The Road Ahead

Chicago is full of eager young theater groups, but few make the leap from the storefront to the fore-front. Now Roadworks Productions, whose seventh season opens on Sunday with The SantaLand Diaries, wants to become more solid, recognizable, and permanent–an institution, if you will. Explains Debbie Bisno, the company’s personable artistic director, “It was time for us to get serious or to go away.”

Roadworks stands a better chance of putting down roots than most small outfits. Bisno, managing director Phil Kohlmetz, and board president Mark Meisels have made several moves in recent months to grow the company, raise its visibility, and establish a vision for the future. “We will begin to be an institution only if we start acting like one,” says Meisels. To that end the company has developed its first five-year business plan, resolving to increase marketing initiatives, generate more revenue by getting into feature film production, and move to a permanent home sometime between years three and five. Roadworks has ditched its old logo for a new one based on the image of a manhole cover. And last weekend the company left its cramped quarters in Bucktown for a new 1,200-square-foot office and rehearsal space at 1144 W. Fulton Market, near the heart of the Randolph Street market district. Owner Peter Colovos would like to fill the building with arty tenants, and he cut Roadworks a good deal, claiming the company will provide “good building karma.” Meisels thinks that having office and rehearsal space under one roof will lower the company’s operating costs because it won’t have to rent rehearsal space. Its annual budget is $250,000, which covers administration and the production costs for three shows, but that figure should rise substantially as Roadworks expands its production schedule.

According to Bisno, the company recently evaluated the highs and lows of previous seasons to determine what sort of work it wants to produce in the future. “We want to do plays that are character and plot driven,” she says, “and provide meaty roles for our ensemble members.” She’s especially proud of last year’s hit, Dealer’s Choice, a British comedy by Patrick Marber that garnered five Jefferson Award nominations, including one for best production. The play marked an impressive rebound for the company after The Planets, an adaptation of James Finney Boylan’s novel, closed early in the face of scathing reviews. The SantaLand Diaries, which the company is staging in collaboration with About Face Theatre, is an adaptation of two pieces by humorist David Sedaris; it will be followed this com-ing February by Phyllis Nagy’s Disappeared, a thriller about a young New York travel agent who vanishes under strange circumstances.

Bisno and Kohlmetz have also enlarged the board of directors to 20 people, more than doubling its membership in hopes of providing the company with more people to raise funds and supply marketing ideas. Several of the new recruits are young professionals who had little or no experience on boards of cultural organizations. Matt Gray, a 28-year-old vice president at a suburban construction firm, was hooked after seeing a few Roadworks productions, including Dealer’s Choice. He says he’d attended shows at the Steppenwolf and the Goodman theaters but didn’t have much exposure to off-Loop theater and was impressed by Roadworks: “I didn’t expect them to be as together as they were.” Of course Bisno agrees with Gray’s assessment, but she knows no one can assure the future of Roadworks. “I don’t know what will happen ultimately,” she says, “but I have good vibes about what we’re doing.”

Livent Deathwatch

The collapse of Toronto-based Livent Inc., which owns and operates the Ford Center for the Performing Arts, Oriental Theatre, proceeded with astonishing speed last week as the company filed for bankruptcy protection in Canada, finally reporting over $60 million of debt in addition to over $40 million already on the books. Livent founder Garth Drabinsky, who’d been suspended since August, was formally fired, and the company filed suit against him, alleging that he and a few associates had conspired to misrepresent the company’s finances and funnel millions of dollars into their own pockets. Drabinsky immediately countersued, accusing Livent executives of “a conspiracy to injure him.”

Strapped for cash to meet payrolls and other operating expenses, Livent immediately cut short a tour of Ragtime now playing in Minneapolis, though Livent flacks insisted that the Chicago production would continue. Reports were also circulating that Livent would sell off its New York and Chicago theaters to raise money. But the company could encounter even more trouble if it hangs on. Parade, a new musical Livent is producing in association with Lincoln Center Theater in New York, was in previews last week, and a local theater executive who saw the show deemed it interesting but uncommercial. Fosse, another Livent show with questionable audience appeal, is scheduled to begin previews on Broadway in late December.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Mark Meisels, Debbie Bisno, Phil Kohlmetz photo by J.B. Spector.