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A Boost Onto the Stage/ First Movement/ Department of New Digs

Led by Prop Theatre's Jonathan Lavan and Scott Vehill, a new festival may help budding playwrights go places.

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A Boost Onto the Stage

Nowadays plays of great value often die immediately after they're produced because they don't get picked up by other theater companies," explains David Goldman. But Goldman hopes to reverse that trend as director of the National New Play Network, a consortium of 13 small theaters around the country that have joined forces to nurture and possibly share new works. The epicenter of the program is the annual new-play festival hosted by Chicago's own Prop Theatre Company; the third annual gathering, New Play 2000, runs from April 30 through early August. As part of the festival Prop will debut two plays at Steppenwolf's Garage: Charles Pike and Nile Southern's The Terry Southern Show and Lisa Dillman's Detail of a Larger Work. Ten manuscripts--seven of them by Chicago-area playwrights--will be honed during a monthlong workshop. And over the summer the festival will present plays by member theaters from Seattle, Los Angeles, Tucson, Philadelphia, Atlanta, and Washington, D.C. The network hopes not only to find and develop new voices but to lengthen the life span of quality plays. Notes Goldman, "Potentially a good new play could be seen by audiences at all 13 theaters."

The network originated in spring 1997 when Goldman, then special projects director for the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center in Waterford, Connecticut, saw Prop's staging of 1,001 Afternoons in Chicago, Paul Peditto's critically acclaimed dramatization of newspaper columns by Ben Hecht. Goldman invited Prop's artistic director, Scott Vehill, and its managing director, Jonathan Lavan, to Waterford to discuss the idea of a new-play development project in the midwest to be modeled after the O'Neill Center's own program on the east coast. Many small companies from around the nation attended Prop's inaugural festival the next spring, and from their deliberations emerged the New Play Network. According to Goldman, the network isn't for the faint of heart: "We wanted groups that were small enough to be willing to take risks."

Wake, one of the scripts being workshopped this summer, is a good example. A first play by Hillel Levin, former editor of Chicago magazine, it explores the political wheeling and dealing that followed Harold Washington's sudden death and ultimately elevated Richard M. Daley to the city's highest office. Levin says much of the play is drawn from political journalism he published in the magazine; since leaving Chicago in 1991 he's kept a low profile, but when he heard about Prop's new-play competition he decided to give it a shot. Vehill and Lavan sifted through more than 180 submissions to find Wake and nine other scripts, including Maureen Gallagher's Martin Furey's Shot and Peditto's The Deep Abyss of Pauly Vegas. For the Prop directors, the workshop is the heart of the festival. Says Lavan, "This is usually the first chance these playwrights will have had to see their work off the page."

Since its inception the network has become a freestanding entity based in New York City, and the budget for Prop's annual festival has increased from $40,000 to $145,000 (including in-kind donations). But ultimately the measure of the program's success will be the longevity of the works generated. A newcomer to the theater, Levin says he doesn't know what to expect after Wake goes through the workshop, but as Vehill points out, three scripts from last year's festival were later produced: Pike's The Return of the Hip Messiah at Second City, Donna Blue Lachman's The Trouble With Peggy: Pieces of Guggenheim at Blue Rider, and Jamie Pachino's The Return of Morality by InterAct Theatre Company of Philadelphia.

First Movement

A year after taking the hot seat as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's marketing chief, Jane Quinn is ready to unveil her first major initiative, to coincide with the CSO's spring subscription drive. Using the slogan "Be Moved," the campaign will offer a peek behind the scenes at the orchestra's musicians and administrators. One ad focuses on bassist Rob Kassinger and percussionist Ted Atkatz, who moonlight with the band Hoochie Suit. Another describes how young resident conductor Bill Eddins and veteran principal bassist Joseph Guastafeste have learned from each other. Yet another tries to burnish the image of conductor Daniel Barenboim by explaining his philosophy of music in colorful language.

The new campaign is a key test for Quinn, who was hired to help stem the erosion in ticket sales that has plagued the CSO and almost every other orchestra in the U.S. for the past decade. She's spent much of the past 12 months conducting focus groups, monitoring telemarketing efforts, and combing through minute-by-minute diaries recorded during concerts, and she's convinced that providing more information about the people who make the music is critical to widening the CSO's audience. Quinn admits that the "Be Moved" campaign doesn't address the larger problem of getting young people into Orchestra Hall. "That's something we'll have to address a little further down the line."

Department of New Digs

ComedySportz is heading for the major leagues: on May 1 the high-energy improv company will move from the 90-seat TurnAround Theatre at Belmont and Halsted to a 200-seat space at Halsted and Wellington that once housed Organic Theater. "For us it makes sense," says executive producer Dave Gaudet, "because we're sold out three of the four shows we do on the weekends." ComedySportz actually signed a February 1 lease for the space but sublet it to New York producers Darren Lee Cole and Scott Morfee for their revival of Tracy Letts's Killer Joe, which apparently couldn't be revived. ComedySportz will occupy the ground-floor performance space; a producer of industrial films now sublets the second, and Gaudet hopes to convert the top floor into a rental performance space.

The improv group isn't the only small company pulling up stakes: last week the 12-year-old Annoyance Theatre learned that its 10,000-square-foot space at 3747 N. Clark will be converted into condominiums. But according to managing director Mark Sutton, the company had already been talking to investors about acquiring a larger space--about 20,000 square feet--that will allow it to expand into various digital-technology-related projects. Sutton says the company was already preparing to close Co-ed Prison Sluts, which in its 11th year has long since run out of gas. He expects Annoyance to vacate its current home in June and hibernate for two or three months until it finds a new space: "After doing 80 shows in 12 years, I think we're entitled to lay low for a little while."

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

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