Sharon Evans, cofounder and artistic director of Live Bait Theater, was talking to friends after a performance of her play The Tall Ships when the fire department made a surprise visit.
"A fireman in full uniform showed up at 10:30 at night," says Evans. "I just happened to be in the lobby at the time. I said to him, 'What are you doing here at 10:30?' He said, 'I tried to call and there was no answer.' I said, 'We have a machine. Why don't you come back during office hours.' And he said, 'Well, I'm here now, and I can come anytime I want. I need to do an inspection.' I'm really paranoid, and I thought it was very fishy, like a bribe thing. I said, 'I'm really uncomfortable taking you around at this hour. I'm the artistic director, you know--the other people aren't even around. We have an office, our hours are posted. I don't understand why you are here now.' And he looked at me and said, 'Do you want to do this the hard way or the easy way?'"
It used to be easy to start a small theater in Chicago. You found an empty storefront, hammered together a makeshift stage, brought in some chairs, and voila--you had a theater. But now that Mayor Daley has so much riding on his Loop theater district, the city seems more particular about what constitutes a proper space.
Bar, a popular fringe-theater space near Clark and Belmont, was closed this summer, and Stage Left Theatre at Clark and Sheffield was shut down in September. Some small-theater owners think City Hall is waging a war of attrition against Chicago's off-Loop companies.
The city denies this, insisting that building inspections are almost entirely complaint driven. Yet in the past two years, established small theaters have received an alarming number of surprise inspections, and many of them--Stage Left, Factory Theater, Annoyance Theatre, Neo-Futurarium, Shattered Globe Theatre--must either pay for expensive renovations or go out of business. None of these spaces is a firetrap, but each failed to comply with the building code in some respect: Stage Left didn't have an emergency lighting system, Shattered Globe needed a second in-house bathroom, and Annoyance's front and rear fire doors weren't large enough.
Inspections have also revealed that many small theaters lack a place of public amusement license, and to qualify for one they have to bring their spaces up to code. Two years ago Stage Left was hit with a surprise inspection, and artistic director Drew Martin discovered that some city officials were as unfamiliar with the license as he was. "I walked into City Hall, into the electrical department, to discuss the code violations, and one of the electrical plan review guys had no idea what I was talking about when I asked about the PPA. It's a pretty obscure thing. But it's also the power of life or death for your company."
A PPA costs only $350, and the fee is waived for nonprofit theaters, but before one is granted a theater must satisfy a slew of inspectors, each responsible for a different facet of the building: physical construction, heating, ventilation, electrical equipment, and fire safety. "There is no rule book," says Martin. "There is no 20-page manual on how to get your PPA license. It's a pretty complicated issue and it involves so many city departments. It's been a nightmare process. When you've solved one problem, you've brought something up that creates new problems."
The closing has reportedly cost Stage Left $4,000 in ticket sales, exacerbating its financial problems. "It's so hard to get any kind of capital funding," says Martin. "Every grant we receive cannot be used for capital improvement. Where can we accumulate a quick $8,000 to be able to update this equipment?" Stage Left has now spent $5,000 installing its emergency lighting system, and Martin hopes to reopen the 49-seat theater on November 1, but the paper chase is taking more time than the construction.
Not every company has survived the process. Faced with $30,000 to $40,000 worth of renovation on the former Footsteps Theater near Clark and Foster, Factory may fold or at least suspend production for a while. According to Michelle Suffredin, president of the company's board, Factory knew the theater was in violation of several codes when it took possession, but it didn't realize that Footsteps had never gotten a PPA. Suddenly Factory was faced with the prospect of updating all elements of the space simultaneously. "Once you start the process of fixing up your space," observes Suffredin, "they keep coming back and inspecting your space and finding things wrong."
