If you build it, what really happens?

February 2, 2012

As Jonathan and I will discuss more fully on Friday, 'tis the season for theater companies to move and build. On the one hand, this is the good news: Black Ensemble needs and deserves to emerge from the basement into the sunlight, and to have room enough to do the new-show development for which it's known. Audiences will be able to find Rivendell and Griffin at permanent locations instead of trying to remember where they're in residence this season. Writers Theatre is beyond ready for a home large enough to encompass its audience, let alone its ambition; and certainly if Chicago Shakespeare wants a new stage there's no question it will be able to put it to good use.

But.

This building boom raises two concerns: First, in the years immediately following a company's move to a new space, there's often a dramatic decline in quality. It's not entirely clear why this should be the case, and there are certainly exceptions (Steep and Artistic Home come to mind).

"New Building Disease," though, is a well-known syndrome: just ask anyone who subscribed to Steppenwolf during those first seasons at Halsted and North. The company was so distracted by the process of moving, and so intoxicated by the toys available in its new home, that there seemed to be no energy left to invest in the shows themselves. I recall its world-premiere production of The Man From Nebraska, chiefly for the use of the lift at center stage, which was so frequent and so distracting that the point of the play-- stasis at mid-life-- disappeared completely.

Similarly the Goodman spent its first few years on Dearborn Street reveling in its new-found access to fly-space, with sets that flew and hung and did everything but roller-skate absorbing audience attention that should have been directed to the plays themselves. The expression "hoist on its own petard" came insistently to mind.

Eventually, of course, both theaters regained their footing. And no one would argue that either company was better off before having access to the full range of theatrical resources. But when smaller and less-established companies turn the bulk of their attention to their physical spaces, they risk losing the artistic focus that brought them to their current level of success. And, unlike the biggest troupes, they lack the staying power to sustain a couple-three bad years. Good spaces are valuable, but they also require some adjustment, and everyone who's preparing to build or move should be aware of that cost and try to figure out how to keep it to a minimum.

And speaking of cost, the other significant concern about all this bricks-and-mortar activity is the sheer financial burden of owning one's own space. It's worth remembering that the original Organic Theatre, of E/R and Bleacher Bums fame, was sunk by the capital and maintenance costs of the space it purchased on Clark Street. Sure, it was wonderful to have a permanent home, but when it turned out to be too expensive to heat the mainstage, the company had to confine itself to doing work in the studio. Sure, it was great to have multiple spaces, but each of them required upkeep which in turn required rentals which in turn diminished the identification of the company with its building--when identity is often one of the main reasons to construct a building. Nor is this the only example: The first inhabitants of the Theatre Building (now Stage 773) head the roster of theater-renaissance troupes no longer with us. Even the venerable Body Politic--and even while sharing space and expenses with Victory Gardens--paid the ultimate price for having a permanent address.  

Any real-estate agent will tell you that first-time buyers always get too much space and saddle themselves with too much debt. First-time theater are no exception. Naturally, each of today's companies has prepared itself for a significant fundraising campaign, but when the campaign is over the day-to-day expenses remain, and it would be a shame to trade an inadequate space for a day in bankrupty court.

As some right-wing economist is reputed to have said, there ain't no such thing as a free lunch. Each of the companies now engaged in moving and building should remember that in addition to the immediate financial costs of a new space there are artistic costs and long-term costs, and should proceed with appropriate care. Thus spake Cassandra.