United They Stand
Two years ago, Live Bait Theater artistic director Sharon Evans brought a suggestion to the League of Chicago Theatres. Evans thought the league could develop a program that would help theaters like hers: small to midsize north-side venues that produce new work. She wanted to call these theaters to tourists' attention, and maybe create a way for the companies to work together, especially on marketing. She submitted a proposal, but nothing came of it. "You know," she says, "things go into committee and sometimes never come out." This month she decided to dust off her idea and do something about it. "Live Bait didn't produce in the fall," she says, "but I was hearing from other theaters that audiences had dropped after the terrorist attacks. For a small company, a 10 percent, 20 percent turndown in audience--we feel it right away. It occurred to me that if something else were to happen, many of us don't have much of a cushion and that maybe this was the time for us to come together as a group." She got on the phone and dialed up the heads of every other north-side theater she could think of.
They met for lunch on a recent Wednesday at Ann Sather in Andersonville. Most in the group were artistic directors, used to ruling their own domains, and "the meeting was a little quiet at the beginning," Evans says. "But by the end it was like nobody wanted to leave. It was fun just having a dialogue. We work long hours, and it's easy not to talk to each other." They did more than just talk: they formed a new group, the North Side New Theater Collective, and laid out some guidelines. For now, at least, the collective will be limited to companies that have a physical home on the north side and produce at least 75 percent new plays. Founding members include 11 theaters: About Face, Bailiwick, Black Ensemble Theater, Curious, Griffin, Lifeline, the Neo-Futurists, New Tuners, Stage Left, WNEP, and, of course, Live Bait.
The initial goal is the same one Evans had in mind two years ago: to snag more tourists. "The Loop theater district has been heavily promoted since the Goodman opened," Evans says. "It's an area the city is really seeking to make a tourist destination, and we think that's great. But what we're hoping is the first night they go there, but the second night they come to the north side. That'll be our marketing. We have the youth demographics on our side, and not all tourists want to go to a big Broadway show. And there's the cost factor: our theaters cost a fraction of what some of the downtown theaters cost. But it's sometimes hard to know where the smaller theaters are on the north side. We want to put something in the hotels that will make it as easy as possible for tourists to find us." The plan is to have a brochure with a long shelf life out in time for the summer season. "We won't be promoting individual shows," Evans says. The Playboy Foundation is considering paying for the brochure, and the Arts & Business Council will advise on marketing.
The collective was born the same week that the League of Chicago Theatres launched its "From the Streets to the Seats" program with a high-profile event that had actors plying their trade on Michigan Avenue street corners. Evans is quick to say the new group is not attempting to usurp the league's role. "It's a complementary effort," she says. But after a decade of membership, Live Bait did not renew its affiliation with the league this year. "We weren't convinced that there were enough benefits to justify our membership," she says. It seems to her that members have less input into the league's programs than they used to, and "they have so many members that the programming and benefits are very general."
Some members of the collective are also members of the league; some have never been. Among the latter are the Neo-Futurists, whose artistic director Greg Allen explains that "there isn't really anything [there] for us. I think they tend to focus on the larger theaters." While the city has "always gotten attention for the large theaters doing well-known work," he says, "it's the smaller and medium-sized companies doing original work that are the soul of Chicago. These are the companies that change the face of theater." Adds Eric Rosen of About Face, "We're stronger than New York in new play development. We have an economic structure that allows us to experiment with new plays. We just don't know how to talk about it very well."
Kate Buckley Cuts Loose
There won't be any next season at Next Theatre for artistic director Kate Buckley. After four years with the Evanston company, and on the heels of her acclaimed production of The Laramie Project (which broke box office records), Buckley announced last weekend that she'll resign May 31. During her tenure, Next made a strategic cut in its annual number of productions, increased its subscriber base, and won three consecutive Jeff awards for best ensemble for plays she directed. But she's had a crowded plate: she's also a guest director at Writers' Theatre Chicago, a text coach at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, and an adjunct faculty member at Northwestern University. Somehow, she'd begun to feel the constraints of the full-time job. She'll direct Talley's Folly at Northlight next year and wants to be free to accept other tantalizing but too-soon-to-talk-about offers. "It's just a career move," she says. "Over the years I've had to turn down some wonderful things because Next was my priority." Next has had only three artistic directors in its 21-year history; the board of directors will begin its search for a new one through the League of Chicago Theatres this week. Buckley's final play at Next will be David Gow's Cherry Docs, a midwest premiere she'll direct this spring. After that, she says, "what's going to be difficult is what happens when I find a play I'm really passionate about. Instead of just doing it, I'm going to have to pitch it to other theaters."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.