The New and the Neglected

It’s a little odd, says Ina Marlowe of her status as heir to Chicago’s legendary Organic Theater: “I’m probably the only person in town who never worked there.” But then Organic, which fell into Marlowe’s lap in a merger six years ago, is a long way from the innovative powerhouse it was in the 1970s and early ’80s, before its founder, Stuart Gordon, took off for Hollywood. “I’m as different from Stuart as I could be,” Marlowe says. “My sensibility is different. But if we stayed doing what we were doing in the past, that’s a museum.” This weekend Marlowe’s Organic finishes its inaugural run in a new venue, the Kathleen Mullady Memorial Theatre at Loyola University. Marlowe’s hoping the location will take, because the company is in dire need of a workable permanent home.

A new home was also her goal eight years ago, when her own company, Touchstone Theatre, merged with Organic. Touchstone, which she founded in 1985, had been renting an expensive space at 2851 N. Halsted, and she was hoping to move operations into the building Organic owned at 3319 N. Clark. But as soon as the merger was complete she began to learn of problems with the Organic facility–including major roof

and electrical troubles the company couldn’t afford to fix. “One of the first things the Organic board told me after the merger was that they wanted to sell the building,” she says. A year later it sold to developers for about $1.2 million. After a mortgage and expenses were paid, Marlowe estimates Organic Touchstone netted about $500,000.

That money was used over the next several years to pay off the $80,000 in debt the two companies had brought to the partnership and to pay operating and production expenses, including rent and maintenance costs of more than $100,000 a year on the Halsted space and upper-tier union wages, Marlowe says. “It was killing us. People had the impression that we were fine. Foundations didn’t give us money. We didn’t have any kind of institutional support.” By 1999 the Touchstone and Organic boards had mostly disappeared. Out of money and basically working alone, Marlowe moved Organic to the theater at the McGaw YMCA child-care center in Evanston, where

rent was 90 percent cheaper. She eliminated her own salary, renegotiated with the unions, and stayed three years. But the venue was cramped and unpopular with audiences, and the support she’d hoped for from Evanstonians never materialized. Last year, at the request of director Joseph Megel, she nominated a new play, The Last Seder, for a Kennedy Center grant. When it won, she had the means and an urgent motive to move again: The Last Seder was too big to produce at the Y. She arranged to stage both it and the 2002-2003 Organic season in the handsome, fully equipped 300-seat theater tucked away in Loyola’s student union.

The Last Seder–essentially an import, with a problematic roster of formula characters and situations–was a vehicle out of Evanston. Marlowe says it’s not an example of Organic’s future direction. For that she’s looking to their next show, the world premiere of Five Rooms of Furniture, which Organic has been shepherding since the first reading five years ago. Written by Dhana-Marie Branton, directed by Organic associate Jonathan Wilson, and set on the south side of Chicago, it will open in August. Organic will produce the other two plays of the season in April and May, working around Loyola’s schedule in what Marlowe hopes will be a mutually beneficial long-term collaboration. She says Organic is “recommitted to new plays and neglected classics” and, for the first time in years, is enjoying the support of a growing, enthusiastic board. The board will hold its first retreat mid-June. “And this is giant for us,” Marlowe says: “It won’t be at my house.”


Follow-ups: Kim Clark, who’d been booted from Second City last time we spoke, has landed at Chicago Center for the Performing Arts, where he’ll head up the writing program….Cleetus Friedman, whose one-man-and-a-DJ satire got the hook at Lake Forest High School, will perform Crackers at midnight tonight (May 31) at Frankie J’s MethaDome Theatre; the show will be filmed for NBC’s Hip-Hop Nation….The Illinois house last week passed a resolution calling for cable company RCN to pay up on its $645,000 obligation to CAN TV, overdue since January….The Guild Complex has named a new executive director, longtime volunteer Ellen Wadey, who has worked as development director for the Marwen Foundation and communications and marketing director for Old Saint Patrick’s Church….Columbia College public relations head Carol Bryant retires in June after 11 years there and a total of 42 in the business….With the departure of publicist Marlo LaCorte, the Silverman/LaCorte Group is now the Silverman Group.

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