Donor Match/ Jeff Gets a Cue/ Stepping Right Up/ Legal Dept. | Culture Club | Chicago Reader

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Donor Match/ Jeff Gets a Cue/ Stepping Right Up/ Legal Dept.

The MacArthur Foundation has the cash, and smaller theater groups desperately need it. Now it's up to Sunny Fisher of theDriehaus Foundation to put the two together.


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Donor Match

Philanthropists usually don't give money to other philanthropists. But the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the city's largest philanthropic organization, recently made a $100,000 grant to the smaller Richard H. Driehaus Foundation to fund local theater and dance groups. According to Francine Cabonargi, a program officer for the MacArthur Foundation, the board of directors approved the grant because MacArthur itself is simply too big to administer a program for the myriad small arts groups that need money. "We didn't want to increase the volume of grants that MacArthur gives out and the paperwork that involves," she explains, "and we saw that Driehaus already had a successful process in place." The one-year grant will double the Driehaus Foundation's 2000 fund for theater and dance groups with annual budgets under $100,000.

Another factor in MacArthur's decision, Cabonargi admits, was Driehaus executive director Sunny Fischer. "I have found Sunny to be very fair and very thorough and well versed across a number of social issues," she says. Richard H. Driehaus, a Chicago investment manager, established a $90 million endowment in 1983 and administered most of the grants himself, aided by a board of directors. But by 1992 he'd decided to hire a professional staffer and lured Fischer away from the Sophia Fund (which has since been subsumed by the Chicago Foundation for Women). After Fischer arrived the Driehaus Foundation began to focus more on the arts, architecture, and design; it was an early supporter of Roadworks Productions, and in 1996 it gave Rivendell Theatre Ensemble $3,000 to help mount Wrens, a new play by Anne McGravie that ultimately won three Jeff Awards. Declares Fischer, "That turned out to be a good investment."

Such positive experiences prompted the director to consider a program aimed at Chicago-area theater and dance companies with budgets of $100,000 or less, and in 1997 she asked Peter Handler, the foundation's program director, to prepare a study on the idea. Handler consulted more than a dozen companies and found that for the most part they wanted grants for general operating expenses rather than specific projects. After reviewing Handler's study the Driehaus board of directors earmarked $50,000 for the program in 1998, with unrestricted grants to range from $2,500 to $5,000. The program expanded to $75,000 in 1999 and was budgeted at $100,000 for 2000, but now the MacArthur grant has effectively doubled that figure, meaning that more applicants will be given grants and in some cases the amounts will be increased to $10,000.

This is sure to be welcome news for the city's performing fringe, whose innovations often fuel the more commercial theater and dance companies. According to Handler, the grants are awarded in two annual cycles; in the first cycle of 1999 the foundation received 28 applications and awarded grants to 11 groups. Fischer likes to attend productions of companies seeking grants or send one of her staffers. "There are times we don't personally like the work," she admits, "but we still see the merit." They also conduct site visits and, most importantly, interview the principals of each group. "We try to get a sense of what their vision is, because I think that's an important part of whether they're going to succeed." MacArthur has made no promises of another supplemental grant in 2001, but Fischer remains a firm believer in funding groups that fall through the cracks of large foundations. "These groups may do a lot of work that most people are not ready for, but they're still an important developmental aspect of the arts."

Jeff Gets a Cue

Last year the Joseph Jefferson Awards Committee tried to mend some fences with the larger theater community by dumping its unpopular policy of giving out multiple awards in every category. Now the committee has introduced another goodwill measure: starting next month, an "arts and technical team" comprised of actors, directors, stage managers, designers, and managing and artistic directors will join the 45 members of the committee in selecting the year's nominees. Two randomly selected team members will attend each opening night and cast votes for the shows' lighting, costumes, set design, and other production elements. The change may deflect the criticism that follows the nominations every year, when theater professionals challenge the expertise of the mostly nonprofessional committee. But the arts and technical team will have no voice in the final ballot; the committee will still choose the winners of the Jeff Awards and Jeff Citations.

Stepping Right Up

"The show must go on" may be the oldest cliche in the business, but periodically some company brings it to life. On March 7, an hour before the final preview of Porchlight Theatre and the Athenaeum Theatre's coproduction of Merrily We Roll Along, the leading lady fell ill and was rushed to the hospital. The preview was canceled, and after the company learned that she would be unable to return, opening night was canceled as well. The cast and crew assembled to vote on whether they should close the show altogether, but by an overwhelming majority they decided to recast the role and go forward. "We had to quickly find people who had some familiarity with the part," explains Athenaeum owner Fred Solari, "so we could rehearse them and get the show back on its feet fast." Four days after the shutdown he and director L. Walter Stearns settled on Suzanne Genz, the show's assistant director, and last Friday, less than a week after she won the part, Genz took the stage for her first and only preview. Solari admits that the ten-day gap has hurt the show's momentum at the box office, but he hopes that favorable reviews and word of mouth will give them a fighting chance at sustaining a run of two or three months.

Legal Dept.

Pandolfi, Topolski, Weiss & Company, auditor for the troubled League of Chicago Theatres, was dealt a blow of its own last Friday when the Cook County Circuit Court refused to dismiss a multimillion-dollar accounting malpractice suit brought against Pandolfi last year by the town of Cicero. The Chicago-based firm had argued that the town filed its suit after the statute of limitations had expired. Daniel J. Kubasiak, the town's attorney, says the discovery phase of the litigation will now move forward; the two sides will appear in court on May 3 to update the judge on their progress. Pandolfi counsel Steven Mora didn't rule out the possibility of an out-of-court settlement: "Lawyers do tend to talk to each other." For the past three years Pandolfi has performed annual audits for the League of Chicago Theatres, during which time the organization suffered an alleged embezzlement of $200,000 by a longtime employee.

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

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