Where Is the Love?

With theater companies as with alley cats, take in a stray and you’ve got a responsibility. Actors Todd Hissong and Andrew Powdermaker met in the late 90s while working together at the Shakespeare Project of Chicago, which stages readings at schools, Park District facilities, and area libraries, and decided to form their own company. They were aiming for something like a musicians’ jam session, Hissong says, “where really good actors could come together and work on material that was worthy of them and have a good time doing it.” They wanted it to be free of major time commitments for the actors and free of charge for the audience, and figured there might be just one stumbling block: “Could you get really good professional actors to come in and work for free?” In the summer of 2000 they founded Aspect Theatre Company, and by the next year they were mounting readings by all-Equity casts in a borrowed space at the Sulzer Regional Library. It turned out they needn’t have worried about drawing talent. “Once word got out in the community,” Hissong says, “once people saw who we were and what we were about and how much fun [the actors] were having, networking happened and we are what we are now. Or were.”

What they are is a nonfunded nonprofit that over the last two years has put on 16 different play readings at Sulzer, with over 60 actors participating. The library, at 4455 N. Lincoln, a block from Hissong’s home, was a good venue–“clean, well located, with parking”–and they were able to book space there (first a meeting room, then the auditorium) for a couple of afternoons and two evenings a month, eight months out of the year, without charge. (When they needed money for royalties or postage Hissong reached into his own pocket.) Two of the four monthly dates were used for rehearsals, two for performances. “We did everything from Shakespeare to Shaw to brand-new work” and, Hissong says, were building a following, with an audience of about 50 showing up for each production.

But after Mary Jo Godziela took over as Sulzer’s director last spring, things got less comfortable. Hissong was chastised for moving the library’s grand piano out of its appointed spot into a corner, and was told the company couldn’t put out a donation jar. But these seemed like trivial incidents, and in both instances, he says, he only had to be told once. He and Powdermaker were delighted when Aspect’s 2004 auditions, held at the local Screen Actors Guild offices last month, drew 40 actors. The company was gearing up for the new season, set to start this week with a reading of Orson Welles’s classic War of the Worlds, when they got a call with news that seemed as unlikely as a martian invasion: their dates, which had been verbally confirmed, were withdrawn, and the library would no longer be available to Aspect. “The call came September 22, three weeks before our first reading.”

Hissong was shocked, and when he let Aspect’s actors and audience know that the season would have to be suspended, they protested to the library by phone and mail. A letter from Godziela in response mentions the donation jar and the piano and says the space requested by Aspect “was deemed not feasible due to the volume of library programming and requests from other outside groups.” The company’s supporters dispute this. One past audience member, William Kelley, wrote back that “as a frequent [library] patron, I know that it is not unusual to find the lecture and performance space…empty and locked….It just doesn’t make sense. You’ve abruptly terminated an ongoing relationship with an organization…that is a credit” to the library, with “no warning.”

Library officials seem perplexed by the fuss. Calls to Godziela were referred downtown to the Chicago Public Library’s acting press secretary, Ruth Lednicer, who says, “We’re surprised. We thought we’d been good to them for two years, and the minute we weren’t able to give them the same space we were accused of evicting people.” She says the auditorium is there for everyone to use: “We can’t consistently give it to one group, and we’ve had some problems with them. We’re not in the business of doing theater. There are so many resources [for that] in the city. We were happy to do it as long as we could, but they started removing lights, they started wanting to put gels on lights, and they moved a piano they weren’t supposed to move. It just became evident that what they were looking for was a real theater space, and we can’t provide that.”

Hissong says he still doesn’t get it: “Certainly the missions are compatible; they expended no resources for us to be there. Why wouldn’t a facility like Sulzer love us?”

Curtains for Mimes

Word is My Night at Jacques’: An Offenbach Folly nearly turned into a Light Opera Works folly. Classically trained mimes T. Daniel and Laurie Willets were hired by artistic director Lara Teeter to direct the musical, which re-creates a 19th-century French music hall, but halfway through rehearsals there was a parting of ways. “It just wasn’t working out in terms of staging the musical-theater portion of the show,” says LOW managing director Bridget McDonough. “Artistic differences,” says Willets. The upshot: Michael Kotze came in to direct and Teeter took over the choreography, while local actors Tempe Thomas and Joey Belmaggio stepped quietly into reworked mime roles that serve as the show’s bookends. Daniel and Willets are credited in the program with “additional staging.”

Late for the Movie? Too Bad

Ticket holders arriving close to screening time at Chicago International Film Festival events got an instant lesson in the festival’s rush policy, which loosely translates as “Rush the hell over there or they’ll resell your seat.” It’s nothing new, says festival box-office manager Marie Ullrich: “every film festival has one.” According to the policy, if you’re not in your seat or in line at least 15 minutes prior to the scheduled start time you can be shut out. “When people order through our office we always tell them, and it’s printed in our schedule,” Ullrich says. “But if they purchased through Ticketmaster they might not have been informed.” Plans for custom-printed tickets that would have carried a warning about the 15-minute rule had to be scrapped this year when a sponsor pulled out at the last minute. “In light of that, we revised our policy a little last weekend,” says Ullrich. A few seats were reserved for latecomers.

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