Quitting While They're Ahead?
The talented little Naked Eye Theatre Company announced on April Fool's Day that it's undergoing a "transition" that will keep it from producing plays in the foreseeable future. It wasn't a gag. Though he's coming off the company's hottest season in its five-year history, artistic director Jeremy B. Cohen is leaving this summer to become associate artistic director at Hartford Stage Company in Connecticut, where he's been freelancing. He says he'll continue as artistic head of Naked Eye, coming back to Chicago when necessary, and that the seven-member company will focus on new play development--maybe host a symposium, maybe do some workshops. He also says Naked Eye is "transitioning out of" its office in the Athenaeum. Translation? They closed it in December.
Cohen and producing director Geoffrey Barr founded Naked Eye in 1998 and were joined early on by other theater-world youngsters like lighting designer Jaymi Lee Smith and dramaturge Sarah Gubbins. "A few of us were working together at the Goodman," says Cohen, who was an intern at the time. "Our first production was in the studio there." They produced a couple of plays a year, plus new-play festivals and workshops in a variety of venues, including Theatre Building Chicago, A Red Orchid Theatre, and Steppenwolf, where last season they had back-to-back successes with The Idiot Box and Nickle and Dimed. Barr, business manager at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater by day, says that with a yearly budget of $150,000, Naked Eye is in the black, and echoes Cohen in insisting that they have no intention of closing it. It's "definitely not another financial casualty of the economic environment," he says.
It may be a casualty of its founders' success, however. Last weekend at Northwestern University, Cohen was in the midst of an emotional workshop production of his new work, 12 Volt Heart. Written with his partner, Michael Elyanow, the play's based on the journals of photographer Dan Eldon, a 22-year-old idealist and adventurer who was a Reuters stringer when he was killed by a mob in Somalia in 1993; Eldon's mother, Kathy, took part in a postperformance talk. The production's a mix of dance, Eldon's photography, and drama with heady, possibly distracting, prospects. Cohen says the Naked Eye design team that was involved (though it wasn't officially a Naked Eye show) will stay together, and that "maybe we'll do this in Chicago." But, he added, "there were also people from New York and LA in the audience who expressed interest in producing it."
"As we've gone on with our careers, it's been more difficult to run a company," Barr says. "It seemed like we either needed to fully commit, get a paid staff and hire a professional fund-raiser, or we needed to redefine what we're doing." For a month or so this year it looked like Naked Eye would make the leap. The board approved a salary for Cohen, and he became its first full-time employee. Then he got the job offer from Hartford. After that, Barr says, they asked themselves, "How does this company look with a new artistic director?" On the heels of last year's productions, he says, "it looked like trying to climb a mountain. But neither I nor our board nor any of the other company members are ready to say this is it. We want to be able to come together again and say, look--here's this project, let's make it happen."
This one should have come on April Fool's Day: an announcement last week touted a "Re-grand Opening" for the Congress Theater, the huge, shabby landmark movie palace and multiuse building at Milwaukee and Rockwell. "The Congress Theater, purchased six months ago and still under renovation, has garnered incredible support from the community," the e-mail said. "Join us on Friday, April 16, as we celebrate." The invitation was from Michael Atkins, who identified himself as former PR director at Bob Chinn's and "the new director of Entertainment and Public Relations for Congress Chicago." When I called to ask who had sold the Congress--which received its landmark designation in 2002--and who had bought it, Atkins referred me to Eddie Carranza, who says he manages the theater but seemed surprised by these developments. Carranza said there's no reopening and that Atkins is not the theater's PR man: "They're renting the theater; it's their first swing [dance] party here," he said. As for who owns it, Carranza reluctantly reveals that he's one of several partners who closed on a $5 million deal for the building a month ago. "When we got it," he says, "this was a big crack house. Our focus right now is on renting the 46 apartments and 19 storefronts....We didn't buy it for the theater. We bought it for the real estate."
"It's unheard-of in the arts to let a conductor go midseason," says Lloyd Butler, Chicagoland Pops founding conductor. Butler, who says he was out of town when I tried to reach him last week, was back and ready to talk about his sudden dismissal from the Rosemont-based orchestra on March 1. "They've basically erased me," he says about the stonewalling and official silence that followed his firing. "We had some big artistic differences about where the future of it goes. They plan to cut the size. In my opinion, they're turning it into a backup group [for high-profile guest stars]. I wanted the orchestra to be the focus." Butler says spending was under budget when he led the orchestra but goals for corporate sponsorship and ticket sales were unrealistically high and Rosemont Theatre labor costs were "outrageous." The new regime's first artistic decision: a concert with Broadway performer Nat Chandler that Butler had scheduled for this weekend was canceled and replaced with an April 14 show by the Irish Tenors. As a village employee, Butler had to move into the community; he's looking for new digs.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/J.B. Spector, Suzy Poling.