Elayne LeTraunik has tried many times to start a successful theater company. In 1978 she and her husband, Kenneth, founded a community theater in Hoffman Estates called Theatre Northwest. In 1983 they helped launch Goose Island Theatre in a Chicago storefront but bowed out after two years. She started Red Hen Productions in 1997 and installed the company in a 50-seat Andersonville space last year, after struggling for two years to get the building up to code. But while Red Hen’s 2002-’03 season got some good reviews–their production of That Championship Season snagged a Jeff recommendation, and they just found out that last fall’s Bloody Bess won an After Dark Award for best ensemble–houses were small, and money was tight. Elayne, however, is confident her latest effort, Chicago Jewish Theatre, will survive. “I think I got it right this time,” she says.

The company, which kicks off its first season this weekend with the Chicago premiere of Israel Horovitz’s Today, I Am a Fountain Pen, will exclusively produce works relevant to Jewish culture and history. Red Hen Productions still exists, and may produce again someday, but the company’s stated mission of preserving neglected works and premiering new works was “too broad,” says LeTraunik.

When her son Brian, Red Hen’s managing director, suggested rethinking the mission, she was skeptical. But after he pointed out that the only Red Hen shows to do well were two Jewish-themed plays, Safe Harbor and A Dybbuk, she realized he might be on to something. “For a while we were a little all over the place and doing all kinds of different shows, so it was hard to keep an audience because what might appeal to one audience member might not appeal to another audience member two shows down,” says Brian. He figures narrowing the programming focus could help the company find an audience, target advertising, and tap into funding sources.

They started taking out ads in Jewish newspapers in January, and after the Red Hen season wrapped in April, they announced their new focus to the general public. The phone started ringing almost immediately, which the LeTrauniks credit to good word of mouth in the Jewish community. Red Hen never had more than ten subscribers at any given time. CJT already has 150, many of whom were once faithful subscription holders at the National Jewish Theater, which closed in 1996. “They’ve just been waiting for somebody else to come along and do this kind of thing,” says Elayne.

The company still wants to focus on lesser-known work. There’s no blanket ban on Neil Simon, but, says Brian, “we didn’t want to pigeonhole ourselves into doing the same things that everyone else has done, we still wanted to challenge ourselves…and the more we look and see what’s out there, the more heartened we are that we’ll be able to keep from repeating ourselves.”

However, he concedes, they aren’t going to be as edgy as Red Hen was. They’ve decided, for instance, to steer clear of plays dealing with the Middle East crisis. “The audience we’re targeting and the audience we’ve found are coming to see the shows, that’s not really what they want.” Elayne is already going through possible scripts–including older, infrequently produced work, new plays, and even maybe a musical–for their next season. “It has got to work out,” she says. “I don’t know what else I would do if I wasn’t doing this.”

Today, I Am a Fountain Pen opened Thursday, September 18, and runs through October 19 at 5123 N. Clark. Tickets are $25, $20 for students and seniors. Other plays in the 2003-’04 season include Stuart Gordon’s adaptation of Howard Schwartz’s The Speaking Head and Other Scary Jewish Stories, a new adaptation of H. Leivick’s The Golem, and the Chicago premiere of The Stroop Report by Preston Jones. For more information call 773-728-0599.

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