The Organic Regroups
Financial pressures and artistic leadership problems have prompted the Organic Theater Company to consider the possibilities of merging with another company or sharing its sizable facility at 3319 N. Clark. “Merger, co-usage, everything is being considered,” says Tom Clark, a member of the Organic’s board of directors. Both Victory Gardens Theater and Remains Theatre have entered into discussions with Organic, but earlier this week the outcome of those talks was hard to predict. If something along the lines of a merger were to occur between Organic and another company, it could be the first of many similar moves as local companies to try to build one strong organization from the dwindling resources of two or more. Speculates one theater executive: “The city’s older, mid-sized theater companies are going to have to grow larger or they will probably face extinction.”
Since the resignation of Organic artistic director Richard Fire in the summer of 1992, the 24-year-old theater company’s artistic decisions have been made by a 26-person collective, a group of actors, directors, and other theater artists who have both decided what to show in the theater’s studio and main-stage spaces and been involved in directing, writing, and acting in most of the pieces. The collective has had some luck, most notably with In the Flesh, a sci-fi drama that enjoyed a long sold-out run in one of the Organic’s three studio spaces before moving to the main stage for about two months last summer. But the collective has had a hard time attracting audiences and covering expenses in the 400-seat main stage. Last fall it rented the stage out to the producers of Gilligan’s Island, which ran for two months. And Who Goes There?, the most recent Organic-produced main-stage show, closed abruptly last week after a brief run. Sources say the Organic spent heavily on advertising for the production. “It’s been difficult and expensive to keep the main stage programmed,” concedes executive director Jeff Neal, who says he does not know how large the theater company’s operating deficit is at the moment. “Yeah, we owe some money, but doesn’t everyone?” Board president Kathy Gillig estimates the debt to be in the low five figures.
Last week, amid rumors that some members of Organic’s artistic collective were jumping ship or being fired, the collective and the board of directors apparently decided an administrative restructuring was in order. “There have been no firings, and nobody has been asked to leave,” insists Clark, who said the collective was scheduled to meet earlier this week to decide on a new structure, which will then be presented to the board for approval. Clark speculated that the deliberations could result in one member of the collective being named artistic director.
Meanwhile, the board is continuing to search for ways to ease the company’s financial difficulties and maximize use of the theater. Among those companies that have talked to Organic about some sort of arrangement is Victory Gardens, which would like to find a space larger than its present 195-seat main stage and 60-seat studio at 2257 N. Lincoln. Victory Gardens briefly expressed interest in acquiring the Royal George Theatre when it was put up for sale several years ago but ended up backing away from the deal. Any deal between Victory Gardens and the Organic would most likely give Victory Gardens an equity stake in the Organic’s facility. Victory Gardens could obtain much of the money for such an acquisition through the sale
of its present home, which is jointly owned with the ailing Body Politic Theatre, and which sources estimate would fetch around $600,000 in the current depressed market. The prospect of Victory Gardens or any other theater company moving in on Organic’s turf seems to pose a threat to some within the organization. “They [Victory Gardens] could smother us,” notes Neal, “but maybe they wouldn’t.”
Remains Theatre also has expressed interest in renting Organic’s main stage to mount one or more of its plays this season, though Remains artistic director Neel Keller says the rental fees being discussed are a bit higher than Remains can reasonably afford. Remains is actively looking for a new permanent home, but Keller indicated that it does not have the financial resources to contemplate acquiring a space such as the Organic.
Is Cameron Mackintosh, arguably the world’s most powerful theater producer, prepared to cancel or move the return booking of his production of Les Miserables to make way for another show? Perhaps. As of last week Des McAnuff’s critically acclaimed theatrical staging of the Who’s popular rock opera Tommy had no scheduled Chicago dates or venue. A spokeswoman for the Tommy tour (which begins this month in Texas) said that based on the production’s bookings in other parts of the country, it’s expected to hit Chicago in early fall of 1994. If Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat is still running at the Chicago Theatre at that time (not that anyone is speculating one way or the other), Tommy will have to choose between the out-of-the-way, seldom-booked Arie Crown Theatre at McCormick Place, the cramped Shubert Theatre, or the Auditorium, which has a large amount of desirable orchestra seating, but which is already scheduled to house Les Miserables during November and December. A source said Mackintosh may postpone his production or move it to another venue to open up a block of time for Tommy. Why would Mackintosh be so accommodating? Maybe it has something to do with his having been granted the rights to mount Tommy in London.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Steven D. Arazmus.