Stagebill Ups the Ante/Roosevelt Hands Auditorium New Deal | Culture Club | Chicago Reader

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Stagebill Ups the Ante/Roosevelt Hands Auditorium New Deal

Famous Door's Larry Neumann Jr., Doug Bragan of the Ivanhoe Theater, and the Free Associates' Mark Gagne raise a ruckus over Stagebill's cash grab.


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Stagebill Ups the Ante

Local theater companies cried foul last week when Stagebill announced that it will start charging a fee for publishing photos of cast members. The new policy, which will begin in January, calls for companies to pay $20 for every head shot in excess of five that runs alongside the program's biographies.

Though the expense appears slight, some believe the costs should be borne by the magazine or its advertisers rather than cash-starved theater companies. Doug Bragan, a producer and owner of the Ivanhoe Theater, says, "Most theater companies aren't in a position to absorb this kind of cost, and it will wind up coming out of the hides of the actors." Others speculate that Stagebill may face a challenge from New York's long-established Playbill magazine, which does not charge for photos. "We're in the process of examining the Chicago market," confirms Playbill publisher Philip Birsh.

The $20 fee will be a one-time charge, according to Stagebill executive editor Clifford Tinder, unless a theater makes a cast change or otherwise needs to add to its program, in which case another $20 fee will be levied for each revision during a play's run.

Small not-for-profit com-panies stand to be most affected by the policy. "It was a shock," says Mark Gagne, artistic director of the Free Associates, who adds that "the photos were a nice constant with Stagebill." The Free Associates are presenting five different plays in repertory in the Ivanhoe's smallest, 44-seat house. Gagne's company comprises 15 actors, all of whom appear in the company's Stagebill. That means the Free Associates will have to pay a minimum one-time fee of $200 in January, assuming they make no changes in their program. "That seems a little steep for a 44-seat theater," Gagne says.

Other theater executives fear the new Stagebill policy may eventually dictate the kinds of plays companies choose to produce. "It's unfortunate, and it will probably give theater companies another reason to do small-cast plays," says Famous Door Theatre Company's managing director Larry Neumann Jr.

Stagebill's Tinder maintains that the magazine was forced to change its policy when it sold its antiquated production facility on Montrose earlier this year and farmed out all of its production work to a commercial printing company whose costs are higher. "When we owned our own printing facility, we used to have a fairly liberal policy regarding photographs, and some theater companies were putting 20 to 30 photos in the programs," Tinder says, adding that Stagebill can no longer afford the service. "We are a for-profit organization, and the photos represent a big out-of-pocket cost for us."

These changes also come in the wake of last year's sale of Stagebill to K-III Communications, a New York-based publishing company that also owns New York and Chicago magazines. Though the new Stagebill photo policy would suggest that K-III is trying to squeeze every possible penny from its Chicago theater publication, Tinder says the parent corporation is, in fact, spending money on the magazine. "K-III has given us the resources to grow."

Growth may be difficult, however, if theater companies balk at the changes under way at Stagebill, which has long enjoyed a virtual monopoly in Chicago (despite a challenge from one short-lived competitor, Showbill). If some venues eventually decide to drop the publication and its circulation falls, the program would be less attractive to advertisers, who still represent its primary source of revenue. At present Stagebill is distributed free at 43 Chicago-area theaters.

Gagne says the Free Associates will either try to absorb the additional costs or drop photos altogether. Most small not-for-profit theater companies agree it's prohibitively expensive to produce a program in-house. But others say that Stagebill should watch its back.

"Anything is possible," says Famous Door's Neumann. "I'm going to call Playbill this week and see what they're offering."

Roosevelt Hands Auditorium New Deal

The bitter feud between the Auditorium Theatre Council and Roosevelt University president Theodore Gross appears to be heading to court once again. The two sides have been locked in battle for almost a year to determine control of the 106-year-old theater and the money earned from the big-budget shows presented there.

Last summer the circuit court ruled that funds held by ATC, from performances at the Auditorium Theatre, are the property of Roosevelt, but ATC has appealed that ruling. Privately some ATC members say they are fighting the court decision because they fear Roosevelt will use Auditorium earnings to support other university projects instead of continuing to restore and improve the landmark theater.

But Gross maintains that the theater's income belongs to the university. "We have the right to use those funds, but I would never recommend it except in extreme circumstances," he says. The present court battle began when Gross sought to transfer $1.5 million in Auditorium funds for a new suburban campus in Schaumburg.

Last week Gross took new steps to solidify the university's control over the Auditorium by severing all ties with ATC and establishing a new 13-member board of directors to govern the theater. ATC still says it has the right to manage the theater and determine how its earnings are used. The new Auditorium board consists of seven current Roosevelt University trustees or employees and six civic leaders, among them Shakespeare Repertory Company artistic director Barbara Gaines and former Illinois attorney general Roland Burris. Auditorium executive director Dulcie Gilmore will report to the new governing board instead of to ATC. Gross also plans to set up a new Auditorium fund-raising committee, thereby stripping ATC of one of its last remaining responsibilities. In addition, Gross says he will ask the courts for a ruling as soon as possible on whether Roosevelt or ATC legally controls approximately $3 million currently in the Auditorium's reserve fund.

Meanwhile, in what some might view as an ironic twist, a portion of that reserve fund is being used to cover ATC's legal expenses.

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

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