Joan Mazzonelli
Joan Mazzonelli Credit: Bonnie Halcomm

Joan Mazzonelli and Theatre Building Chicago have been synonymous for nearly a quarter century. She went to work as manager of the theater complex at 1225 W. Belmont in 1985 and was promoted to executive director 11 years ago. During that time TBC’s distinctive missions—to provide venues and support for emerging artists and small theater companies and to develop new musicals—have taken shape and flourished. (The organization’s roots go back to a theater company called the Luther Burbank Dingleberry Festival, founded in 1969; Byron Schaffer Jr. and Ruth Higgins moved it into the Belmont space in 1977.) The place has hosted more than 800 plays, more than a million audience members, and 500 theater companies—including the likes of the Lookingglass, Chicago Shakespeare, and Steppenwolf, which mounted its first Chicago show there in 1979.

In recent years, TBC’s three spaces—and the technical and marketing services that go with them—have been solidly booked. Its five-year-old children’s theater has become a success, and its musical theater workshop has not only put 20 to 25 staged or concert readings of new shows in front of audiences every year but also produces the nationally known Stages festival of new musicals in progress. Under Mazzonelli’s management, all this is done on an annual budget of $600,000-$700,000, and TBC has no debt beyond the mortgage on the building, located in a neighborhood that’s gone from seedy to sought after.

So heads were spinning last week at word that the TBC board, mostly made up of newcomers, had fired Mazzonelli and that TBC’s respected artistic director, John Sparks, would also be leaving. Friday, July 31, will be Mazzonelli’s official last day; Sparks will depart after the Stages festival, which is running August 21-23. This week, in an open letter to the board, TBC cofounder Ruth Higgins questioned the board’s methods, motives, and composition and called for the immediate resignation of all seven members.

Board president Craig Wilson frames Mazzonelli’s firing as a necessary step in a grand new plan. Confronted with a stable organization serving a noble purpose in the toughest economic environment most of us can remember, this board, according to Wilson, “is highly committed to taking Theatre Building Chicago to a whole other level”—one that will include a subscription season of at least three full productions and initiatives like touring children’s theater shows.

The board wants TBC to “leverage” its accomplishments, Wilson explains. The organization “does a lot of really good things, the musical theater workshop is quite unique, and Stages is a really nice product” (though the festival, he says, is “like Brigadoon,” appearing for a single weekend, showcasing six to eight new pieces, and then vanishing until the next year). The problem as he sees it is that TBC has “skewed toward the emerging theater companies,” becoming an informal and unsung long-term partner with them. That’s great, he says, “but that’s not developing any of our artistic programs. Theatre Building Chicago is almost the best-kept secret in town. It’s known among the artistic community, but not well-known within the city.”

During a four-month strategic planning process, Wilson says, the board came to the conclusion that getting to a “much higher” level meant letting Mazzonelli go. She’s been a “great administrator” and a “founder for the children’s theater program” and “knows the organization better than anyone else,” he allows. “But it was time to part ways.”

Mazzonelli’s replacement will be expected to “articulate a strong vision for growth and go after donors aggressively and seek corporate sponsorships” for “branding” and “copromotion,” Wilson says, because “we have really good new products that we want to bring to market, incredible stuff coming out of the workshop, and without sponsors they’re never going to get life.”

Wilson has firsthand knowledge of TBC’s workshop process: a Kellogg MBA and head of his own recruitment firm, he’s also a composer whose musical Black White and Gray is one of the few that TBC has fully produced in recent years. It got a concert reading in September 2006 and a five-week run the following spring. (Reader reviewer Mary Shen Barnidge called it a “preachy parable” one could imagine “being presented by a neighborhood youth center.”)

So TBC will become an engine for producing its own shows—like about 200 other theaters in the area—while the mission of providing a nurturing environment for developing other people’s work diminishes as a priority. Ironically, the change was facilitated by a couple of no doubt well-intended foundation grants. Two years ago—when, Mazzonelli says, the board had shrunk due to “natural” attrition—TBC got $6,400 from the Arts Work Fund for Organizational Development that enabled it to go though a board-building process with the help of a consultant. The result is the current board, all but two of whose members have served less than a year. More recently the Arts Work Fund paid for the strategic planning sessions with the same consultant, Lisa Tylke.

According to Mazzonelli, it was “a tough process, and it was quick.” In only three meetings, “all this came to a head.”

“I’m all for producing more musicals at Theatre Building Chicago,” Mazzonelli says, adding that that wouldn’t be at odds with TBC’s mission or history. But Mazzonelli says the strategy sessions “never really got down to the means of doing it.”

While the board wants to see TBC-produced musicals onstage as soon as possible, Mazzonelli argues that “you really have to plan to make that happen” and says several proposals she presented were rejected as being too cautious. She points out that there will be a loss in rental income any time a TBC musical runs in the building and that mounting a season of shows will require “at least” doubling the budget.

Though she agrees that TBC is poised for growth, she says the staff needs to grow first. “There’s too few staff people to really focus on all the projects that are there. If you want to have consistency, it’s going to take more than just throwing up a couple shows.”

Sparks agrees. “Here everybody’s wearing two hats and there just isn’t enough staff,” he says. “I felt that we needed to add development to our team rather than replace what’s here with a development person.” Sparks—who’s been splitting his time between Chicago and the Academy for New Musical Theatre in Los Angeles, which he founded—says he told the board he’d resign if they terminated Mazzonelli, “so when they terminated her they also terminated me.” Associate artistic director Allan Chambers will become artistic director. He says Stages and the workshop program will continue.

To Mazzonelli it looks like the new board doesn’t really get the mission, “the whole idea of the incubator, to provide space and assorted services to up-and-coming troupes, tailor-made from show to show. It’s big and broad, and I think it was difficult for them to understand what it takes to run that program.” A season of fully produced musicals is “a much more tangible kind of project.”

Wilson maintains that it’s less a difference in vision than “a case of what skill sets we need to leverage these properties, to go out and get sponsorships, and take it to the next level.” It can cost $100,000 or more to produce a single new musical, he admits, “but with the right product and the right focus and the right pitch, you can go a long way.”

Higgins, who now lives in Amsterdam, sent her open letter to the board on Monday, July 27. In it, she calls the plan for a subscription season of new musicals “naive and unrealistic,” particularly in this economy, and cautions that the abrupt loss of Mazzonelli and Sparks could threaten the future of the company. Higgins also suggests that Wilson has packed the board with friends and colleagues who, along with him, now “make up a simple majority.” A TBC spokesperson confirms that Wilson brought three “personal associates” to the board: his former boss David Riley, his fiancee Melissa Giovagoli, and lawyer James Groth.

Higgins implores the board to “step aside and allow those who understand how things should be done to get on with it.” And she expresses a “sincere hope that many other artists, supporters and members of the general community will reinforce this request.”