The Decline of the International Theatre Festival/Casting for Angels | Culture Club | Chicago Reader

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The Decline of the International Theatre Festival/Casting for Angels

Only three local actors made it into the Chicago cast of Angels in America: Philip Johnson, Kate Goehring, and Barbara Robertson.


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The Decline of the International Theatre Festival

As the fifth biennial International Theatre Festival of Chicago wound to a close last weekend, talk of slow ticket sales and a number of far from full houses fueled rumors the festival might not live to see another day. Festival cofounder, executive director, and chief commandant Jane Nicholl Sahlins refused to discuss any hard financial or attendance figures or comment on the success of particular events or the festival's future. "I'm not going to discuss any of this until all the numbers are in and I have made a presentation to my board of directors," she said.

But one influential member of the festival's board of directors made the glum prediction, "I don't think we'll see another one." The source also predicted a mass defection by the festival's board members, who include such prominent cultural figures as Lewis Manilow, Allen M. Turner, Leslie Hindman, Stanley Freehling, Mrs. Thomas H. Dittmer, Hammond Chaffetz, and Richard Gray. Any loss of clout on the board could hamper Sahlins's ability to raise money, which seems especially crucial now: at the start of this year's event the festival had an accrued deficit of more than $200,000.

There were signs from the start that this year's festival hadn't caught much of the theatergoing public's attention. The low-key opening-night performance, Jardin de pulpos by Mexico's Taller del Sotano at the Wellington Theater, played to a less than full house. Perhaps the festival's most anticipated work--Alan Ayckbourn's new play Communicating Doors, which opened the next evening--proved to be a weak effort from one of Britain's important play-writing talents, and one festival source indicated that ticket sales for the production's two-week run fell well below expectations.

Many of the festival's other presentations suffered from a pretentiousness that could have turned off a number of potential theatergoers: Dogtroep's mostly nonverbal, plotless Camel Gossip III; Marga Gomez's meandering monologues; The Persians, performed in Greek with no translation. Only Gate Theatre's production of Juno and the Paycock delivered a solid evening of theater of the more traditional sort. Nevertheless the daily newspaper critics raved about almost every production, throwing around the words "perfection" and "terrific" with reckless abandon. Ironically, the incessant hype ultimately may have backfired if the public bit once or twice and decided the product didn't live up to the critics' claims.

From its inception the festival has endured rocky relations with many of Chicago's resident theater companies, who have complained that the hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants and corporate sponsorship the festival receives should be earmarked for development of the local theater industry. As available funding for theater in the city has shrunk in recent years, hostility toward the festival has grown. One source said the theater festival gave the Dutch improvisational company Dogtroep $350,000 to develop its hour-long imagist fantasy Camel Gossip III for the new 1,500-seat Skyline Stage at Navy Pier, along with a performance fee of $50,000. Says one local theater administrator: "Imagine what might have been if Lookingglass Theatre Company or another local group had been given $350,000 to mount a production at the Skyline Stage."

When the festival began in 1986, it attracted media attention--for both the city and its theater--from around the world. Almost all of the publicity was positive, though one British journalist painted the city as a provincial outpost populated by vapid socialites with little real appreciation for theater. And the hard-charging Sahlins deserves credit for bringing at least two stirring theatrical events to Chicago: the English Shakespeare Company's marathon The Wars of the Roses (1988) and Canadian Robert LePage's wonderfully creative and moving The Dragon's Trilogy (1990 and 1992). But these days the festival seems to have lost its international cachet: glitzy hoopla and foreign journalists were in short supply this year. More troubling, it seems to have lost the interest of the local theatergoing public, which may be the best argument for rethinking where that funding goes.

Casting for Angels

The news is in from auditions for the long-awaited Chicago production of Tony Kushner's Angels in America, and it isn't heartening. Only three Chicago actors--Barbara Robertson, Philip Johnson, and Kate Goehring--wound up in the cast of eight. The remaining five actors were selected from among those who auditioned in New York: Peter Birkenhead, Reg Flowers, Jonathan Hadary, Robert Sella, and Carolyn Swift. The decision wouldn't necessarily merit such note if Angels coproducers Robert Perkins and Rocco Landesman hadn't announced at a press conference last March that the production would be cast in Chicago. If the producers had any uncertainty at that time about casting, it centered on finding a local actor to play villainous attorney and AIDS victim Roy Cohn, a role that ultimately went to Hadary. Everyone knows the business of choosing actors to fill roles in a production is highly subjective, but a couple of sources familiar with the casting efforts here were at the very least skeptical of the assertion made by Perkins last week that every attempt had been made to put suitable Chicago actors in every role. Earlier this week one longstanding local casting agent said several Chicago actors who seemed ideal for certain roles in the show weren't even called in for a first audition. One factor in the final choice was no doubt the show's director, New York-based Michael Mayer, who, not surprisingly, is not as familiar with Chicago's acting talent as he is with New York's, said a source in the casting business. All other things being equal, Mayer may have been more inclined to go with a New Yorker over a Chicagoan. This factor, of course, raises the question of how things would have gone had Michael Maggio ended up with Mayer's job.

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

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