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They Only Wanted to Help/In Other News

Jeff and Diane McFarlin started their Web site as a service to help theaters network. They found out the hard way that networking sometimes involves fighting and people don't like to pay for something they once got for free.

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They Only Wanted to Help

"I started this site out of boredom," Jeff McFarlin says about northernillinoiscommunitytheatre.com, launched nearly three years ago. His wife, actor and director Diane McFarlin, was "off doing a show," and McFarlin was at home in Elgin, watching the kid and surfing the Web. "One of my other interests is fishing, hunting, and camping, and I noticed that one guy had a comprehensive site for that. I had been looking at theater sites too; I thought, 'There's nobody out there doing this for community theater,' and the lightbulb went on." He started listing performance and audition schedules for as many theaters as he could think of on a personal-interest page and watched as it "just took off."

McFarlin has built sets, run lighting and sound, and stage-directed, so he understood the economies that could come from networking. "You wouldn't believe how much lumber we'd be throwing away when we struck a set," he says. "I thought we can get a prop and set exchange going, share resources, save money, and come up with something useful for everybody." With the help of volunteer Web mistress Laurie Gibson and about 20 other dedicated souls, he added services like a searchable talent database; interactive technical and acting help; a letters section; a message board; and a selection of assiduously diplomatic, volunteer-written reviews. (McFarlin says they learned the hard way that "no one wants to hear that they suck.") He submitted the site's address to search engines and advertised it in a few theater programs, but what really made it boom, he says, was word of mouth.

From the beginning, the idea was to serve as a resource and to "put butts in seats." But to McFarlin, a copier repairman looking for new challenges, it also looked like a business opportunity. He figured once theaters saw how useful it was they'd be happy to kick in modest fees for membership and services. But when he began asking for voluntary payments six months in, he got a rude awakening. People didn't understand, he says. "They didn't think bigger than their own community in terms of pulling audiences, and they didn't think the Internet was the way to go." And although the site quickly became indispensable to theater hobbyists--it would eventually have a database of 300 theater people, listings for nearly every community theater (and some professional ones) in northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin, and regular reviews of shows by about 30 companies--his efforts to build audiences with it were less successful.

Last summer, after more than two years of throwing his own money and labor at the site, McFarlin decided to turn nonprofit. "We put on a production of The Laramie Project as a fund-raiser. Two weekends at McHenry College and two weekends at a bookstore in Saint Charles, and nobody showed up," he says. "It was a controversial play--we went in knowing that." What he didn't expect was criticism about the casting. His corps of volunteers took the parts; there were no open auditions. "People resented that. We lost about $500." Now, McFarlin says, they're in a catch-22: they'll have to make some money before they can afford to pay the legal and other costs of becoming nonprofit. Last fall he sent out notice that in 2003 he'd start charging companies $100 a year for a basic membership (which includes listings in the "Theatre Companies" and "Opening Nights" sections) plus $50 per show for a review and a banner ad, which he says is less than break-even cost. He wrote to 30 theaters and figured he needed at least ten takers to stay afloat; he got six. Then, in January, the site's message board went ugly, with users posting "venomous" personal comments about one another, and McFarlin began sweating his potential liability for what was said. "I blew my gasket. We've been doing this for free for three years. It hasn't worked. I put up with all this bickering and nonsense and people don't send me any money."

He shut down the message board and posted a threat to close the whole site. That brought a flood of appreciative E-mails from theaters in towns like Woodstock and Wheaton. "Suddenly, people were telling me that 90 percent of the actors who come to their auditions find them on [my] Web site," McFarlin says. He started to reconsider. He's still between a rock and a hard place. He can't freeze out everyone who doesn't pay: without complete listings, the site loses value. Three more companies have promised to become members, and there's a chance his latest pitch--"if they contribute, we put them first on the list for reviews"--will bring more. (Since there aren't enough reviewers to see everything, this offer has some teeth.) "The message board is gone and gone for good, as far as I'm concerned," he says. "I don't have time to baby-sit it." But a new version of the site, nicoth.com, has been under construction since last fall and is almost complete. A planned registration and sign-in system will make it possible to split access for theater people and patrons and could even make a message board feasible again. Maybe all McFarlin needs is some time off. His latest posting advises that "Diane and I will be taking a much needed break...turning the day-to-day operations over to our volunteers....[We] have other personal obligations that we have deemed more important at this time." Among them: the home inspection business he's about to launch.

In Other News

The Goodman Theatre's Chuck Smith says Chicago doesn't get enough credit for its place in black theater history. According to Smith, the Pekin Theater Company, which performed in a cabaret at 2700 S. State starting in 1905, was the first in a line of companies (including Langston Hughes's Skyloft Players in the 1940s) that laid the groundwork for Chicago's current status as "the foremost leader in African-American theater in the country." Smith, Jackie Taylor, Douglas Alan-Mann, Val Gray Ward, and Okoro Harold Johnson will connect the dots at "Showtime! Black Theatre in Chicago," a panel discussion Thursday at the Cultural Center....Unlike the baseball trinkets at the Field Museum, the Cultural Center's "Teddy Bears at Home in Chicago" is not another prepackaged museum road show. Cocurator Kenneth Burkhart says he and Tim Samuelson were gearing up last October for a WPA Art in the Schools exhibit but turned on a dime when Department of Cultural Affairs Commissioner Lois Weisberg dropped the news that teddy was celebrating his centennial. Most of the teddies (named for a president who declined to pull the trigger) will have to be rushed back to anxious owners when the show comes down next month. Burkhart says a few may go on exhibit at O'Hare, but they won't be traveling....From the Department of Positive Spin: According to the hype for "A Century of Collecting: African American Art in the Art Institute of Chicago," which opens this week, "The museum acquired its first work by an African American artist in 1906....The next such acquisition was made in 1948."

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

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