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Redmoon Rising/Dance Chicago Powers Up

Redmoon Theater's bright future means hard decisions for artistic directors Blair Thomas and Jim Lasko.



Redmoon Rising

Last winter Redmoon Theater was contemplating a rosy future. Thanks to its acclaimed staging of Frankenstein at the Steppenwolf Studio, it was enjoying a much higher profile on the local theater scene. Now almost a year later Redmoon is still trying to figure out how to make the difficult transition from a small neighborhood theater to a much bigger enterprise.

The company has long been known for its elaborate puppet pageants and community outreach programs, often crafting entire shows with the input of neighborhood groups and interested young people. Yet in the last three years its annual operating budget has ballooned from a mere $40,000 to $270,000. Nine months ago Redmoon hired its first managing director, Yolanda Cursach, but now the theater's apparently decided to head back to the drawing board. Cursach says she's leaving Redmoon because her position was "redefined." Also on the way out is Dwight Eastman, the long-standing president of the company's board of directors and a key figure in the theater's evolution. To an outsider, this may look like a major shake-up, though Redmoon artistic directors Blair Thomas and Jim Lasko maintain these developments are expected. "There will always be changes within a growing not-for-profit, so I'm not surprised to see two people committed to the organization leaving," says Lasko.

Lasko admits that the company initially didn't know what to expect from a managing director, and it's planning to eliminate the position and bring in a replacement with the title of general manager. In Cursach's nine months on the job, she was increasingly frustrated by the constant demands of managing the theater's finances, and she found little time to attend to the marketing and development initiatives that attracted her to Redmoon in the first place. While Cursach complains that she couldn't concentrate on the "larger picture," Lasko says it quickly became apparent that the theater didn't need a manager looking at the larger picture as much as it needed "a nuts-and-bolts person who could run a business with real efficiency." Cursach's situation wasn't helped by Redmoon's $21,000 deficit for the fiscal year that ends this month. Most of that shortfall resulted from cost overruns in producing Frankenstein. The company has been trying to sell puppets and masks from past productions to help pay off its debts. An exhibit at River North's Ann Nathan Gallery closed this week, and another sale will be held during the company's annual Winter Pageant, which takes place this weekend at the Logan Square Auditorium.

Eastman says his decision to step down as president of Redmoon's six-person board is tied to the organization's growing pains. "Redmoon is going through enormous changes," says Eastman, who's been on the company's board for seven years. Aside from rethinking its administrative needs, Redmoon is undergoing a radical shift in the composition of its board. In the past, says Eastman, the board consisted of a small, neighborhood-focused group. But as the company has grown and its work has moved on to larger stages, the theater has begun to look for a different type of board member with a higher profile and better contacts. "Those are the kind of skills I don't have, so I want to make space for someone who can provide them," Eastman explains. Among the people who have joined the board--or soon will--are Steppenwolf managing director Michael Gennaro and former Remains Theatre artistic director Neel Keller. But in Eastman's opinion Redmoon will still have to search for the right person to replace him as board president. "I don't think we have a new president at the table yet." Redmoon also has a satellite advisory committee that boasts some familiar names, including TV newsman Bill Kurtis, theater producer Joyce Sloane, and Second City founder Bernie Sahlins and his wife Jane Nicholl Sahlins. The new board members and the satellite committee will have a larger role in deciding what direction Redmoon will take. "We are at a turning point in deciding whether we remain a community-focused group or a brighter light on the Steppenwolf stage," says Eastman. Still, Lasko says Redmoon is in an enviable position--"we can't meet the demand for our work"--but he also admits that everyone involved is grappling with the same tough question: "How do you turn a fledgling organization into an institution?"

Dance Chicago Powers Up

Dance Chicago '96, the fall showcase of local dance companies, is catching on at the Athenaeum Theatre. The second annual festival posted a substantial increase in paid attendance, which went up 40 percent to 13,000 from 9,400 last year. The large boost came with only one additional week of performances--seven this year versus six in 1995. Festival codirector Fred Solari says Dance Chicago will break even or make a small profit this year on a budget of approximately $250,000. Foundations provided $100,000, and the rest came from ticket sales. After organizing two successful dance festivals, Solari says he's learned a few things. One is that audiences like variety; almost all of the performances featured at least 3 and sometimes as many as 8 participants. Solari also encouraged performers to present their most accessible and exciting work. "Audiences want a lot of energy coming at them over the footlights," he says. And ticket prices must be reasonable. The top ticket for most Dance Chicago performances was $15. Solari has also discovered that dance has an untapped audience: families. Performances aimed specifically at family audiences were among the best attended. Yet if Dance Chicago is to remain an annual event, Solari says, foundations will have to continue to show their support. "We couldn't keep ticket prices at $15 without that $100,000 cushion of grants."

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

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