Report From the Jeffs: Eclipse Rising
Some people in the local theater business dismiss the Joseph Jefferson Awards, which honor excellence in Chicago theaters that operate under Actors' Equity contracts, as inconsequential. But the Jeffs often help direct attention toward who or what is hot in the industry. At last week's 25th anniversary Jeff Awards, the Eclipse Theatre Company certainly looked hot. In only its first season of operation, Eclipse was honored with awards in the sound design and ensemble categories for the company's world premiere of Stephen Serpas's Xenogenesis. With its two Jeffs, Eclipse outshone many of the city's older and better-established resident companies; no awards went to Wisdom Bridge, Northlight, Victory Gardens, or even Steppenwolf.
Eclipse mounted Xenogenesis in conjunction with Chilany Pictures, a production company formed by longtime local casting director Jane Alderman, who also is vice president of Eclipse's board of directors and the organization's den mother: she taught seven of the nine core ensemble members at the DePaul University Theatre School. Notes Alderman: "When they were getting started I told the founding members of Eclipse I didn't want them to be just another dinky theater company in town putting on stupid plays."
Apparently they listened, because the company has grown quickly. "In just about six months we went from a company with zero dollars to one with a $60,000 annual budget," notes ensemble member and managing director Robert Mohler. "They're an eager, aggressive group, and they're trying new things, which is nice," says David Zak of Bailiwick Repertory. He calls their current production of Machinal a "stylized period piece, which you don't see much of around here."
Though it may have more production savvy than some budding theater companies, Eclipse has faced the funding difficulties that affect just about all arts groups. "Every source of money is drying up," says Mohler, who is in charge of writing grant proposals for the new company. Because Eclipse opted to start up employing union actors and stage managers, a substantial portion of its production budget goes to Equity contracts--about $3,600 for every $10,000 they raise to do a show. To date the company has relied heavily on fund-raising events and the generosity of board members. In the future it hopes to earn some money subletting its cozy home at 2074 N. Leavitt when it's not producing something there. Mohler says the company briefly toyed with renting the gallery theater in the highly visible Royal George Theatre Center at 1641 N. Halsted, but finally chose the much less familiar and accessible Bucktown space instead to lower overhead. "What we would have paid for a week at the Gallery we pay for a month on North Leavitt," says Mohler.
If Eclipse goes the same way as Steppenwolf and Remains, some of its members will no doubt eventually be lured away into television and film. If that happens, says Mohler, replacements would probably come from the group of associate ensemble members the company recently formed. But Alderman's attitude about the company's future is more laissez-faire: "Show business knows no reason, so why worry about what may happen?"
Northlight Looks North
Northlight Theatre is close to cementing a deal to move its operations from the Coronet in south Evanston to the Weinstein Center for the Performing Arts on the campus of National Louis University in north Evanston. Sources close to the deal say the move would save Northlight about $100,000 in annual operating expenses. The Weinstein Center has been used for dance performances by a variety of groups in the past few years, but it has not played host to a resident theater company in recent memory. The deal, which is expected to be finalized by December 1, would give Northlight control of the theater for 30 to 35 weeks of the year, while the university would use the facility for the remaining weeks. Over the past six months Northlight has trimmed its staff and reduced operating expenses to try to keep costs in line with income.
The wait for Tony Kushner's epic Angels in America soon may be over. A source says both parts of the seven-hour opus, Millenium Approaches and Perestroika, should open at the Royal George by late winter. Still to be determined, however, is who will direct the Chicago production. George C. Wolfe, who handled the directorial chores on Broadway, reportedly has the right of first refusal, but as of late last week Wolfe had made no decision. At least one well-placed source doubts Wolfe will remount the show in Chicago because of the substantial responsibilities he recently assumed as the artistic leader of Joseph Papp's New York Shakespeare Festival Theatre.
Party Goes Commercial
Playwright/director David Dillon's gay sexual romp Party, now being independently revived at the Theatre Building after its long run as part of Bailiwick's Gay Pride series, has spawned three new shows that the recently incorporated Party Productions will present over the next several months as commercial ventures. Considering how much money it made for Bailiwick, Dillon and executive producer Kellum Lewis had long considered doing a commercial production of the show. Lewis says a group of investors contributed a "five-figure" amount to produce the revival plus the three spin-offs. First up in mid-December will be a variety show called The Whole Shebang; the content will change every six weeks. Around Valentine's Day, look for a lesbian variation on Party called Girl Party. Yet to be scheduled is an untitled sequel to the original. Lewis says he's noticed more straight couples in Party's audience lately, but he thinks it's still strictly a nighttime-crowd kind of show. "We tried matinees a couple of times," explains Lewis, "and Party just didn't attract an afternoon audience."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Brian McConkey.