The Chicago theater community got a pair of year-end jolts with December announcements about the demise of Oracle Productions and the near demise of the Hypocrites.
The stories aren’t the same, and don’t carry the same voltage, but there are some common elements. Both companies were on an upward trajectory, with recent artistic successes and expanded goals. Both had marched boldly into larger quarters. And both had boards that pulled the plug. It’s apparently just a coincidence that the companies’ artistic directors—both laid off—happen to be married to each other.
Oracle, which has been producing since 2005 but reinvented itself as a champion of free “public access” theater in 2010, moved last summer after losing the Lakeview space it had occupied for 11 years. Its new home, at 1802 W. Berenice, doubled audience capacity to 99 seats. Oracle has typically run on a shoestring budget, but the move must not have seemed unreasonable, with 95 percent of seats in the smaller theater regularly occupied (and on the heels of a much-lauded production of The Hairy Ape). At the same time, the company announced that Vanessa Stalling would be its new part-time artistic director. Stalling, the current Michael Maggio Directing Fellow at the Goodman Theatre and former associate artistic director at Redmoon, had been a guest director at Oracle the previous year.
A July announcement about these changes was firmly upbeat, with Stalling noting that the company’s concept of accessibility had grown to be “much more than a free ticket” and included “dismantling cultural, structural, and physical barriers.” The mission? Nothing less than “to provide everyone everywhere access to the arts.”
But the two leaders who’d taken the company in this idealistic direction since 2010 were at a turning point. Oracle, with a 2015 operating budget of around $123,000, would be losing the services of executive director Brad Jayhan-Little and executive producer Ben Fuchsen.
The closing announcement, which came less than five months after the expansion notice, said both Jayhan-Little and Fuchsen encountered “personal changes” during the summer “which made them realize it is time for each of them to move on to other endeavors.” (In an e-mail, Fuchsen said “these changes were related to our respective day jobs, family events, and thinking about our respective futures.”)
In light of that, according to the announcement, “the Board of Directors decided to dissolve Oracle and grant its assets to other important nonprofit institutions dedicated to making art accessible to all.” (They’re taking applications for funds here.)
Fuchsen doesn’t believe the free-ticket model is unworkable, however: “Public Access theatre has been sustainable since we implemented it,” he wrote. “There was great potential in Oracle, but the company wasn’t ready to continue operations without me and Brad—so they made the decision to dissolve regardless of this potential.”
Meanwhile, the Hypocrites, founded two decades ago by Sean Graney, had broken through to another level—taking its David Cromer-directed Our Town to New York and elsewhere, touring Graney’s carnival-like adaptations of Gilbert and Sullivan, and producing his groundbreaking All Our Tragic (a 12-hour take on 32 Greek tragedies). In 2014 they left their cozy 99-seat theater in the basement of the Chopin Theatre and became the primary resident in a large, new, main-floor space at the Den Theatre, doubling the Hypocrites’ audience capacity to 200 seats. In 2015, they became an Equity company.
So their mid-December announcement—that, “due to an unforeseen and dramatic drop in box office sales and fundraising goals,” they would cancel the last two shows of this 20th anniversary season, lay off their six-person staff, and cease producing after a truncated run of Wit (now opening in January and closing February 19), while Graney figures out a new mission and model—was a shocker.
Even to him, Graney said, in a phone interview last week: “It breaks my heart that it’s come to this, but we hit a huge shortfall in the ticket sales and donations, and couldn’t make ends meet. In order to give the company a chance, we just sort of cancelled the rest of our season and regrouped, and are going to examine our business model.”
“We’ve been doing a five-show season, but we definitely know that season programming isn’t in our near future at all,” Graney said. “We’ll be working on individual projects. Rather than having these slots that we are looking to fill, we want to just make slots available when we have something really urgent to say.”
Graney, who took a three-year break from the Hypocrites between 2011 and 2014, and spent part of it as a fellow at Harvard University’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, said the company got ahead of itself while he was away. “The administration made this really ambitious, exciting move . . . [but] the reality of the situation is we’re not a 200-seat company,” he said. “We never were. We moved from a 99-seat house, and for the last two years, since I came back, we’ve been trying to be a 200-seat company, or act like a 200-seat company. Unfortunately, it just didn’t work.”
Why not? “We just sort of jumped over to the Den, without really increasing infrastructure” and support, Graney said, adding that production costs in the new space increased “dramatically,” while “a good portion of our audience didn’t follow us the two-and-a-half blocks down the street.”
“There were a lot of things that we’ve been fighting for two and half years, and it came to a head this fall, as ticket sales tanked for us. The board smartly looked at the books and was like, ‘we have to stop. We can’t continue. We have an unsustainable model, and if we go further we’re going to get into debt that we’ll never be able to get out of.'”
According to the Hypocrites, their operating budget this season is about $750,000. And their debt—basically accounts payable—will be manageable.
In the future, however, Graney said, “We’re going to work with a pay-to-play model. We won’t get into a project until we raise the money for it. I’m very excited about that.” Otherwise, he added, “It’s the never-ending cycle of a nonprofit: you put shows in your season, and then you have to have these huge administrative costs to support those shows, and then you have to do shows just to support the administrative costs. I’m personally excited to get out of that cycle for a little bit and see what it’s like to have something that we really want to say, have a show that we really want to put up for audiences.”
Graney is still soliciting donations for the Hypocrites, but for now, he says, “We do have to lay off our entire staff, myself included. I’m going to go down to being a volunteer. Most of our board is going to stick around, we’ll retain our 501c3, and we’re going to figure out how to rebuild. But after the end of January, none of us are going to be drawing a salary.”