The Urge to Merge

Talks of an imminent merger between the Touchstone and Organic theaters have put a spotlight on the financial pressures now bearing down on Chicago’s beleaguered stage community. Though the merger of the 10-year-old Touchstone and 26-year-old Organic is not yet a done deal, it’s clear that both organizations are currently trying to resolve serious money and managerial problems.

Touchstone’s saddled with a $40,000 deficit, which has scared away potential board members who might help raise cash and guide the company. “It’s not fun to join a board of directors when the balance sheet looks so bad,” admits Touchstone board president Skip Wood. Another problem concerns their theater at 2851 N. Halsted, the former home of the Steppenwolf and Saint Nicholas companies. The rent for the space has risen far faster than Touchstone’s ability to pay it. “It’s killing us,” concedes artistic director Ina Marlowe, who’s spearheading the group’s effort to merge with the Organic, which owns its own space at 3319 N. Clark.

Touchstone’s landlord has already taken the company to court for nonpayment of rent. The matter was resolved after an out-of-court agreement was reached for the theater to stay in the building through June 30, when their lease expires. The situation forced Marlowe to begin looking for another home. Her search included both the Athenaeum and the Organic, where negotiations soon progressed to talks of a full merger between the two companies.

Touchstone’s landlord told the dailies he was looking for a new tenant among some younger theater companies. But during the last week he’s indicated that he might be willing to reopen negotiations with Touchstone. Yet Marlowe and Wood both believe the theater would ultimately be better served by merging with the Organic and moving into that company’s space.

For the Organic, a merger with Touchstone would presumably mean it could actually produce theater, which it hasn’t been able to afford for more than a year. The venerable company has survived by renting out its space to Northlight Theatre, Remains, and other companies at below-market rates, according to Organic board president Kathy Gillig. The Organic also has accumulated a deficit of approximately $40,000, a substantial amount but far less than its $200,000 debt of only a few years ago. Gillig says the company’s primary goal over the last couple of years was to whittle the debt down to a manageable level before producing again on a regular basis. While Gillig succeeded in lowering the Organic’s debt, the company has been weakened by a revolving door in its administrative office.

In the late 1980s and early ’90s, Richard Fire, a longtime Organic company member, was brought back as artistic director to try to pull the company out of its slump, but his efforts proved only sporadically successful. After Fire bowed out, the Organic board tried to run the artistic side by committee. This awkward arrangement soon collapsed, and Paul Frellick was named acting artistic director. Frellick mounted some modest but well-done productions in the company’s studio theaters, but he says he soon grew frustrated by the lack of funds and the board’s dictatorial handling of financial matters. Frellick says he parlayed a $2,000 contribution for play production into a $7,000 kitty, only to have it spent by the board to satisfy other expenses. Frellick left soon afterward, but Gillig says she doesn’t remember the situation he describes, though she acknowledges that the board “could not commit to the money needed to produce” at the time.

The Organic now lacks an administrative staff, but Gillig says that the company’s finances have stabilized to the point where a merger proposal can be entertained. “We have been approached by many theater companies interested in merging,” says Gillig, who hopes that any merged entity would still produce some of the “risky, challenging work” for which the Organic became famous in its heyday under Stuart Gordon during the 1970s and early ’80s, before Gordon turned to filmmaking. Marlowe says she’s interested in doing new work, but admits she’s modified the Touchstone lineup in recent years to include more familiar musicals and comedies because they draw larger audiences. Audience development is key for Touchstone, since 60 percent of the company’s $500,000 annual budget comes from ticket sales.

But it remains to be seen whether a merger of Touchstone and Organic will make one strong theater company out of two organizations that have struggled to stay afloat. A merger will succeed only if the two come together with a strong board of directors, a savvy management team, and a strong artistic product. Unfortunately, those elements are in short supply in the off-Loop theater world these days.

Show Boat Ads It Up

Toronto-based Livent Inc.’s production of Show Boat opened this week to mostly rave reviews. But Livent CEO Garth Drabinsky has never relied on positive press to sell his productions, favoring instead the use of advertising in any venue he can find. Drabinsky has even invaded public television station WTTW for the first time with a spot for Show Boat. To get his commercials on the air, Livent underwrote a recent airing of Jerry Herman’s Broadway at the Bowl, a tribute to the musical theater composer aimed at an audience that might be interested in seeing yet another revival of Show Boat. In return for Livent’s support, WTTW aired the same Show Boat spot that’s appearing on commercial stations, pointing to a future of more ads on public television.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Alexander Newberry.