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The Plan to Resurrect Body Politic

Body Politic Theatre, the city’s oldest off-Loop theater company and the victim of financial disaster in recent years, may yet come back to life. On the verge of a merger that would have wiped out the independent identity the company has clung to since 1966, the theater’s board of directors has instead opted to try to resurrect the company with new artistic director Terry McCabe, a talented theater vet who’s presently resident director at Wisdom Bridge Theatre and a member of Court Theatre’s artists council. For the moment McCabe will keep those ties. Body Politic has been without an artistic director since the well-meaning but mostly ineffectual Albert Pertalion resigned last November, citing the need to move on to a job with a more certain future.

Body Politic’s decision to give McCabe a try came at the urging of the newly named artistic director himself. He first approached the theater’s board approximately six months ago after repeated news of the company’s imminent demise, he says, “depressed” him. McCabe’s Body Politic ties stretch back almost 15 years: during 1981 and part of 1982, in his first paying job after graduating from college, he worked as assistant to the late, respected James O’Reilly, then Body Politic’s artistic director.

News of McCabe’s hiring was greeted with cautious optimism at Victory Gardens Theater, which co-owns the building both companies occupy at 2257-2261 N. Lincoln and had been attempting to iron out a merger deal with its neighbor for several months. Body Politic balked at Victory Gardens’ initial buyout proposal, saying the offer was too low. Notes Victory Gardens managing director John Walker: “The problem has been that we haven’t had a good partner here in the building, and that’s what we need whether we get it working with Terry or whether we get it by the Body Politic going out of business.” Among other complaints Walker cited the not inconsequential cost of manning the building’s box office, an expense Victory Gardens has been forced to bear alone during long periods in recent years.

The announcement of McCabe’s arrival came as a surprise to members of the Body Politic ensemble, many of whom have sat on the sidelines for years as the company’s fate hung in the balance. Observes ensemble member Joan Spatafora: “I’m a little surprised by the news, but there must be some sort of spirit that keeps the place going.” McCabe said he hoped to open a dialogue with the ensemble to determine what role if any they might have in the reborn Body Politic.

McCabe laid out his strategy for revitalizing the company in a 12-page typewritten memo he delivered to the theater’s board of directors last month. In it he stressed that, realistically speaking, the company can expect no income from foundation grants or other philanthropic sources for at least the next two years. His plan is predicated on increasing the flow of earned income over the next 18 months while plotting a conservative course toward a three-play subscription season for the fall of 1995. His first project would be to carve a 50- to 75-seat studio theater out of what is currently the Body Politic’s rehearsal room to rent out this fall. A modest space would cost about $6,200 to construct, according to McCabe’s estimates, and would generate between $500 and $600 a week in funds on top of income from continued rental of the theater’s 192-seat main stage.

Because money is tight, McCabe suggests in his memo that it would be advantageous for the company to avoid producing in the 1994-’95 season. “I don’t want to gamble the future of the company on one make-or-break production next season,” he says. Rather, he would try to create a subscriber base for the 1995-’96 season–say, 2,000 subscribers at about $50 per subscription, bringing in roughly $100,000 to be used as the funding base for three plays. He’d produce them not on the main stage but on the smaller studio stage, where he’s convinced the money would go farther. McCabe hasn’t yet decided what plays his first season would include, though his choices will no doubt be crucial to how well his overall strategy works. But at other theaters, including the now-defunct Stormfield Theatre, which he headed from 1983 through 1988, he has demonstrated a knack for mounting compelling theater. That talent, coupled with his sensible game plan, just might save Body Politic.

Funding Fighter

This weekend Alene Valkanas, executive director of the Illinois Arts Alliance, will receive the MM Award for her outstanding contribution to the arts from Mostly Music, a 21-year-old organization that presents chamber music in such alternative settings as homes, libraries, and museums. Mostly Music is honoring Valkanas for, among other things, spearheading a campaign last fall to restore more than $300,000 to the city’s arts budget, bringing the 1994 total to just over $900,000. The restoration of funds was particularly welcome to Mostly Music, which like many of the city’s smaller arts organizations counts heavily on government money. Valkanas’s campaign succeeded by flooding aldermen on the budget committee with information about the activities of arts organizations in their wards and the important role these groups play in their respective neighborhoods. Now Valkanas and the Arts Alliance are focusing on the state legislature, where the arts funding for fiscal 1995 will soon be determined. Valkanas is campaigning for a budget of $12 million, which would be a marked rise from 1994’s $7.6 million. That goal may prove overly ambitious, but for now Valkanas is sticking to her demands and making her case to key legislators. Certainly there’s plenty of room for improvement in arts budgets at both the city and state levels: the city of San Diego, with a population two-fifths the size of Chicago’s, contributes more than $5.5 million annually to its local arts organizations.

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