Theater League’s New Marketing Manager

After several months of searching, the League of Chicago Theatres has hired a new marketing manager, a post left empty by the organization’s recent restructuring. Karen Barger, the new recruit, armed with a professional background in the corporate promotions business, hopes to breathe new life into the city’s stymied theater community. She’ll try to improve the local theater industry’s image, work with individual theaters on their marketing strategies, and conduct research aimed at increasing audience size.

She has some real problems to address. Theater attendance has leveled off in the past several years. Dollars for not-for-profit theater companies are drying up, meaning less money is going into marketing. And in many instances the media haven’t broadened their coverage at a pace commensurate with the increase in the number of local companies, leaving many potential theatergoers without sufficient information on the scene.

But these concerns haven’t dampened Barger’s enthusiasm so far. “I’m basically an optimist,” she says. She came to the job May 1, bringing with her a discipline that comes from nearly a decade in the corporate sector. She worked at Flair Communications and at the Foote, Cone & Belding ad agency before leaving Chicago seven years ago for Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where she toiled in promotions and public relations for Hanes Hosiery and then for RJR/Nabisco promoting Life Savers, jobs that helped prepare her for the cash-starved world of Chicago theater. “Some of the products I worked on had only pennies available, relatively speaking, for marketing purposes,” she notes, “so we were forced to be more creative.”

In Winston-Salem, Barger also got involved with a local community theater group, her first contact with the theater business. She helped the group increase its programming and generate more revenue, lifting the company out of debt. With that feather in her cap and a newfound passion for the arts, Barger packed her bags and headed back to Chicago, hoping to land a marketing job in the arts.

Barger is collecting as much data as she can about the industry and the hundred or so different theater companies in the League. “Knowledge is power,” according to Barger, who believes a theater company can successfully market itself only if it knows its mission and its audience. Once these are defined, says Barger, the company should be able to carve out a niche in a crowded marketplace. The trick, of course, is marketing on a shoestring. Barger may earn her pay if she can teach some of the smaller organizations the knack of creative marketing.

In a few months Barger will get the results of a League-wide audience survey sent out before her arrival, which should show where the present theater audience comes from and provide clues as to how it might grow. On other fronts, she is considering an ad campaign to raise the public’s general awareness of Chicago theater and a push to generate more awareness in media circles. “We are terribly aware of the need for that,” she adds. It’ll be a while before Barger proves herself, but she maintains she can deliver the goods.

High Hopes on Halsted

Don’t be surprised if I Hate Hamlet, the Broadway comedy starring Nicol Williamson, winds up at the Royal George Theatre Center after Lend Me a Tenor has run its course. Royal George operator Robert Perkins, who is also a line producer for the New York I Hate Hamlet, said there are plans for a Chicago production that probably wouldn’t include Williamson. The New York notices have been mixed, but most critics agreed the show had considerable entertainment value. Word of mouth is said to be strong, though weekly box office grosses have been slow to build.

Meanwhile, Chicago restaurateur Joe Carlucci is eyeing a large space that he and his friend theater producer Michael Cullen would operate as a restaurant-bar and adjoining 300-seat theater near the Halsted Street theater corridor. Carlucci said that if all goes according to plan, the deal will be consummated in about two months, and the complex could be open by the end of the year.

Art Politics

Thomas Tresser, an arts advocate and the former managing director of Pegasus Players, is forming a new political body called Greater Chicago Citizens for the Arts, intended to educate politicians and endorse pro-arts candidates on the city, state, and federal levels. Tresser’s organization will encourage candidates to take stands on both local issues, such as the fate of the Cultural Center, and national ones, like increased funding for the arts. Greater Chicago Citizens for the Arts is based on the successful two-year-old San Francisco Arts Democratic Club. “Political candidates eagerly seek that organization’s endorsement,” says Tresser. He believes his citizens’ arts group will help alleviate the ignorance and apathy of local politicians in regard to the arts. “If candidates want our endorsement,” explains Tresser, “theyll have to learn about the issues.” Comedian Aaron Freeman and female rap group Cunning Stunts headline an organizing party Monday, May 20, at Club Lower Links.

Joe Shanahan Opens Tamales

Joe Shanahan hopes he has something hot on his hands. The owner of Cabaret Metro and the Smart Bar is going into the restaurant business with his club partner, Joe Prino, and restaurateurs John and Linda Terczak, who own Terczak’s at 2635 N. Halsted. Shanahan’s new venture, opening this weekend, is a small Mexican restaurant called Tamales at 3651 N. Southport, just south of the Music Box Theatre. Shanahan says he’d always longed for a low-key spot like Tamales, which will have a stainless steel bar and serve creative but inexpensive Mexican fare such as smoked chicken quesadillas and chicken and raisin tamales.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Steven D. Arazmus.