Zipped Lips at Centre East

Tension is building around the Centre East’s controversial plans for a new performing arts center, a $13.6 million facility that will serve both the Centre East and Wisdom Bridge Theatre. According to a story in the July 15 Skokie Review, the board of directors of Centre East (a not-for-profit presenter of a variety of live entertainment) has slapped a gag order on Dorothy Litwin, the organization’s executive director and founder, to prevent her from publicly discussing plans for the new project.

The order reportedly came after Litwin, who said she was speaking as a private citizen, expressed concern about the project’s viability at a July 6 village trustee meeting. Litwin said Centre East could no longer operate as it currently does if the new building goes up according to the latest plans. Centre East board chairman John O’Connell denies that the board put any sort of gag order on Litwin. “But I believe in the old saying that if you can’t say something nice, you shouldn’t say anything at all,” he says. Litwin–whether or not she was following orders–refused to comment.

The Centre East board and Skokie officials apparently are in no mood to entertain changes in the project at what they consider a late stage of the game. “It’s a little late in the process to start raising doubts,” says Harold Hansen, the project coordinator brought in by the village. The current plan calls for the new center to house an 800-seat theater, a multipurpose space that could function as meeting room or banquet hall, and parking for around 100 cars. During evening hours visitors would have access to more than 700 additional parking spots in an adjacent high-rise garage. Originally scheduled to open in 1995, the performing arts center now won’t open until at least early 1996, according to Hansen. Architects are working on a building design that should be ready in a couple of months.

When Litwin first started pushing for a new facility for Centre East in the mid-1980s, she envisioned a plush theater that would seat around 2,000 and attract large-scale musicals, dance performances, and concerts. But by the time the funding was obtained (from both the state and the village) and the feasibility studies were completed, it was apparent that Litwin’s dream edifice could not be built with the available money. Rather than abandon the idea, the organizers went back to the drawing board and came up with a proposal for a significantly smaller space. Wisdom Bridge, looking to escape its deteriorating neighborhood in Rogers Park, came aboard as a second tenant. Suddenly Centre East was not only looking at a facility about 40 percent the size Litwin had originally sought, but also having to maneuver around the Wisdom Bridge season.

Though Litwin somewhat reluctantly accepted the radical shift in plans at first (she was out of town when the latest proposal was first announced), she has evidently begun to seriously question it. Her doubts notwithstanding, Skokie leaders appear determined to try to make it work. “Our goal is to continue the variety of programming that presently exists at Centre East,” notes Hansen, “but that may mean we have to look at new ways to accomplish that goal.”

Steppenwolf for the Masses

In October, two and a half years after opening its new theater complex on Halsted, Steppenwolf Theatre will finally unveil a black-box studio space on the building’s second floor that will seat between 100 and 300 people, depending on the production. In keeping with its increasingly high profile, Steppenwolf has opted to open the space with the world premiere Picasso at the Lapin Agile, a first play by screen star and comedian Steve Martin. But what may prove to be the new space’s most attractive feature is Steppenwolf’s deal with Actors’ Equity that will allow small non-Equity companies to use the studio. The Lookingglass Theatre will be the first company to do so, some time in 1994. Ticket prices in the studio will not exceed $20 for the foreseeable future, and some will be available the day of the performance at $10. Managing director Stephen Eich says the long delay in opening the studio was due not so much to costs involved as it was to making sure the company had its new main-stage operation under control. “We wanted to be certain we understood what kind of drain the main stage was going to be on our finances,” he explains. Steppenwolf’s total operating budget for the upcoming 1993-’94 season will be around $4 million. The Sara Lee Foundation is underwriting the Steppenwolf studio’s first season with a $200,000 grant.

Fox Theatricals Mines for Box-Office Gold

Are David Mamet and Michael Maggio box-office draws? Producer Michael Leavitt hopes so, because he and production company Fox Theatricals would like to turn a profit on their $250,000 production of Oleanna, Mamet’s two-character off-Broadway hit last season about sexual harassment. Leavitt and Fox’s mounting of this controversial yet not widely known play, directed by Maggio, begins previews September 3 at the Wellington Theater with a hefty top ticket price of $36.50.

When talk of a Chicago production of Oleanna first started earlier this year, it was to be a coproduction involving Leavitt, Fox Theatricals, and Remains Theatre starring Remains ensemble member William Petersen, who helped generate such a strong box-office draw for American Buffalo and Once In Doubt. But when Petersen’s movie schedule proved an obstacle to the planned fall opening, he and Remains (including ensemble member D.W. Moffett, who was slated to direct) abandoned the project. Leavitt and Fox moved ahead, and last month they signed the Goodman-based Maggio to direct the show. (More recently they cast Daniel Mooney and Kara Zediker.)

For the moment Fox Theatricals is trying to sell the play on the strength of the author and the director, but Leavitt says the marketing push soon will expand to include more about the show’s content and the critical reaction to it in the Big Apple. The last time Leavitt and Fox imported a “serious” play–John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation–it lost $400,000: the show played to near-capacity houses for the brief time Marlo Thomas starred in it, but when she left and the producers could find no big-name star to replace her, the bottom dropped out of the box office. Leavitt is optimistic about Oleanna’s chances of finding an audience. “I think it’s an interesting play that will spark considerable debate among those who see it.”

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