What Shall Be the Mission of the League of Chicago Theaters?

The screws are beginning to turn in the administrative offices of the League of Chicago Theaters, and none too soon. The league’s board of directors met last week to discuss the state of the organization, and sources familiar with the meeting say it was in large part an opportunity to assess the focus and achievements of the league under the leadership of its longtime executive director, Diane Olmen. Behind the scenes, some members have criticized the league’s activities in recent months, but the board voted last week to keep Olmen in her position, at least until she decides if the new operating strategy suits her. “Diane wants to work with us,” said one board member present at last weeks meeting, “but I honestly don’t know if she will be here six months from now.” Whether or not Olmen remains, she and her staff apparently no longer will have the autonomy they’ve enjoyed in the past. Noted one board member: “We allowed Diane to run the program the way she saw fit on a moment-to-moment basis; but we will spend the next six months creating specific guidelines for the league staff.” Olmen was not available for comment.

The league was founded 11 years ago as a marketing, promotional, and advocacy organization for the then burgeoning theater industry. But lately its focus has blurred, and its energies have been woefully misdirected at a time when emerging and midsize theater companies are desperate for funding and new audiences. A good example of the league’s misguided priorities, according to some theater-industry insiders, is the considerable time and money lavished on an exchange agreement between the Chicago Theatre Foundation (the funding arm tied to the league) and the Union of Theater Workers of the Russian Federation. That agreement sparked a flurry of “reconnaissance” missions to Russia by Olmen and various local theater execs and the importation of two Russian productions, The Peace of Brest-Litovsk at the Civic Theatre and Dear Elena Sergaevna at Victory Gardens. The former was a box-office bomb, while the latter has fared better in a more intimate off-Loop setting. A Brest-Litovsk opening-night benefit also netted $25,000 for the Illinois Russian Theatre Association, an organization set up specifically to deal with Russian theater business. It may be too early to tell whether the league’s Russian fixation will strengthen the local scene, but some observers certainly have their doubts. Another troubling indication of the league’s uncertain grip on its business can be found in the agenda for the organization’s upcoming tenth-anniversary retreat, an opportunity for league members to gather in a bucolic Wisconsin setting to discuss their common concerns and seek common solutions. Organized by a Georgia-based consultant hired by the league, this year’s retreat panels are populated with theater executives from all over the country. Some local theater folk believe the out-of-town perspective may provide helpful insights, but one has to wonder about what wisdom might emerge given such stilted panel topics as “What Theatre Is to Be Created?” “Who Shall the Theatre Be For?” (shouldn’t that be “Whom”?), and “How Shall the Theatre Be Organized?” The last thing the local theater industry needs now is lecturing from a bunch of executives trapped in some ridiculous Victorian time warp. Whether the league and its activities ultimately get sorted out will depend, of course, on how much its member theaters really want to revitalize the industry and expand the audience base. “The theater industry here is in trouble,” noted one league board member last week with deadly accuracy. It’s time for the rest of the league membership and its administrative staff to recognize that fact and begin to deal with it in earnest.

The Audience Is Always Right

Usually there are plenty of reasons why a play enjoys a long run, but Bruce Jordan, coproducer of Shear Madness, is certainly on to one of them. “Whenever one of the actors in our companies of Shear Madness starts to complain about a lack of response from the audience,” says Jordan, “I immediately tell him or her I don’t want to hear any more of that. The audience has paid their money; they have a right to expect to be entertained. And if that isn’t happening, the problem is usually onstage. What we do is for the audience.” It’s that kind of policy that last week enabled the Chicago production of the comedy whodunit–like it or not–to join its sister Boston production in the Guinness Book of World Records as the longest-running nonmusical play in American theater history. A licensed production of Shear Madness opens this fall in Tel Aviv, and Jordan and coproducer Marilyn Abrams want to mount their own west coast production in the near future

No Critics, Please

The Chicago Dramatists Workshop will try a different tack next season. The play-development company plans to mount five productions in the 1990-91 season, but does not expect to invite critics. In the past most of the workshop’s staged productions have been reviewed, and artistic director Russ Tutterow says that has inhibited other local theater companies from presenting fully staged productions of these works–they fear the critics won’t come back. To get the input that reviews can provide, Tutterow says, he will invite critics and other interest ed parties to head up discussions of the works.

It’s Hot! It’s Happening! It’s $77.50

Move over Madonna, here comes the Bolshoi Ballet. Victoria Charlton, cochairman of the New York- and London-based Entertainment Corporation, which is bringing the Bolshoi to America this summer, isn’t planning a prim-and-proper marketing strategy to sell the $77.50 top tickets for the upcoming ballet extravaganza. “We’re going to go out and grab that potential audience,” says Charlton. “We’re going to rock ‘n’ roll ’em.” Charlton is convinced that making the Bolshoi an “event” is the only way to sell tickets, and she plans to carry that strategy all the way into the grim Arie Crown Theater, where the Russian troupe will perform August 1 through 5. “We’re going to dress up the place with photographs, flags, and plants,” she says. “We don’t want people to think this is going to be just another boring evening.” The New York Times certainly isn’t making Charlton’s job any easier. In a long piece earlier this week, a Times correspondent in Moscow wrote about displeasure in the Bolshoi’s dancer ranks with Yuri Grigorovich, the company’s artistic director for the past 26 years. Some dancers apparently are worried about a decline in artistic standards and a preoccupation with commercial considerations. Welcome to capitalism, comrades.