Easing the Inevitable

There was plenty of food at the League of Chicago Theatres “Theatre Dish” meeting on the city’s Public Place of Amusement license last week, but not much dish. The league had expected to roll out its proposal for a new, small-venue version of the despised PPA by then, but the darn thing hasn’t jelled yet, and league president Marj Halperin wasn’t able to serve up the specifics. Halperin now says she’ll be happy if the proposal, which would create a permit tentatively titled the Performing Arts Venue license, makes it to the City Council before she leaves her post on June 30. “It’s not about how long it takes,” Halperin says. “It’s about how good it is when it’s done.” It better be good, because she also warned that the era of “sliding under the radar” is over: “We want a license you can get, and you’ll have to get it.”

The PPA is required when an admission fee is charged for any kind of performance or amusement; an application for the license–itself quite a chore–triggers inspections by a variety of city departments. Since the E2 nightclub incident the city has cracked down on venues operating without a license. A year and a half ago five off-Loop theaters were shut down in one night.

With a new license, Halperin says, fees might be a little lower (currently they start at $385 and can be waived for nonprofits). Zoning interpretations are still under discussion, but anyone hoping for a break on the building code can forget it. “The mission in this round was not to change the code requirements,” she says. “This was prompted by the licensing process, which theaters have found so difficult to complete.” Since the league started working on it in December 2003, she says, the PPA application form–once 20-some pages–has shrunk, and she expects the PAV form to be a mere six-to-nine pages. The league also passed out a draft version of its new checklist for operating a theater, which translates city regulations into digestible English.

Halperin shared the stage with a panel of remarkably benign-looking city officials–intelligent, reasonable people who seemed to want nothing more than to make the lives of theater folk easier. Julie Burros of the Department of Cultural Affairs offered to walk applicants through the zoning requirements; building commissioner Stan Kaderbek said his staff can do a “preinspection” of a venue before a company even signs a lease; and Scott Bruner said come October he’ll be heading up a new department of business affairs and licensing, which will centralize all the information theater companies are likely to need (no more interdepartmental runarounds) and assign caseworkers to make sure nobody’s bruised in the process.

a Venues with fewer than 100 seats and free admission are exempt from the PPA requirement, but they’re still on shaky ground. The music and performing arts venue 3030, at 3030 W. Cortland, was recently ticketed for not having a PPA, apparently because of its policy of accepting donations. Attorney Edward Stein went to court for them May 11, ready to argue that a donation is not a ticket sale, but when the ticketing officer failed to show up, the city dropped the case without further explanation. Boxer Rebellion Theater, which operated for seven years without a PPA in the former Factory Theater space at 1257 W. Loyola, says its landlord, Dorian Bezanis, has decided it’s not financially viable to have a theater there. Bezanis says he’s spent $15,000 on improvements in the last 18 months and is still not up to code because “the size of the theater precludes complying with the bathroom requirements.” Boxer Rebellion is now homeless. Managing director Kyle Hillman says they’re looking for a new space, but will disband rather than go itinerant.

“Less paperwork is great, but it doesn’t make it any easier to go into a small storefront,” he says. “I walk into a bar or resale shop and see things we’d get nailed for. A drinking fountain isn’t a safety issue. Two handicapped bathrooms in most storefront theaters is impossible.”

R&D for Words and Music

Stuart Oken, the Chicago boy who brought The Lion King and Aida to Broadway, is back in town–on a mission to save musical theater from an overdose of spectacle. Last week Northwestern University announced its plan to establish a music-theater program that aims to become a nationally recognized incubator for new work, with students working with top-tier professionals. The American Music Theatre Project, with Oken, former cohead of Disney Theatrical Productions, as its artistic director, will produce five new plays at the university in the next three years. The four that have been announced so far are Was, the “true story” of Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, opening this fall; The Boys Are Coming Home; States of Independence; and The Pearl.

NU president Henry Bienen, talking to the Sun-Times, compared the project to “the way research and development on pharmaceuticals is often carried out on college campuses.” (Could he mean the way drug companies set the research agenda and profit from it?) Oken, managing director of the Organic Theater Company in the 70s and founder of the Apollo Theater, will be dividing his time between NU and a commercial project he’s cooking up with producer Michael Leavitt that will take new musicals on the road. Oken says the two projects are unrelated.

NU music-theater head Dominic Missimi says the idea for the new program was sparked two years ago when Oken, who’d “always wanted to start an initiative for creating new works,” came to Northwestern to see a production of A Long Gay Book by Frank Galati and composer Stephen Flaherty. “Stuart had been a longtime friend of Frank and Bob Falls,” Missimi says, and “he was so thrilled with the new work, he thought, ‘This is a perfect place for my idea.’ The next thing I know, Frank hooked me and Stuart up and we schemed our plan.” Missimi says they got the university’s preliminary OK a year ago and the official nod, with the go-ahead for fund-raising, last fall. Since then they’ve rounded up close to $750,000, about half of that in seed money from NU. The rest of the three-year, $2 million budget will come from in-kind services, he says, “based on the fact that I’m not really being paid, and we have an entire staff here at Northwestern that builds our scenery and provides time and labor for these productions.”

Garry Marshall, an NU alum, “gave a nice piece of change to get us going,” Missimi says. “And we’ve been to New York to find music-theater patrons who like to invest in young writers. As it happens, Joe Thalken [the composer of Was] is one of those the Shen Family Foundation loves. [Shen] said, ‘I’ll help support a production of Joe’s.’ He also loves Ricky Ian Gordon [the composer of States of Independence]. So as it turns out, we’re doing a production of each of those guys. There’s also [the Gilman &] Gonzalez-Falla Foundation. They’re big supporters of Lou Rosen, who’s writing The Pearl for us.”

Asked if the donors are determining what will be produced, Missimi says, “No. Stuart brought a lot of these projects to us, because we’re new. We’re hoping after this three-year pilot period we can develop a center which will be more extensive, where we’ll have a big summer festival of new musicals. We may even have a small professional company, we’ll have more research, and we’ll have dramaturges and readers. [Then] we’ll be able to take solicitations. But right now we’re looking at who are our connections and our friends.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Paul L. Merideth, Jim Ziv.