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Fixer-Upper; Three Arts Update

Theater on the Lake has a plan to improve its potentially glorious facility. Now all it needs is $6 million.

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Fixer-Upper

The Park District's Theater on the Lake was the perfect setting for last week's run of Curious Theatre Branch's tribute to Samuel Beckett, No Danger of the . . . Spiritual Thing. Beckett himself couldn't have dreamed up a more dismal environment: walls of chain-link fencing, pools of hideous yellow light, an abandoned mop and pail in one corner, and the continuous din of rushing traffic. And that was all before you got to the auditorium.

The Beach Cafe, which shares space with Theater on the Lake and functions as its lobby, used to offer patio dining with decent food and an outstanding view: water and sky stretching to the east, the beach and the Hancock building to the south, rollerbladers and cyclists parading by under your nose. Followed by a performance of off-Loop theater, it was an idyllic, uniquely Chicago experience. But what's going on there now is as baffling as a Beckett monologue. The view is intact, but on a beautiful evening last week the terrace was empty; patrons who wanted a seat had to head inside to one of a dozen small tables strewn across a concrete floor. A woman who dragged a couple of dusty plastic chairs out herself and asked for something to clean them off with was told by an employee she was breaking the rules. The cafe served beer and wine, but nothing to eat other than hot dogs (without onions), popcorn, prepackaged ice cream, and candy bars.

Last month, as the theater's 54th season got under way, the Park District announced that it had hired Hallie Gordon, managing director from 1999 to 2001, as artistic director, filling the void left when Curt Columbus stepped down last year to take a job at Rhode Island's Trinity Repertory Company. Gordon, who will retain her full-time job as director of Steppenwolf's young adults program, will pick nine off-Loop productions each year for weeklong runs at the lakefront venue, which functions as a bargain-priced summer theater festival. This formula, introduced in the mid-90s after years of community theater, was intended to bring upstart or fringe companies to the attention of audiences that might not otherwise see them. Gordon's posted her e-mail address in the lobby (adtotl@gmail.com) and says she hopes to engage patrons in the scouting process, starting a dialogue that might go on year-round.

Improvements to the theater's facilities were announced last year, and the Park District paid Morris Architects $153,000 to draw up plans. But the proposed renovation, which would bring improved seating, soundproofing, lighting, and air-conditioning, as well as additional space for the restaurant, carries a price tag of $6 million, money that will need to be raised from private sources. According to Gordon the project, which would require board approval before contracting, is still on the table and could be completed in phases. Managing director Krista Byrski Richard says the 331-seat theater operates on a break-even annual budget of $200,000 (down from $230,000 a few years ago) and has 700 season subscribers, but the renovation is "at a standstill, because the Park District isn't going to raise these funds on its own. We're trying to interest people who would want to serve on a fund-raising committee." Donations earmarked for it can be made to the nonprofit Parkways Foundation, where a building fund (currently at just under $30,000) has been set up. (Questions about the cafe were referred to Christina Vera at the Park District; she had not responded by press time.)

On the night I showed up last week, half the audience cast a vote on Beckett by leaving at intermission—they missed a truly Curious finale in which the actors were lit like jukeboxes. The subscriber next to me called the evening an insult, but said the two previous shows this year—Gift's The Glass Menagerie and Porchlight's The Secret Garden—had been fantastic. The women's room featured a mysterious x of black tape over something fuzzy in the middle of a wall and a wastebasket without a bottom in one of the stalls. Pretty shabby, even for fringe theater.

Three Arts Update

No one on the board or staff of the Three Arts Club is offering any further explanation of last month's announcement that its $24 million redevelopment plan has been abandoned and the building put up for sale—a decision made, according to a press release, for want of $5.5 million in public funding. Word is the city's department of housing was ready to chip in $5.1 million for what would've been relatively pricey rental apartments—with 31 reserved for artists—but balked at financing a proposed underground theater, glass roof for the courtyard, and space for other arts programs. Calls to board president Cynthia West to inquire about the building's price and possible buyers have not been returned.

The bigger question is why the board jumped to a $24 million project in the first place. According to Friends of the Three Arts, a group that's been fighting to save the building, for a much smaller amount—$3 million or less—the organization could've been in a position to continue its mission as a home for women in the arts. (The club had room for 100 residents and had served thousands since it opened in 1915.) Attorney and Friends member Sue Basko says that with a new board and proper management this would still be feasible. "More people are coming to Chicago from all over the world, and more than ever they're looking for secure housing," she says. "It's ludicrous to say that it wouldn't be full."

The Three Arts announcement has also left TimeLine Theatre and the Sherwood Conservatory of Music out in the cold. The two groups had been offered the gift of space in the building, a bonanza withdrawn as unexpectedly as it appeared. Sherwood director Darcy Walker says she's been assured that an arts foundation to be established with proceeds from the Three Arts sale will provide future financial support for Sherwood programs. TimeLine artistic director P.J. Powers, host of a recent celebratory event with lyricist Sheldon Harnick at the company's "future home," says it's just a bump in the road. "We weren't giving up this space anyway," he says of the company's existing Lakeview quarters. "We're disappointed, but we'll just continue to grow here."

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

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