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Two Staffers Exit Stage Left

Even some of the city’s largest not-for-profit theater companies are in dire straits, but the really heartbreaking stories in the local theater industry are being played out in much smaller companies, such as the nine-and-a-half-year-old Stage Left Theatre at 3244 N. Clark. Dennis McCullough, Stage Left’s artistic director, and Debra Rodkin, general manager for most of the company’s history, have announced they are leaving to pursue other career options. McCullough and Rodkin say they’re burned out and want to find jobs that’ll pay the bills. Meanwhile, Stage Left is facing an increasingly difficult fight for foundation funding.

Such circumstances might have done in less determined theater companies, but for now Michael Troccoli, the organization’s last remaining founding member, and former associate artistic director Sandra Verthein are stepping in as artistic directors to try and keep Stage Left’s torch lit. “We’ve got a big job ahead of us,” said Troccoli, “but we’re aiming to get to the point where we can sustain ourselves.” Troccoli and Verthein are taking on Stage Left’s artistic, business, and fund-raising chores without pay.

McCullough and Rodkin believe Stage Left can survive but say they were tired of struggling to keep it going. “Things were happening for me on other fronts,” said Rodkin, an aspiring actress who received no salary for the more than nine years she worked there. “You can’t nurture a small theater company and nurture a career at the same time.”

For McCullough the decision to depart after four years came when Stage Left failed to receive a Joyce Foundation grant of $20,000 over two years that would have been used in large part to pay his salary. This was the first grant request Stage Left had made to Joyce. “We never got a clear reason why we were turned down for the grant,” said McCullough, “except a generic response that there are a lot of groups looking for money right now.” Joyce program officer Unmi Song said of the foundation’s decision: “It’s getting a lot more competitive out there.”

As the only salaried Stage Left staffer, McCullough handled artistic decisions while orchestrating a push for more grant money. The company’s annual operating budget is about $60,000, most of that from ticket sales and a few small city and state grants.

But as McCullough discovered with the Joyce Foundation, most emerging theater companies like Stage Left–no matter how impressive their artistic product or adept their financial management–haven’t been getting much of the amount of foundation grant money. “It’s worse now than it has ever been,” said McCullough. Stage Left has never had a full-time person working just on grant applications. The company also has no outstanding debt. “We’ve been fiscally responsible,” explained Rodkin, “and now I feel that we are being faulted for that when we don’t get a grant.”

This week McCullough is leaving for Los Angeles for a month to explore opportunities in the film industry, where there is plenty of money for those with talent and the right connections. “I never assumed I would be leaving the theater company,” said McCullough, “and I feel terrible about it.”

Troccoli is reasonably positive about Stage Left’s future. “I don’t blame anyone but ourselves for our lack of financial planning,” he said. “It’s never been one of our strong points.” But neither Troccoli nor Verthein have much if any experience writing grant proposals. Stage Left doesn’t plan to mount another production until late spring. The lease on its North Clark Street storefront space expires in October 1993.

Finding a Place for Lost in Yonkers

Leavitt/Fox Theatricals is mounting an ambitious lineup of locally produced shows this season, including Theda Bara and the Frontier Rabbi (opening this week), And the World Goes ‘Round (opening April 1), Six Degrees of Separation, and Neil Simon’s Lost in Yonkers. One of the organization’s biggest challenges, however, will be coming up with a site for Lost in Yonkers. When Michael Leavitt and his associates at the Saint Louis-based Fox Theatricals convinced the show’s New York producers to sell the rights to an open-ended Chicago production of Yonkers, Leavitt agreed to mount the show in a theater with at least 600 seats. That rules out the Apollo and the Wellington (both of which Leavitt/Fox control) and also the Royal George and Briar Street theaters. Big theaters like the Auditorium and the Shubert are prohibitively expensive and controlled by other interests anyway, which leaves Leavitt/Fox with few choices except to find a space and build out a theater with the requisite number of seats. “We’re looking at several options,” said Leavitt. Originally announced for June, Lost in Yonkers now won’t open before September or October.

Altman’s Revenge

Former Cubby Bear talent booker Brad Altman has completely severed ties with the Pollstar national nightclub of the year. But apparently Altman doesn’t intend to leave the Chicago nightclub scene for good. Last week the deposed promoter was said to be considering several possibilities, including signing a lease on another nightclub venue or buying a space outright. In a new space, Altman says, he would continue booking a mix of country and other acts in conjunction with Los Angeles-based Q Productions, which also helped book the Cubby Bear when Altman was employed there.

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