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A New Animal/High Culture Heads for the Multiplex/Jokes Worth Retelling

Now that the artists have moved out of Wicker Park, director Olga Stefan wants to get Around the Coyote back on its feet.

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A New Animal

Olga Stefan wasn't around the Coyote in 1989, when transplanted Parisian Jim Happy-Delpech launched Wicker Park's annual multimedia arts festival. Stefan, also a transplant (from Romania, at age 8), was learning her way around high school then, thinking she'd grow up to be an archaeologist. Now that she's attempting to salvage the nearly extinct Around the Coyote organization, she's heard a lot about those bad-old good-old days in the neighborhood. "This neighborhood was absolutely the pits at that time," she says. "Buildings were dilapidated, there were prostitutes all over the place, you could see drug deals going on at every street corner. It was mysterious, it was dangerous, and that was the attraction, I think. People came in and felt like they were on a different planet."

The area was already undergoing a contentious transformation, with artists leading the first wave of newcomers looking for large spaces, low rent, and fast transportation to downtown. Happy-Delpech's Around the Coyote festival proved to be a huge, double-edged success that expedited the gentrification. The artists showcased their work and the neighborhood at the same time, reportedly attracting as many as 150,000 visitors, some of them shopping for apartments. Rents soon rose to levels that squeezed the artists out. Happy-Delpech left town in '95 (he died of AIDS in '99); the next year Around the Coyote, which he had run with an all-volunteer staff, peaked and began to founder. Stefan, who started as an assistant in '98 and took over as director in '99 (volunteering most of her time), was rewarded this year with a full-time salary--but she's had to recast the organization to keep it alive. Around the Coyote is now in the business of bringing art and art education to a community that has plenty of trendy restaurants, bars, and boutiques, but relatively few artists and galleries.

"We're no longer just a festival," Stefan explains. "The idea of a festival once per year was great, and it was new and fresh in the first few years, but to work all year towards one event was not good for the organization. There is a need in this community now for an art presence, and I think we've filled that gap." Stefan says ATC's peak year of 1996, with its ambitious programming, piled up debt that wasn't paid off until she took over. It also saddled the festival with inflated attendance estimates that are impossible to match, she says. "People started saying attendance has decreased dramatically. It has decreased, but I don't know how dramatically." Estimated attendance last year was 40,000, but "the only thing we know for sure is that about 6,000 people paid a $5 donation."

Under Stefan, ATC is reaching beyond the neighborhood. It now describes itself as a "multi-media citywide arts organization." Only one of its seven board members is an artist (and that artist, Mike Cramer, is also a lawyer); the rest are businesspeople and administrators from other nonprofits. Stefan began an outreach program last year that has ATC collaborating with area schools and offering free Park District workshops. In addition to holding the regular September festival, she launched a Winter Arts Festival and a spring event ("Spring Thing") that put wire sculptures in nine locations throughout the city. ATC now curates four shows a year in its Flat Iron Building gallery, ATC Space, and rents the gallery ($500 for two weeks) the rest of the time. A new membership option ($25 annually) allows artists to exhibit one piece of work on ATC's Web site, and an artist-in-residence award brings an artist to the gallery during the fall festival. This year's winner, announced this week, is Chicago installation artist Patrick Hugh LaVergne. The wire sculptures, collected after six weeks at their scattered locations, will be sold at a silent auction tonight, June 22, at ATC Space. When Around the Coyote comes around this year, September 6 through 9, Stefan expects 200 artists to participate. She says that's about the same number as last year.

High Culture Heads for the Multiplex

The Evanston City Council has agreed to spend $56,000 to find out whether the Evanston movie theaters, which closed in February, would make a good home for Light Opera Works and Dance Center Evanston. The Central Street complex includes two theater buildings, connected underground, and seven storefronts. The opera company would occupy the larger, west theater, which was built in the 1930s with about 1,500 seats, including a balcony, and later carved into four screening rooms. The plan would be to convert it to an 800- or 1,000-seat auditorium with an orchestra pit and another 200-seat theater, says LOW general manager Bridget McDonough. Dance Center Evanston would take the 600-seat east theater (once a health club), turning it into three studios.

"The question is can it be converted, and at what cost," McDonough says, adding that $5 million or less would be feasible. LOW and Dance Center Evanston would take a 20-year lease from the building's owners, raise the funds for renovation, and be primary tenants, subleasing to other Evanston organizations between shows. Interested groups include the Evanston Symphony Orchestra, Next Theatre, Mordine and Company, Organic Theater, and Piven Theatre Workshop. LOW now does three shows a year in Northwestern University's Cahn Auditorium and one in the McGaw YMCA Child Care Center; Dance Center Evanston is housed in a second-floor space on Davis Street. Limitations at the Noyes Cultural Arts Center, where "Byrne Piven is doing Lear in a kindergarten room," are hampering the organizations that perform there, McDonough says. "This would be an anchor for Central Street on the east side of the Metra station--that's a sleepy strip right now." The study, headed by architect David Woodhouse, will take about two months; McDonough says they'll know by fall if this is the scenario they've been waiting for.

Jokes Worth Retelling

A Neo-Futurist hit last winter, Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious is getting a three-weekend revival starting June 28, thanks to Portland-based StageDirect, Inc. StageDirect will videotape the performances and edit them for future sale at an anticipated $15 to $20 a pop. Jokes author and Neo-Futurist artistic director Greg Allen says his group will get 5 percent and a "nice commission for filming." Former Chicagoans Gary Cole and Jeff Meyers have pegged Jokes as one of a half-dozen off-Broadway or fringe theater productions that will be the initial offerings of their startup company. The videos will be sold from StageDirect's Web site, to be launched this fall. "There's tremendous material produced all over the country and abroad--it's up for a few weeks or months for a limited audience and then it disappears," Cole says. "We believe it deserves a wider audience." Cole (not the actor), a New Trier East and Stanford law school graduate who once worked for the CIA, is giving up a law practice to run StageDirect and a nonprofit theater, CoHo Productions. "It's not that I didn't like the law," Cole says, "but I wasn't passionate about it." Now that he's following his destiny, besides Jokes, he'll be bringing Mass Murder, The Haint, and Poona the Fuckdog to the world.

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

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