Theater League's Hunt for a Honcho
The nationwide search for a new director of the League of Chicago Theatres appears to have come down to two candidates. Sources say the top finalist for the job, which has been vacant since the end of last year, is Harvey Seifter, a theater executive who ran San Francisco's Magic Theatre for nearly five years before heading to New York for a three-month stint at the financially troubled Circle in the Square Theatre.
The other contender, Betty Madigan, may be the dark horse. A former general manager and director of the Arie Crown Theatre, Madigan spent a decade at the helm of the Grant Park Concerts Society, a not-for-profit organization that until recently provided financial and marketing support for the Chicago Park District's Grant Park Music Festival. Growing tension between Madigan and Park District superintendent Forrest Claypool reportedly led to a severing of ties, and Madigan and the GPCS board of directors are now seeking a new festival to support.
Seifter returned to Chicago earlier this week for a second interview with the league. Reached at his home in New York, he was enthusiastic about the opportunity, but also acknowledged his outsider status. "I don't feel I know the community that well."
Seifter says he studied music as a child and conducted operas and musicals while still in college. After earning a degree in history from Brandeis University, he started his own theater company in Boston but soon moved to New York City, where he became executive director of the Theatre for the New City, an off-off-Broadway company devoted to mounting new American plays. Seifter was with the group for seven years before becoming the Magic Theatre's managing director in 1988. He spent his last three years at the Magic as its top administrator in charge of both artistic and business operations.
Though the Magic Theatre is well known for producing new plays, Seifter wound up at odds with the theater's board of directors over his script selections. He apparently was drawn to dark, difficult works, and some of his choices--such as Cintra Wilson's XXX Love Act and Nicky Silver's Fat Men in Skirts--weren't always popular with audiences, according to a source at the Magic Theatre. Seifter will only say, "We finally decided to go our different ways."
Seifter returned to New York and worked for a few months as executive director of Circle in the Square, which had ceased producing plays because of financial problems. In the short time he was there, Seifter says, he "worked closely with everyone to reopen the theater, and a plan was put into place that allowed it to reopen." But by the time Circle in the Square resumed producing a couple of seasons ago, Seifter was gone. In the last two years he's done consulting work at theaters around the U.S. and abroad.
Madigan, Seifter's chief competitor for the job, is a colorful figure with longtime ties to the city's theater industry, albeit primarily in the commercial sector. An unabashed fan of "glitz and glitter," Madigan is chummy with high-powered theatrical press agent Margie Korshak and local business executive David Smerling, who has close connections to the New York-based Nederlander Organization. The Nederlanders own and operate the Shubert Theatre in the Loop as well as numerous Broadway houses. Madigan started as the marketing director of McCormick Place in 1972, and went on to manage and book the 4,200-seat Arie Crown Theatre from the late 1970s through 1987. Over the years she staunchly defended the venue against many critics who despised the huge Arie Crown for its poor acoustics and uninviting ambience. "It wasn't a question of loyalty," says Madigan. "I really believed in the theater." She managed to attract many high-grossing touring productions, but beginning in the mid-80s touring companies started to look to other downtown venues--specifically the Auditorium and the newly restored Chicago--and McCormick Place executives opted to downplay live theater at the Arie Crown.
Madigan then moved on to the Grant Park Concerts Society, where she says she learned a lot about fund-raising and running a not-for-profit organization, two skills she believes could prove useful to the league.
Neither finalist has ever worked for an organization quite like the League of Chicago Theatres, whose membership consists of both commercial and not-for-profit theaters. The candidate who gets the nod will have to quickly learn how to juggle the sometimes conflicting demands of these two groups, a goal that has not always been achieved by previous directors. But the most important task will be finding a way to pump some new energy and excitement into a theater scene that's not nearly as vital as it once was--especially in the not-for-profit sector.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Betty Madigan by Bruce Powell.