Out of Sight, Out of Mind/League's New Look/They'll All Need Nine Lives | Culture Club | Chicago Reader

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Out of Sight, Out of Mind/League's New Look/They'll All Need Nine Lives

The theater scene's biggest casting call won't happen this year. Director Chuck Smith says that's not a bad thing.


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Out of Sight, Out of Mind

Late last month the League of Chicago Theatres announced that it had pulled the plug on the Citywide Non-Equity Unified Auditions for this year. It's a "one-year hiatus," the announcement said, but you didn't have to read very far between the lines to suspect that the free-for-all tryouts are history. The league sees the Unifieds--which allow multiple companies to audition hundreds of actors at once--as more of a service to actors than theaters, and individual company auditions are now usually listed on the Web anyway. "Our mission is refocusing on marketing and advocacy," executive director Marj Halperin said in the announcement: the year off "gives us time to see whether there are better ways to support the audition process or, perhaps, higher priorities of our membership." Thank you, and don't call us.

"How much time you got?" league board member and Goodman Theatre resident director Chuck Smith wondered when we called to ask him what happened. Back in the 80s, African-American actors weren't getting much play in Chicago theater, Smith says. In 1984 he and three colleagues founded the Chicago Theatre Company, and in 1985, when they attended their first League of Chicago Theatres retreat, they voiced the complaint that black actors weren't getting their share of jobs. A fiery discussion followed, and led to a survey the following year by Actors' Equity that proved what Smith already knew. In 1986 the league and Actors' Equity sponsored the first "nontraditional auditions" as a showcase for minority actors. It was a huge success. "All the artistic directors and casting directors from the major companies came," Smith says. "People were being hired as they walked off the stage." It was great for three or four years, he continues, and then, "because of political correctness, we had to add seniors, the handicapped, and interest started to fade." It didn't seem as focused anymore: fewer experienced actors were signing up, and Equity dropped out as a sponsor.

In 1994 Strawdog Theatre artistic director Richard Shavzin launched citywide non-Equity auditions, running them himself for three years. From 1994 to 1996 both nontraditional and non-Equity showcases were held. In '97 the two events were consolidated as the Non-Equity Unifieds. Always held in the spring, they swelled into marathon, multiday events. Smith and other volunteers grappled with ways to make them more manageable. They tried limiting the number of actors--selecting those to be seen by evaluating resumes, for example, or having a three-member panel screen applicants in a preliminary round of auditions. These elimination processes were as fair as they could be, Smith says, but no one liked them. In the last couple of years, "we decided to just open it up. Anybody who applied got an audition spot." Last year 500 actors were seen over a five-day period. It was more than any director could absorb, and the minority actors weren't showing up. "I got in this thing so that more black actors would get seen by people who could hire them," says Smith, "and all of a sudden I'm not doing what I started out to do. There are a lot more actors here on the south side of Chicago that are really good, and they weren't at those auditions for some reason. I said, I gotta figure that out. I want more minorities there, period. Let's hold up for a year."

League board member and TimeLine Theatre artistic director P.J. Powers says the bigger companies weren't showing up either, and that resulted in a loss of interest on the part of seasoned actors. "I use the Unifieds every year," Powers says, "but it needs to be reenvisioned." To make it work the bigger companies must be there, he says, and it would be good to invite some regional companies as well. On the other hand, "Maybe the Unified has seen its day. I don't want to sit through another five days of it as it was." While Smith is convinced that the auditions will be back--though he'd like to see some other organization take responsibility for them--Powers argues that trying to look suitable for companies as diverse as children's theaters and, say, Steppenwolf in the same couple of minutes doesn't make a lot of sense: "Maybe smaller group auditions for three or four companies with similar needs would be more appropriate."

League's New Look

The Unified Auditions look like the first casualty of the League of Chicago Theatres' current makeover. Members will be asked at their annual meeting Tuesday, April 22, at Noble Fool's new digs at 16 W. Randolph to approve a strategic plan that's taken a year to devise. The new plan would turn the league into more of a lean, mean promotion machine--with "advocacy" as its mantra and a national profile on its agenda. It calls for collecting and reporting ticket sales and attendance figures and for classifying member theaters by budget rather than by profit or nonprofit status. It will also add a half dozen well-connected, deep-pocketed nontheater people to the 15-member board of directors and market individual nonvoting league memberships to the general public. Board president Diane Claussen (of Court Theatre) says the idea is to create partnerships with outside organizations while broadening participation by members. Members will also vote for eight contested seats on the board.

They'll Need All Nine Lives

Apple Tree Theatre's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof won't have to strain for an atmosphere of miasma. First, as the play was going into rehearsals in mid-March, Big Daddy Robert Breuler lost his home and possessions in an apartment fire. (A benefit for Breuler is scheduled for May 6 at Steppenwolf.) Next came the devastating loss of Michelle Madden, who was working on publicity for the show when she died suddenly late last month. When Madden's memorial was scheduled for April 22, the same night as the Cat opening, folks at Apple Tree felt bad but figured Madden of all people would have understood: the show must go on. Then, two weeks ago, actor Mark L. Montgomery, buffed and ready to shine as Apple Tree's Brick, went to the dentist to have a wisdom tooth pulled, developed an infection, and wound up in the hospital with a tracheotomy. The opening has been rescheduled for April 25.

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

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