Wanna Buy a Play?

Last Saturday afternoon a nearly full house at Chicago Dramatists sat rapt as a cast of four actors led by Morgan McCabe and directed by Russ Tutterow delivered a reading of Since Africa, a new play in progress by Mia McCullough. It was theater magic, a complex world brought to life with nothing more to suggest it than the scripts on the actors’ laps–and the price of admission was just $5, as it is every Saturday. That kind of talent is one of the reasons the National Showcase of New Plays is in town this weekend, presenting readings of 18 plays from all over the country at three venues including Chicago Dramatists. The other reason it’s here is Prop Thtr’s artistic director, Scott Vehill, who volunteered Chicago as the host city, recruited Chicago Dramatists as a cohost, and convinced Dramatists’ producing director Ann Filmer to do a lot of the heavy lifting. (Filmer compressed the schedule, which in previous years had run to a mind-numbing four months.) From July 16 through 23, each of the plays will get two readings, produced by Prop, Chicago Dramatists, the Phoenix Theatre of Indianapolis, and the Performance Network of Ann Arbor. The idea is to get the plays seen by people who might give them full productions: “It’s geared to a theater-industry audience,” Filmer says. But the public’s invited, and tickets are still $5.

The showcase is a program of the National New Play Network, which has been in bed with Vehill since its beginning. Back in 1997, when David Goldman was director of special programs for Connecticut’s new-play incubator, the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, he came to town looking for a few small companies doing new work to begin a regional theater festival. “There’s a lot of good people doing that in Chicago,” says Vehill, but Goldman happened along when Prop was presenting one of its major successes, Paul Peditto’s 1,001 Afternoons in Chicago, based on Ben Hecht’s columns for the Chicago Daily News. Bowled over, he enlisted Prop to run the festival. But by the time Vehill put together the first event in ’98, the group had grown to 14 theaters (it now has 19) and the O’Neill center spun it off as a separate nonprofit.

The hookup with the O’Neill was a turning point for Prop, which had been bouncing around the city producing sporadically since its founding by Vehill and his Columbia College buddy Stefan Brun in 1981. Until the mid-90s, Vehill says, they ran their “bad boys, new plays” company out of their own pockets. But in ’95, Second City’s Joyce Sloane surprised them with a foundation grant they hadn’t applied for. They recoiled at first, thinking “We’re criticizing the system; we don’t need no stinkin’ grant,” Vehill recalls–but they took it, and when the O’Neill came along they got a lot more: a three-year, $75,000 grant from the MacArthur Foundation, plus money from the NEA, the Chicago Community Trust, and the Illinois Arts Council.

It’s all gone now. But last February, Prop moved into a permanent home, a two-building former warehouse and shop at 3502-4 N. Elston purchased by Vehill’s wife, Kristen, and a partner, from whom the company will rent. With the help of architect John Morris they’re turning it into a complex with a 99-seat main stage and a 65-seat storefront; they’ve already got two resident companies and late-night improv. Prop will host an NNPN party there at 6:30 on July 18 that’s also open to the public, but it won’t be a venue for the readings. For that, besides Chicago Dramatists, Vehill signed on the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs, which is donating the Loop Theater and the Cultural Center’s studio space. The 18 plays were chosen by the host theaters, under the guidance of playwright and critic Jonathan Abarbanel, from about 80 submissions from NNPN members and invited outsiders like Steppenwolf and Minneapolis’s Guthrie Theater. They include a Prop submission, The Playgoer, by Christopher Bomba, and The Age of Cynicism, or Karaoke Night at the Hog, by Keith Huff, which was submitted by Chicago Dramatists. But the most exciting production for NNPN members, Vehill says, is not even on the roster. It’s Electricidad, written on an NNPN commission, premiered at NNPN member Borderlands Theater in Tucson, and now on the marquee at the Goodman.

Stickups at the Storefronts

On an evening in mid-May, shortly after the curtain had gone up on Breadline Theatre’s production of The Chorus Rebellion, a man stepped into the theater, told the box office manager he was waiting for his girlfriend, and made himself comfortable in a chair in the otherwise empty lobby. He chatted pleasantly for about ten minutes, then got up and walked toward the manager. According to artistic director Paul Kampf, the box office had been taken out of its traditional cage and relocated to a “friendlier, more interactive” podium in the lobby for some time. The man approached it and threw a sudden, hard punch to the manager’s face, knocking her to the floor. He then grabbed the cash box, which contained about $250, and took off running. Bleeding, the box office manager crawled to the stage manager’s booth without disturbing the performance and was taken to the hospital. Only after Breadline reported the assault did they learn that Live Bait, about six blocks away, had been victimized three times over the past year, including a robbery at gunpoint in the men’s room during an opening-night reception and a theft that took place during the run of a Police-Teen Link production featuring six Chicago cops. This week, Breadline and Live Bait are hosting a Chicago Police Depart-ment safety lecture for arts organizations. Kampf says the Breadline box office is back behind its window with at least two staffers manning the lobby. Receipts are locked up when the show begins, doors are secured against outside entry, and smokers are monitored. The lecture starts at 7 on Monday, July 19, at Breadline, 1802 W. Berenice.

Return of La Lautman

Former WBEZ arts broadcaster Victoria Lautman will be back on the radio beginning September 12. She’s launching Writers on the Record With Victoria Lautman, a triple-pronged literary endeavor that has onetime family members WFMT and Chicago magazine collaborating again. One Sunday a month at noon Lautman will conduct a one-hour interview with a major author before an audience of up to 200 people at Lookingglass Theatre. The interview will be broadcast live by ‘FMT and previewed with a teaser Q and A each month in the magazine. Her first guest is this year’s Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction, Edward P. Jones, author of The Known World. Tickets will be free with phone reservations.

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