The Incredible Shrinking Acts Group
Performing Arts Chicago, the not-for-profit presenter of cutting-edge arts events, ended last season on a high note with Canadian director Robert Lepage's stunning seven-hour epic The Seven Streams of the River Ota. But the group now faces financial difficulties that will certainly affect next season's schedule and possibly shut down the organization. Ironically executive director Susan Lipman tried to stave off more losses by canceling Seven Streams earlier this spring but was unable to escape contractual obligations.
Helyn Goldenberg, president of PAC's board of directors, says the organization is undergoing an extensive reevaluation. A management analysis should be completed by the end of the summer, when the board will review it. "We don't want to repeat the sins of the past," she says. Normally in early summer PAC prepares a brochure for the coming season to renew current subscribers and solicit new ones. But Goldenberg says there will be no brochure, and there may be no shows next fall or winter.
Ideally, Goldenberg would like PAC to maintain a presence during the first part of the season while it restructures and prepares a more significant lineup of events for the spring. "Maybe we could do the Vermeer [Quartet] in the fall," she says. But even that depends on the success of the current fund-raising effort. "We won't do anything next season unless it is underwritten," says Lipman. Goldenberg declined to discuss PAC's deficit, but one source familiar with the organization says it's well into six figures. Goldenberg did reveal that last season's bottom line was hurt by the annual gala's failure to meet expectations and by a presentation (which she wouldn't name) that fell short of the projected ticket income.
This past season Lipman adjusted the programming mix, hoping to attract larger audiences; she booked less classical music and more theater, dance, and even a film, scheduling longer runs in case positive reviews might enhance box-office revenue. Apparently these changes weren't enough to put the organization on a stronger footing. In the meantime, PAC's full-time staff has reportedly shrunk to a grand total of two: Lipman and a bookkeeper.
Following the sudden demise of both Candlelight Dinner Playhouse and the Forum Theatre, Chicago may be losing one of its finest off-Loop venues: the Royal George Theatre. In the past few weeks, rumors have grown that the entire complex is on the verge of being sold, possibly for an unrelated business or for redevelopment into condominiums.
A source at New York-based Jujamcyn Theaters, which holds the mortgage, indicated that a deal could be imminent. Royal Faubion built the theater in the mid-80s for approximately $6 million; Jujamcyn bought it from businesswoman Sue Gin for approximately $1.8 million and reportedly has been asking more than $4 million for the entire complex. A source on the Steppenwolf Theatre Company's board of directors confirms that Steppenwolf looked at the property but backed away because the asking price was too high. "We have been talking to other theater people about buying the property," said the Jujamcyn source, who would not rule out the possibility that these parties are fronting for a real estate developer.
The entire complexion of the neighborhood at Halsted and North has changed dramatically since the opening of the Royal George and Steppenwolf theaters. The Royal George should be an attractive site for a developer looking to cash in. Further north, the old Organic Theater space at 3319 N. Clark has reportedly been sold for a whopping $1.9 million to a developer who plans to build condominiums. As many in the theater business are beginning to realize, the venues that once fueled a growing off-Loop theater industry now occupy valuable real estate.
League of Chicago Theatres board president Robert Perkins is a partner with Jujamcyn in the Royal Group, the presenting entity that manages the Royal George. Perkins has repeatedly denied to sources that any sale of the facility is pending and reportedly has sought at least a couple of bookings for the main stage this spring, including Always...Patsy Cline, which ended up at the Apollo, and a one-man show about Edgar Allan Poe that's scheduled to open at the Mercury next month. But the 500-seat main stage has been dark since last November, creating a huge revenue drain for both Perkins and Jujamcyn, both of whom may now be interested in activities other than small-venue theater. A long-standing business associate of Perkins says the League president's interested in the direct-marketing business, and Jujamcyn last week announced a new partnership with the PACE Theatrical Group. Oddly, a New York Times article announcing the Jujamcyn-PACE venture last week omitted Chicago from a list of cities where Jujamcyn operates theaters. When Jujamcyn and Perkins announced their acquisition of the Royal George in spring 1994, they promised an exciting lineup of new works and important transfers to the Chicago market from New York and elsewhere. With the exception of Angels in America, the partnership has brought in little of note, and the end result may be curtains for the Royal George.
It may be one of the shortest star turns in off-Loop theater history. On June 12 gay-porn star Ryan Idol opened in the off-Broadway hit comedy Making Porn at the Theatre Building. Two days later, during the intermission of the 7 PM performance, Idol got into an ugly fight with the play's author and costar Ronnie Larsen in the Theatre Building lobby. Idol was handcuffed and led away by police. When Chicago's finest arrived en masse, some startled onlookers apparently concluded that the production had been raided. Idol was later released after being charged with one count of simple battery.
Making Porn producer Caryn Horwitz would not say exactly what caused the melee, except to note that Larsen had stepped in to defuse the tension between Idol and another cast member. By Sunday morning Horwitz had flown in David Gordon, a non-porn actor from New York, who is expected to replace Idol for the rest of the announced five-week run. While Making Porn was a modest success when it first played here in 1995, after Horwitz and Larsen began casting porn stars the show raked in nearly $1 million in Los Angeles, New York, and other markets. Now Horwitz says she may have made a mistake. "I am finished with porn stars."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Susan Lipman photo by Nathan Mandell.