how to “engage corporate collections,” sat politely as Erf flashed work from the 8,000-piece Bank One collection, Ehlers discussed LaSalle Bank’s vaunted photography holdings, Nixon talked about buying aviation art for Boeing and liquidating the Arthur Andersen collection she’d helped build, and Brooks described the Refco collection as a manifestation of his company’s penchant for risk taking. (His examples of not-your-father’s corporate art included Tony Tasset’s I Peed in My Pants and Jeanne Dunning’s Neck, which he noted looks like “a certain part of the male anatomy.”) Erf, whose company is merging with Chase Bank–which has its own 20,000-piece collection–says acquisitions have been suspended for now; Brooks says Refco’s run out of room; and Nixon, a freelance curator, says “it’s not the 80s.” Still, when the discussion was over, the audience surged toward the speakers’ table, hands outstretched with business cards.

Art Chicago Jumps off the Pier

Art Chicago’s out: the Pier Authority said last week it’s considering proposals from promoters other than Thomas Blackman Associates for its spring art show and expects to settle on one within 90 days. Blackman in turn announced that Art Chicago will be held from July 14 to July 18 next year; he’s hunting for a space downtown where he can pitch a 125,000-square-foot tent.

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