Off-Loop theater: Endangered species list

November 30, 2010

The chickens that flew the coop in 2008 are coming home to roost as 2010 winds down. We're talking about funding for non-profit theaters, of course. The economic collapse two years ago seemed to have little effect on non-profit institutions, the reason being that major foundation and corporate funding commitments are made a year or more in advance. The money for 2009 and even 2010 already was in the pipeline. But now the pipelines are running dry.

In terms of theaters (or dance troupes or musical organizations for that matter), it's often difficult to know if a company is in trouble or not. Putting on a season is the name of the game, not transparency. It's easy to announce plans for a season, and then cancel them later or quickly fold the tent as the sorely-missed Apple Tree Theatre did last year, and as About Face Theatre nearly did (a crash fund-raising effort saved them). On that basis, the Chicago Endangered Theater List would include Pegasus Players, Congo Square Theatre Company and National Pastime Theater.

Pegasus Players appears gravely moribund (a picture of their theater from the 1980s, above). The company—which celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2009—has not announced a 2010-2011 season and has not produced a show since March. The Pegasus website hasn't been updated in a year, the telephone has been disconnected and no one from Pegasus has responded to emails from this writer asking what's up.

Congo Square Theatre Company—so hot, hot, hot just a few years ago—has gone through the departure of the founding artistic director (Derrick Sanders) and a revolving door of board members and managers. Still, Congo Square clings to life with its fifth annual Christmas show ("The Nativity" at the Goodman Theatre) which well may be its only income-earning proposition of the year. Word is the troupe—founded in 1999—is re-organizing again and has selected a new managing director. Meanwhile, who's running the store artistically? Congo Square's website promises a four-day festival of the arts (theater, music and dance) in February showcasing several TBA Chicago artists and companies, plus a world premiere production, "Brothers of the Dust," by Darren Canady, in May. We'll see.

National Pastime Theater is in a different type of crunch. Laurence Bryan's company was a for-profit entity for much of its 20-history, relying on income from rental of its interesting, 99-seat, former speakeasy space on Broadway and Irving Park Road. Bryan himself admits that National Pastime (NP) flew under the radar of city licenses and approvals for much of that time (as did numerous other Off-Loop theaters). But NP went legit non-profit a few years ago, spending the bucks to make required capital improvements and entering the funding competition. Alas, the timing couldn't have been worse. Not only has fundraising been difficult, but Bryan reports rental income is down as well. In addition, he says NP pays a much higher rent per-square-foot than Profiles Theatre, its near neighbor in the same building. Ticket sales for NP's recent production of "Doo Lister's Blues" were disappointing (closed Nov. 28). Bryan fears that NP may fold its tent in mid-winter following a co-production with Clock Productions.