Bargain Basement Theater/ The Kindness of Strangers | Culture Club | Chicago Reader

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Bargain Basement Theater/ The Kindness of Strangers

Voltaire manager James Rohrbacher hopes the thriving theater in the cellar won't fall prey to the upstairs restaurant's misfortunes.


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Bargain Basement Theater

The busiest theater in Chicago isn't a theater in the traditional sense--it's the brick-walled basement of a Wrigleyville restaurant. The cramped confines of the underground performance space at Voltaire, 3231 N. Clark, have hosted hundreds of different productions since November 1989, when owner Mark Epstein opened the place as an offshoot of a Bucktown coffeehouse. But as it enters its eighth year, Voltaire--"Cafe" was dropped from its name at the beginning of this year--faces an uncertain future.

"We have an identity crisis," acknowledges manager James Rohrbacher. "Some people think we're just a coffeehouse. Others think we're a restaurant and don't even realize we have a theater in the basement....We've been struggling for quite a few years. Our mission this year is just basically to stay open."

Like Cabaret Voltaire, the World War I-era Zurich nightclub that inspired its name, Chicago's Voltaire has sought to maintain an eclectic, somewhat ambiguous profile as a restaurant cum art gallery cum avant-garde cabaret. Its campy monthly calendar has boasted a wide variety of shows: from full-scale (albeit low-budget) plays to improv troupes to monologuists, poets, musicians, and even tap dancers. Offering perhaps the best of all possible deals to optimistic theater companies, Voltaire charges artists a minimal $60 per production and splits each night's box-office receipts on a sliding scale that tilts generously in the artists' favor. As a result, the cellar has been a magnet for novices and veterans alike looking for a way to experiment with minimal risk.

"You can try something out without losing a fortune," says actor-director Frank Farrell, whose well-received staging of Caryl Churchill's double bill Ice Cream and Hot Fudge has been extended through February 15. "Obviously the facilities are less than you might get at a place like the Theatre Building. But it does have walk-in business, it has an established track record, and the bohemian atmosphere helps cover the rough edges. I see Voltaire as a jumping-off point. If something's worthwhile, maybe it can be moved."

But for every success Voltaire has nurtured--including hit shows like Under Milk Wood, Schoolhouse Rock Live!, and the original Lepers--there have been at least a half dozen dogs. Rohrbacher consciously chooses not to vet shows on the basis of quality: "That's not my place." Instead, his booking strategy hinges on quantity and quick turnover, offering two or three productions a night in sometimes scattershot fashion. Perhaps as a result of the artistic unreliability, the theater has had a tough time developing a large following of its own; attendance rises and falls from show to show.

If the restaurant were more successful, the theater's inconsistent finances wouldn't be a concern. But the dining operation "is struggling really badly," Rohrbacher admits. "We tried being a coffeehouse. Then we went for fine dining and lost the clientele that sat for five hours with coffee and a bagel. Now we've lost the fine dining crowd. We tried selling the vegetarian thing. It didn't fly. I'm sorry, this is still the midwest. People eat meat."

Last March, Rohrbacher took over the theater and made it financially independent from the restaurant by subletting the basement from Epstein. "The theater was profitable, but I was not happy with how people who came to the shows were being treated in the restaurant." Then, in November, he offered to manage the restaurant, working for free in hopes that new success upstairs would benefit attendance downstairs. He simplified the menu to basic fare--chili, salads, veggie burgers, fat-free desserts, and wine and beer. "We're still vegetarian. We just don't brag about it. Our food is quick, healthy, and you can take it down into the theater. Our goal is to try to get everyone who comes to a show to buy something--a muffin, a banana, whatever." He also ended the restaurant's daytime service while extending its late-night hours. "I've put bottom-line business principles into place. Everything is running soundly and efficiently. But I can't make it grow." Now Rohrbacher is actively seeking someone "to come in and run a successful restaurant while I run the theater. Frankly, I don't have enough energy to run the whole thing."

Even if Rohrbacher finds someone to revitalize the food operation, he worries about dwindling audiences for the mushrooming young theater scene his bargain-basement theater helped to foster. A few years ago, Voltaire could benefit from long-running sellouts like Under Milk Wood. But "I don't think that's gonna happen again," Rohrbacher says. "I think the theater community is saturated--one hit show isn't going to draw in hundreds of people like it might have a few years ago. There's so much going on."

The Kindness of Strangers

Last week's announcement that John Malkovich had canceled his plans to direct Steppenwolf Theatre's summer show means that the upcoming revival of A Streetcar Named Desire, starring Gary Sinise under Terry Kinney's direction, is the only main-stage offering this season spearheaded by any of the ensemble's movie-star members. So it's appropriate that one performance of Streetcar will be attended by Gary's Web International, Sinise's Internet fan club ( The group, which started last April, will gather in Chicago May 17 for the play and a breakfast, at which Sinise will speak, sign autographs, and pose for photos.

Club cofounder Lynn Loschin, a third-year law student in California, says she first became a fan when she rented a video of the 1992 movie Of Mice and Men, which Sinise directed and starred in with Malkovich. "I was blown away. This guy is an enormous talent. I don't remember if I saw Forrest Gump before that or after." When she began surfing the Internet in search of fellow fans, "I was really surprised that no one had done a Web page. Many, many actors have a Web page--people you've never heard of."

The group's May confab will be its first nonvirtual get-together. Tickets to the breakfast, which cost $50, will benefit Steppenwolf, as will a silent auction of Sinise-autographed items. The real attraction, though, is seeing Sinise in the flesh, a first for most of his film fans. "People are coming from all over the country--and even from Switzerland and Great Britain, where a lot of them have never seen Gary speak or tell a story," Loschin says. "We here in the States are kind of spoiled with all the media. Someone in Switzerland doesn't get to see that kind of thing. They don't have Letterman."


Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): James Rohrbacher photo by Jim Alexander Newberry.

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