Commercial theater has never been the lifeblood of Chicago the way it is in New York with Broadway, but that doesn’t mean losing for-profit producers because of you-know-what doesn’t leave a mark. Mercury Theater, the nifty 300-seat (plus intimate cabaret space) venue on the Southport corridor that started out as a nickelodeon in 1920, was originally renovated as a rental house for live theater by Michael Cullen in 1994, who also ran Cullen’s Bar and Grill next door. Walter Stearns took over the space and ran Mercury as a for-profit production company (and one that used Actors Equity contracts—always welcome in this town) since 2011. When it shuttered in June, it marked one of the biggest losses this year.
Midsize venues that provide a bridge between storefronts and 800-1,000-seat houses are rare. Those that specialize in musical theater, as Mercury did, are even harder to find—and even more essential for the local performing arts ecosystem. I hope the building stays a theater as it enters its next 100 years, but I’m not super hopeful. Meanwhile, the incentive for others to jump into the commercial producing pool (as opposed to presenting touring shows, like Broadway in Chicago) seems pretty small even after reopening.
But while losing venues is a blow, the arts are ultimately about the people who make the work, not the buildings they do it in. I’m generally cynical when it comes to cheesy bromides about silver linings and gallons of lemonade squeezed from the Lemons of Suck, but seeing artists taking care of other artists and of their communities this past year in myriad ways remains awe-inspiring to me. Honestly, I think the best thing we can all do is help them get the tools and cash they need to rebuild, and then put on our hard hats and get out of the way while they do it.