One perennial gripe about the Chicago theater scene is that when nonprofit companies get lucky enough to hatch a box-office hit, they almost always have to shut it down while folks are still lining up to buy tickets. Locked into their season schedules, small and midsize nonprofits have to move on to the next show, no matter how much demand might remain for the one that everybody decided to love.
No one knows this better than Brian Loevner, who was managing director at Chicago Dramatists for most of the last decade. He says the lack of a commercial option that would allow successful productions to continue their runs is a defining difference between Chicago and other great theater cities like London and New York.
And it's not for lack of local capital. There's "a great deal of commercial theater investment activity" here, he says, but most of the money is leaving town. "You'd be surprised how much of your normal Broadway show is being funded by folks whose home base is Chicago."
This was on Loevner's mind when he attended a one-day Commercial Theater Institute training seminar for producers in 2011, and there met Aurelia Cohen, who'd just left her job as producing director at About Face Theatre. Cohen, a Yale MFA who's also worked for the Metropolitan Opera, had likewise been wondering about the lack of small and midsize off-Broadway-style commercial theater in Chicago. "We started a conversation that continued for the next few months," Loevner recalls. "What we came up with is that we need producers in this town."
That is, producers who would snag some of that local capital and invest it here at home. "We felt like if we could prove that taking a show from a nonprofit, just like they do in New York, capitalizing it, enhancing it, bringing it to a larger space—if we could prove that you can do that and make money, maybe we could start that kind of community here in Chicago. And since nobody was doing it, it felt like a really good opportunity,"
Ergo the Chicago Commercial Collective, which launched last year with a remount of A Steady Rain at Chicago Dramatists and is now producing TimeLine Theatre's hugely popular Julia Child confection, To Master the Art, at the Broadway Playhouse. Loevner and Cohen, who now co-own and work full-time for the collective (a third founder, Monty Cole, is one of four associate producers), have developed a system whereby the coalition partners directly with the nonprofit theaters that originate the shows. "Essentially, we're contracting with them for the use of their creative product, and paying them a portion of the profits and sales," Loevner says.
Investors can put money into a single production or spread their risk across four shows by purchasing a $25,000 share (or part thereof) in the collective's fund. The minimum direct investment in a single show will vary according to the production, but the low end is likely to be $5,000 to $10,000.
And although the scarcity of decent venues is another perennial Chicago theater gripe, according to Loevner there are plenty of spaces available, from Theater Wit and Stage 773 on the smaller end to Victory Gardens, the Royal George, and the Apollo in the midsize range.
It took 18 months of talking with Broadway in Chicago before CCC got word in January that there was a slot for To Master the Art in its fall subscription season, Loevner says. The arrangement they worked out includes advertising and marketing support from Broadway in Chicago in exchange for tickets for some of its 6,000 subscribers. As a result, the show got a hefty amount of promotion, most of it using TimeLine's brilliant (if politically incorrect) ad graphic—a photo that reduces Julia to the giddy recipient of a goose by her husband.
TimeLine artistic director P.J. Powers says that "it's been an amazing thing for us. In two weeks of performances at the Broadway Playhouse, as many people will see it as saw it in an eight-week sold-out run here." Chicago Dramatists artistic director Russ Tutterow is equally sanguine: "We were all thrilled to have new audiences; they packed the house. It's just what Chicago has needed."
Under this arrangement the nonprofits shoulder all the initial development costs and the commercial producer gets a product that's already a proven success, at least on a small scale. To Master the Art, for example, has been a seven-year project for TimeLine, from concept and commission through workshop and production. But "that's the work they're doing already," Loevner says. "We're just coming in and saying, OK, in return for all that wonderful work you just did, we're going to try to find a way to make you more money. You guys don't have to manage the show day to day anymore, we'll take care of that, we'll pay everybody, and in return, in addition to some money, you'll get a higher profile and some opportunities."
So how much will they get? Loevner declined to be specific, but observed that "in most commercial productions, the originating theater gets as little as 1 percent of ticket sales. But our goal is to see these theaters profit. The way they can really make money is on a percentage of the gross profits, and we're trying to be as generous as we can possibly be in that area."
All of the collective's initial investors are back for To Master the Art, even though A Steady Rain failed to make a profit, Loevner says. "Our investors knew where they were headed in that first show. They really believe in the idea of what we're doing.
"If there is a downside, it's that not every show we do is going to be successful. Even if you have shows that were previous hits, investing hundreds of thousands of dollars into theater production and trying to make all that money back is a risky proposition." The expectation in commercial theater, he says, is that "one out of ten shows makes a profit, and one out of five shows will make its money back."
Loevner has produced more than 100 shows in the last 20 years, and says he still goes into each one with an absolute belief in its success. "But the reality is that in our business you will have great successes, and you will have great failures, and everything in between."
CCC is about to roll out a midwest college-circuit tour for A Steady Rain and several other productions, and is shopping for office space. Meanwhile, its production of To Master the Art has drawn delicious reviews.