Michael Cullen Fills a Nich/This is Not Your Parent's Theater | Culture Club | Chicago Reader

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Michael Cullen Fills a Nich/This is Not Your Parent's Theater

Victory Gardens Theater's John Walker targets a new audience: guys on the make.

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Michael Cullen Fills a Niche

Producers Michael Cullen and Sheila Henaghan think the future of off-Loop theater is in 200-seat venues, and they're on the prowl for a property where they can build two such theaters. These smaller spaces will allow shows to run for longer periods until they find audiences. "The virtue of the small theater is its affordability," says Cullen. Shows that wind up selling out at a 200-seat venue can also transfer to a larger theater and potentially reap greater profits after establishing a demand for tickets.

The need for smaller spaces appears to be great. "The choices are so slim," says Roadworks Productions artistic director Debbie Bisno, who points out that a 150-seat space in the Theatre Building was "ideal" for her company's critically acclaimed production of Eric Bogosian's SubUrbia. "I like smaller theaters because they are intimate and less expensive," says Rob Kolson, who is coproducing and starring in Gentlemen Prefer Bonds at the Apollo Theater. Kolson initially intended to present his show in a 230-seat theater that Robert Perkins and Jujamcyn Theaters were planning to build in the restaurant space of the Royal George Theatre Center. When those plans collapsed, Kolson was forced to look for another venue. "At the time, there weren't any 200-seat houses we could get on short notice," says Kolson. Gentlemen Prefer Bonds has yet to sell out the 400-seat Apollo, though Kolson says ticket sales have been on an upswing.

Cullen notes that many of the commercial producers who approached him about renting his 330-seat Mercury Theater have indicated they'd prefer an even smaller space. Though he says the Mercury "has been financially successful since the day it opened," Cullen would like to open the new theaters within two years. That, of course, will depend on how quickly he and Henaghan find the right property. The producers say they already have investors and financing in place, and Cullen intends to open an adjacent bar and grill to provide additional revenue to support the theaters, fulfilling much the same role as Cullen's Bar & Grill next door to the Mercury. "One of the reasons we are popular at the Mercury is because we have a good mix of art and business," Cullen says.

This Is Not Your Parents' Theater

Using an $18,000 grant from the Arts Marketing Center of the Arts & Business Council of Chicago, Victory Gardens Theater has hatched a plan to attract both neighborhood residents and young people. The first goal--bringing in the neighbors--may be easier to achieve. Victory Gardens managing director John Walker says the theater company conducted a telemarketing campaign aimed at nearby residents several years ago and wound up with a couple thousand new subscribers. Recent renovations have spurred the theater to capitalize on that success. Victory Gardens now comprises four theater spaces, up from only two a couple of years ago. "We have a real variety of shows to offer customers now," says Walker. Through a mix of direct mail, telemarketing, and open houses, Walker wants to reintroduce the theater's neighbors to the complex in the hopes that more of them will become regular visitors.

But even with a greater variety of shows, the company may find that luring youngsters is a much tougher task. Walker turned to Bill Rogers and Thomas Richie, two young ad executives with the local agency Cramer-Krasselt, to help formulate a strategy. Rogers, a 30-year-old copywriter, says that his research indicated the majority of the theater's regular audience members are in their 40s and 50s. "Not too many young folks were going there," he says, adding that he had been to the Victory Gardens complex only once before to see Schoolhouse Rock Live!, a Theatre BAM production that played for several months in the upstairs theater that once housed the Body Politic. He admits that on average he attends just one live theater production a year.

Rogers and Richie came up with three ads that portray the theater as a desirable place to take a date. One ad shows a Vincent van Gogh-like painting of a large pair of hedge clippers; it says van Gogh cut off an ear to impress a woman and suggests a visit to Victory Gardens might have been a less gruesome alternative. Another ad shows a group of guys at a bar; the copy says that the theater is a good place to avoid a bunch of horny guys hitting on your date. A third ad shows a woman dressed to the nines; the copy suggests a theater date is better than going to the movies. Rogers says that he and Richie encouraged Victory Gardens to run the ads in nontraditional places. Consequently, Walker says at least one of the ads--the horny guys in the bar--will run in the sports section of the daily newspaper.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): John Walker photo.

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