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Still a beach bum, after all these years

Theater on the Lake reinvents itself, minus the makeover

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The last time I wrote about Theater on the Lake, back in 2006, the place was alarmingly decrepit, but big things were about to happen. A new artistic director with lots of energy and ideas about how to engage audiences had just been hired, and plans had been drawn up for a $6 million makeover of the charming old open-air building on the beach at Fullerton.

Fast forward to 2012. There's a new managing director in place—dramaturge and Chicago-area native Samantha Chavis—and two new artistic curators, all bristling with energy and ideas about how to engage audiences. And big things are happening:

  • At the non-Equity Jeff Awards at Park West on Monday, TOTL, which remounts an array of the year's best off-Loop theater every summer, was recognized with a special award for its "long contribution to the vitality of the city's theatre scene."
  • On June 13 TOTL will open its 60th anniversary season, running weekly through August 5 with new shows selected by co-curators Meghan Beals McCarthy of Chicago Dramatists and Michael Patrick Thornton of the Gift Theatre Company.
  • The offerings include an evening of long-form improv by local legends TJ & Dave; Hit the Wall, the Inconvenience company's hot-ticket rock-infused take on Stonewall; and the Building Stage's family-friendly adaptation of Moby-Dick —all at the bargain single-ticket price of $17.50 ($110 for the eight-show season).
  • The League of Chicago Theatres has made TOTL the sole venue for its summer schedule of Theater Thursdays.
  • And in an experiment intended to ensure fresh programming, the managing director will be appointing two new artistic curators from the local theater community every year.

But the old building is as decrepit as ever.

Except for new chairs in the 288-seat theater, the only renovation so far is a rebuilt redbrick wall bordering the building's most remarkable asset, a terrace with a world-class view of the beach, lake, and skyline. That was done in 2010, with federal money snagged by then congressman Rahm Emanuel, at a price nearly as stunning as the view: $690,000.

The rest of the $6 million renovation—dreamed up by Morris Architects Planners at a cost of $153,000—never happened. And the final curtain seems to have fallen on any impetus for it.

Theater on the Lake is owned by the Chicago Park District, but the renovation was to be funded privately. Former artistic director (and Steppenwolf staffer) Hallie Gordon says the theater, which operates on an annual budget of about $200,000, had loyal subscribers, but no one who seemed to know how to access that kind of money. A group she started, Friends of Theater on the Lake, raised "a few hundred dollars" only to peter out.

Then too, professional theater isn't the highest priority for a park district with a primary focus on sports and recreation, and numerous other facilities in needier neighborhoods than Lincoln Park.

A donation fund set up for TOTL at the Parkways Foundation, now standing at $104,000, will continue to accept contributions through the summer. After that, Parkways—which received the bulk of its funding from an arrangement dependent on Lollapalooza's now revoked tax-free operation—is folding. Future donations for TOTL will go through some as-yet-unnamed nonprofit entity.

So forget air-conditioning and state-of-the-art sound: the summer heat and the hum of Lake Shore Drive traffic a whisker away are here to stay.

And Chavis is OK with that.

The essence of TOTL, she says, is audiences in shorts and flip-flops enjoying a beer and the beach while catching innovative theater. The outdoor ambience is as much a part of the experience as it is at Wrigley Field or Millennium Park.

Chavis is planning preshow programming in the south "pavilion," where food vendor the Fullerton Beach Grill will offer barbecue and hot dogs on the lawn. The hope is that this, plus talk-backs, social media marketing, and events like a singles mingle, will draw new audiences. In the face of a drastic decline in season subscribers—from 700 in 2006 to about 150 now—she's also rolling out a three-show flex pass for $35.

The idea, clearly, is to skew younger. But the theater's online home is a mere page buried on the Park District's website. And for too long now, "beachy" and "rustic" have been euphemisms for neglect. Forget the $6 million makeover—we're talking about basic upkeep that'll make the most of what makes this place unique.

Longtime fans say the Park District needs to give TOTL some TLC. Last week, in the throes of gearing up for the season, it still looked seedy, but the smell of fresh paint was in the air.

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