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Closing Time at the Halsted Theatre Centre/Ballet Chicago Toes the Line

Is the theater business going to the dogs? Michael Frazier's Halsted Theatre Centre will soon be a pet-supply store.



Closing Time at the Halsted Theatre Centre

The five-year-old Halsted Theatre Centre has fallen victim to the titans of commerce. Producing director Michael Frazier will close the two-theater complex at 2700 N. Halsted on June 13, when his present lease expires. The property is being taken over by a national chain of pet supply stores. "They were willing to pay my landlord three times the rent I was paying," notes Frazier, "and it just wasn't economically viable for me to match what the pet supply chain was offering." Frazier said the current production of Lips Together, Teeth Apart may transfer to the Organic Theater complex when the theater closes. "Business has been building, so we'll see," he says. But the Cloud 42 production of Virginia, originally slated to move from Live Bait to the Halsted Theatre Centre, definitely will reopen at the Organic Theater Greenhouse instead. The imminent transformation of the Halsted Centre into a retail operation points up one of the most difficult problems in the theater industry. Says Wellington Theater owner Doug Bragan: "Real estate is worth a lot more today as something other than a theater."

During his years at the helm, Frazier presented a cunning mix of artistically daring and popular works in his 400- and 180-seat venues. Among the most notable attractions to play the spaces were the U.S. premiere of Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love, The Heidi Chronicles, Beau Jest, and the recent cabaret act of actress Liliane Montevecchi. Other local producers and theater owners reacted with dismay to the news of the Halsted Centre's demise. "Michael Frazier is good for Chicago," says Bragan, "and I hope we can find a way to keep him in Chicago." Frazier said he has talked with producer Michael Leavitt of Leavitt/Fox Theatricals about taking over the lease at the Wellington, but is not yet close to an agreement. Under Leavitt's control the Wellington has been dark for almost all of the past year. According to Leavitt, nothing currently is slated to go in there until the fall, when Remains Theatre and Fox Theatricals hope to open a joint production of David Mamet's Oleanna. Frazier also suggested that the best way to produce commercially in Chicago may be to rent from another theater owner when he has a work ready to go, rather than constantly trying to fill a space year-round.

Ballet Chicago Toes the Line

Yet again the wheels of change are turning at Ballet Chicago. The company's board of directors met last week and chose a general manager after a search that lasted almost a year. Effective June 15 Colleen Lober will replace Randall Green, who departed last summer, and recently named general manager John Schmitz, who apparently will revert to his former position as development director. Schmitz was unavailable for comment early this week. As Lober prepares to take over at Ballet Chicago, observers are once more strongly questioning whether the company can pull itself together and survive, let alone prosper. Still plagued by a sizable debt, it is seeking to chart a stable course even while several much larger and better- established companies, such as the Joffrey Ballet and American Ballet Theatre, are struggling to deal with huge costs and shrinking funding.

Behind the scenes, signs that Ballet Chicago is in less than fit form are evident everywhere. Notes one observer close to the company: "Ballet Chicago has had a problem with artistic and managerial direction; they can't harness the talent to make the company work." Indeed, the company cannot seem to shake its history of bad managerial decisions. For example, citing concerns over funding and costs, Ballet Chicago early last month suddenly canceled a May 12-16 engagement at the Civic Theatre. The performances would have capped the company's most aggressive season of local appearances ever. Would-be ticket buyers were left with a bad taste in their mouths; one source wondered, "What kind of message does such a cancellation send out to people?"

Also due to the company's lack of funds, the dancers wound up working for only 27 weeks this season rather than the originally scheduled 33. The company is losing about a third of its 21 dancers and will reduce its corps to 18 next season. Some of the dancers are leaving of their own accord, and others, sources say, are parting ways through mutual agreement. Among the departees are two of the company's brightest stars, principal dancers Petra Adelfang and Maynard Stewart. Adelfang is retiring to study interior design, and Stewart has accepted a position as a soloist with Pacific Northwest Ballet, in Seattle, one of the healthiest and most active regional companies. He notes, "Ballet Chicago simply can't offer me the things Pacific Northwest is able to because Pacific Northwest is an older and more established company."

Not everyone watching the goings-on has necessarily closed the book on the company. "I think Ballet Chicago may make it," notes one source, "but not for another five or ten years." The big question, of course, is whether the company can hold on that long. Ballet Chicago's board of directors has been studying the structure of other companies to try to bring it more in line with the way similar troupes are managed elsewhere. Artistically the company continues to push the demanding (perhaps too much so) Balanchine repertoire favored by artistic director and Balanchine disciple Dan Duell, while it slowly adds new works by choreographer Gordon Peirce Schmidt and others. Duell and Schmidt are in the process of creating the company's first original full-length ballet, Hansel and Gretel, scheduled to debut in 1994. Though considered by some to be an odd choice of subject matter for a full-length ballet, the new piece is being touted as a key addition to the company's repertoire; it will have to be a winner if it is going to attract the large audiences Ballet Chicago desperately needs at home and on the road. Two scenes have been completed, according to one source.

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

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