A couple of months back, theater blogger Don Hall posted a proposal on his Angry White Guy in Chicago website, calling for the creation of an Off-Loop Freedom Charter. Hall wrote that nonprofit theaters in Chicago now do business on the commercial model, in which marketing, development, financial practices, and bureaucratic red tape shape programming. Small theaters, he argued, are not served by this model because it discourages artistic risk.
His solution: a gathering of theater artists to draft a document assessing current problems and stating a vision for the future. His inspiration: the Freedom Charter created in 1955 by antiapartheid progressives in South Africa. “This Charter was more than a bunch of requests,” Hall noted. “It signified the intense need for change.”
Hall knows theater from both the artistic and administrative perspectives. When he was director of WNEP Theater, he says, “I did all the fundraising, marketing, and p.r. as well production for about 15 years. Then I realized I couldn’t manufacture any more passion for the business end."
Hall’s call for an off-Loop theater manifesto generated considerable response and he's working on setting up an informal confab in August. Any and all are invited, but he doesn’t expect much attention from well-established theaters. “Companies that are getting grants for children’s programming, marketing, and so on are not likely to want change,” he says. “We’re targeting theater artists who are not in the corporate loop. We’re asking them to spend a day creating a statement that says, 'This is what we want, what we need, what we’ve earned; this is why we do what we do.' If we can get 50 of these disenfranchised theater folks in one room we’re all going to have the same complaints about marketing, about the level of help they get from the city, and so on.
“I don’t want to start an organization,” Hall adds. “I have no interest in starting an alternative to the League of Chicago Theatres or anything else. What I want to do is create awareness in the theater community of just how many small theater companies out there are not being served by the financial paradigm of nonprofit theater.”
Hall is producing WNEP's ninth annual Skald Storytelling Festival at the Chicago Cultural Center June 16-21. Coproduced by the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs, the festival begins with free storytelling workshops led by Hall and his wife, director Jen Ellison (Mon-Tue, 6/16-17, 11:30 AM and 6:30 PM), and continues with performances (Thu-Sat, 6/19-21, 8 PM, $10-$25).