Unexpected Company

Some might say the last thing Chicago needs is another theater company, but we’re getting one anyway. The first production of the for-profit Remy Bumppo theater will be Tom Stoppard’s Night and Day, opening November 4 at Victory Gardens Theater, and the company’s second scheduled offering is Chekhov’s The Seagull, which will open in January.

Remy Bumppo’s founders–James Bohnen, Carol Loewenstern, and John Stoddard–created the theater’s whimsical moniker by combining the names of their pets, but they’re dead serious about competing with theaters like Goodman, Steppenwolf, and Court. Bohnen is an established local actor and director who’s worked in other cities; Loewenstern most recently was the producing director of Colorado’s Aspen Theatre in the Park; and Stoddard is a former executive at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts.

Bohnen says the company is still figuring out how it will attract an audience, but he knows it will be drawn from the pool of regular theatergoers. One way they hope to attract attention is by employing some of the Chicago wasn’t the first choice for Remy Bumppo’s home. The three founders were originally interested in finding a mid-size city. They looked at Burlington, Vermont; Eugene, Oregon; and Asheville, North Carolina. “These towns simply didn’t have the funding available to support a new theater company,” Bohnen says. In the end they settled on Chicago because it has an established theater community and they liked the city. “We are at an age when we want to live where we want to live,” says Bohnen.

Given the financial risks in starting up a theater company, Remy Bumppo’s prospects would have to be considered uncertain at best. The founders will have to secure funding in a tough economic environment and find an audience in a city where many small groups are vying for a limited customer base. Because Bohnen and his cofounders decided only last spring to come to Chicago, they’re relying almost exclusively on a small group of backers to get the company up and running. If they spend their nest egg wisely, Bohnen believes, with a little luck it’ll be enough to give Remy Bumppo a fighting chance.

Jeffs All Around

The decision of four of the city’s top theater companies to withdraw from Jeff Award consideration for the new season raises the question of what value the awards would have if they were noncompetitive, as those theaters–Goodman, Steppenwolf, VictoryGardens, and Marriott’s Lincolnshire–are demanding. Though multiple citations are awarded to non-Equity theaters, union companies have been held to a more stringent standard.

The announcement by the four theaters came as the Joseph Jefferson Committee was in the midst of polling its 40 members to decide on a change that would allow multiple awards in each category. Perhaps the theater executives hoped the timing of their announcement–as last season’s nominations were released–would pressure Jeff members to cast their ballots in favor of multiple awards.

But if the theater companies get their way, would the significance of winning a Jeff Award be less? Victory Gardens managing director John Walker says, “There are no winners and losers in the arts business. It’s a subjective thing, and there’s no reason for the awards to be competitive.” Yet some Jeff Committee members believe the award will lose its luster if there are multiple winners in each category. “These are big boys, and they should be treated like big boys,” says one member. Mercury Theater owner and producer Michael Cullen also thinks multiple winners is the wrong way to go: “That’s not the way the world works.”

Disney Dithers, “Beast” Hopes Wither

As the theater season swings into high gear, one question remains unanswered: when will Disney’s musical adaptation of Beauty and the Beast come to the Chicago Theatre? Though Disney is slated to take control of the theater on February 1, don’t expect the musical to arrive anytime soon. Early plans to mount a production especially designed for the theater have apparently been shelved, and now it seems Chicago will be just another stop on the national touring company’s schedule. Except for a few weeks in the middle of next summer, that company is now fully booked through the early fall of 1997. That means Beauty and the Beast may not arrive in Chicago until late 1997 at the earliest. A Disney spokeswoman confirms that nothing has been decided about when the musical will play in Chicago or what will happen at the Chicago Theatre in the interim. Meanwhile, sources say that if Disney attempts to break its lease, the Chicago Theatre would likely retain Disney’s $750,000 deposit. That money could tide the theater over until other bookings are arranged.

A League of Her Own?

The League of Chicago Theaters is considering Chicago Park District marketing director Marj Halperin to fill the post of executive director vacated by Tony Sertich last January. Halperin could bring political connections to the job, an advantage reportedly of growing interest in the league. She worked on Richard Daley’s mayoral campaign and held a post at the Chicago Board of Education before accepting her current marketing job under Park District director Forrest Claypool. Sources say Halperin’s annual salary is around $95,000–about $30,000 more than Sertich made. The league may have to up the ante to sign her.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by J.B. Spector.