No one is better at intimate than Writers Theatre artistic director Michael Halberstam, who made a 50-seat playhouse out of the back of a Glencoe bookstore, grew it over two decades into what the Wall Street Journal has called the best drama company in the country, and is about to move it into a $31 million home designed by starchitect Jeanne Gang.
The new 36,000-square-foot building, two blocks from Books on Vernon, won't include any huge auditoriums: Halberstam is sticking to his formula of presenting Broadway-quality theater at arm's length. Its two stages will seat a maximum of 250 and 99 people, respectively. But when it opens in early 2016, everything will be state-of-the-art. Writers' hardscrabble days, working with "a four-by-eight platform, a few plastic chairs, a swath of purple fabric on the wall, and some coffee cans with floodlights in them," as Halberstam recalls, will be history.
That's one reason you'll find him this month in the basement black box at the Chopin Theatre. He's directing his own, streamlined adaptation of Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House there, for Definition Theatre, a young company of a half dozen recent University of Illinois graduates. Halberstam met these kids when they were students in a UI workshop he led; he's on their advisory board, and says it's a privilege to work with them. But there's something in it for him too—a chance "to remember what it's like to do theater when you have $1,000 for your set budget and the only thing that's going to hold the show together is everybody's passion. It's about just checking in to make sure I haven't strayed too far off the path."
In fact, the Chopin, with its funky antique atmosphere, is a much more polished space than the chilly, raw room where I first saw Halberstam and his friend and Writers cofounder Marilyn Campbell on a December evening 23 years ago, talking about the theater they planned to launch there. Halberstam put his spiffy English accent to work for a reading of Dylan Thomas's A Child's Christmas in Wales, and everyone in the visibly charmed audience was given a book and an audiotape on the way out. Campbell eventually moved on to other pursuits, continuing with Writers as an artistic collaborator, but for Halberstam it was the beginning of a romance.
They had wound up in Glencoe by chance. Someone introduced Halberstam to Pat Rahmann, who was a partner in the bookstore and was looking for someone to host play readings there. "There wasn't anything else happening there," Halberstam says, "and we had the companionship of Apple Tree, just to the north of us, and Northlight and Next, to the south—enough to establish that there was credible theater, and not enough to overcrowd the market."
Apple Tree and Next are now both gone, but the suburban location—the subject of enough qualms that the company was for a time named "Writers Theatre Chicago"—turned out to be a happy fit for Writers. From the beginning, Halberstam aimed to produce only the best work, paying Equity rates and casting Chicago's top talent. And Glencoe and its North Shore neighbors were home to seasoned theatergoers able to support that kind of endeavor and happy to have it in their backyard. All he had to do was cultivate that support, which he did—assiduously, and very well. By 2003, when Writers opened a second, 108-seat stage at the Glencoe Woman's Library Club (now torn down to make way for the new building), it had a $1.2 million annual budget and a subscription base of 3,200.
Halberstam says he can recall only a single notable rough spot. In 1997, Niedecker, a "beautiful" but relatively unknown play about Wisconsin poet Lorine Niedecker, failed to attract an audience, and "our cash flow just dried up."
A donor came, unsolicited, to the rescue. Otherwise, it's pretty much been a series of raves, honors, and sold-out runs—remarkably smooth sailing to the current annual budget of about $4 million and a subscriber base of 5,600. Executive director Kathryn Lipuma says that with the new building, which will consolidate Writers' now scattered operations, the budget will rise to $6 million, and they expect to have 7,000 subscribers.
They've already raised more than $29 million of their $34 million capital campaign, and nobody's even complaining about the notoriously difficult process of construction. Work with Studio Gang has been, in Halberstam's word, "heavenly."
That's a long string of excellent luck and big bucks even for Glencoe, as Halberstam is aware.
"As I'm saying this," he confides, "I'm frantically touching
There are still two chances to catch Writers in the bookstore: The Diary of Anne Frank, directed by Kimberly Senior, has been extended through August 2, and the final bookstore production, Marjorie Prime, opens in October. Halberstam's lickety-split 90-minute Doll's House continues at the Chopin through May 3. v