Like Stage Left, Shattered Globe, near Halsted and Diversey, has been forced to shut its doors. After the company applied for a permit to erect a sign, the city's revenue department discovered that Shattered Globe didn't have its PPA. "Prior to the sign we knew we needed to get the license," admits artistic director Brian Pudil. "We were trying to get up to compliance, trying to buy a little time." Then the city declared that the space needed two handicapped-accessible bathrooms. The cost of bringing the small theater up to code finally drove Shattered Globe out of the space and into Victory Gardens Theater. "I understand that you can't be flexible with fire exits, where people's lives are in danger," says Pudil. "But when you have 50 seats in a place, and people have to go next door to Gaslight [Corner, a neighboring tavern] for the restroom, that's considered an outhouse."
Apparently the city's vigilance extends past theater owners to itinerant companies. Low Sodium Entertainment was renting Stage Left for its late-night show Gorilla Theater the night the revenue department lowered the boom on the theater. "My door guy saw this guy walking into the theater and told him we weren't open yet," says Aaron Daniel Haber, founder of the company. "He flashed a badge and said we were closed down. For a while they thought we were Stage Left Theatre. We had to explain who we were. They gave us a $200 ticket for being there and for not having a proper license, a license I'd never heard of. A home-occupation license. The judge at the court had never heard of a home-occupation license. It means you can conduct business out of your home."
With stories like these making the rounds, paranoia has begun to descend on the off-Loop theater scene. One company under investigation refused to comment on its dealings with the city, and some speculate that Daley is trying to clear the theaters out of up-and-coming Andersonville. The League of Chicago Theatres is acting as a liaison between the theaters and the city, yet the confusion persists. Earlier this week Crain's Chicago Business erroneously reported that on October 27 city representatives would "meet with theater groups to explain the maze of municipal codes applicable to their businesses." In fact, according to league president Marj Halperin, this was a closed meeting between the league and the city to discuss ways of improving the PPA process.
Kelly Leonard, president of the league's board, says the league was told that the city was conducting a sweep of theaters: "What they indicated to us is that it was a normal part of operation to go industry to industry. You may recall a while ago they did restaurants, which resulted in a mess of violations that got reported in the paper." Halperin denies this. "They did not come to us and say they were doing a sweep," she says. "It was nothing that dramatic." The subject of theater inspections came up during a meeting with the city's revenue department about a proposed amusement tax. "The city said that they were aware that a large number of theaters had violations, that they had had complaints, and that there were several theaters in the process of correcting these violations."
Leonard and Halperin's confusion is understandable. When asked about the recent inspections, revenue department spokesman Charles Edwards said they were part of the department's annual checking of PPA licenses. "It appears like a sweep but it isn't," says Edwards. "It's like when you have a handicapped parking space in your neighborhood and for a long time no one checks to make sure you can park there. But eventually they do, and they either hand out a ticket or take the sign down."
True to the city's story, a large number of inspections result from complaints. Martin believes that a disorderly drunk he ejected from Stage Left two years ago lodged a complaint to get back at the theater. And the theaters seem to be each other's worst enemies. "The city told us that a lot of the complaints come from other theaters," says Halperin. "The inspectors might be in one space and say the exit lights are not good, and the theaters say, 'What do you mean? This other theater doesn't have proper exit lights,' and so on. It's like in school, where if you do something, you say, 'Well, these other kids do that too.' That only gets the whole class in trouble with the teacher." Pudil confirms that Shattered Globe was ratted out by another company: "When we went downtown after our inspection revealed an electrical violation, the woman at City Hall admitted the complaint about our space had been submitted by another theater. She said, 'It's a shame. I think it's really low that the city nails a theater for something and they start squealing on everyone else.'"
Whether the current crackdown is a coordinated effort on the part of the city or a dogfight among off-Loop companies, the rash of inspections is bound to have a chilling effect on Chicago's fringe theater. Martin thinks it's a crime that small companies are being harassed even as the city basks in the glow of its homegrown talent. "Whether or not Stage Left gets through this," he predicts, "this will certainly kill opportunities for the small, edgy, risk-taking theater that we've been known for."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.