We call it a bricks-and-mortar story when a theater company buys its own building and takes on a mortgage to have its own, permanent home. Sometimes it’s not a purchase but a long-term lease, one which requires the company to shoulder the costs of renovating or retrofitting a space into a suitable playhouse.
Such stories are the stock-in-trade for an arts business reporter, which is a part of what I do in addition to being a theater reviewer. But bricks-and-mortar stories fluctuate with the times and often can be seen as an economic indicator of sorts. The last few years have been relatively quiet with regard to bricks-and-mortar commitments; no surprise there. Just now, however, there are a handful of new projects percolating quietly, if not exactly boiling over.
Certainly, the biggest bricks-and-mortar story of the last year was the opening of the new Black Ensemble Cultural Center on Clark Street at Sunnyside, a new construction project with a price tag of between $16 million and $19 million. It’s just the sort of thing you don’t do when the economy is bad. In this case, however, the planning goes back to 2005 with the purchase of the property and the backstage fundraising one must do long before making a public announcement. Black Ensemble founder/executive director Jackie Taylor and her board already had lined up a lot of ducks before the economy collapsed, which allowed planning and construction to proceed.
In another case, the Griffin Theatre Company secured the property before it secured the money. Griffin, which has been an itinerant troupe for several years, originally was headquartered in Andersonville and the company founders liked the idea of returning to the old ‘hood. A few years ago, Griffin set its sights on a vacant police station on Foster Avenue just east of Damen. All they needed to do was convince the City of Chicago to sell the space to them for a nominal $1 (as the city is wont to do from time to time). Griffin figured they’d need about $1 million to retrofit the station (of course, the jail cells would be perfect just the way they are as actors’ dressing rooms) but couldn’t really begin raising money until the City made up its mind about the property. Alas, the City dithered for about three years before, finally, awarding the property to Griffin in 2011. Griffin, which is not a large troupe, now has begun the arduous task of fundraising, and the price tag has gone up a bit (of course). The company now is on a two-year timetable and hopes to have the old precinct house in operation in 2014.
Rent and Improve
The rent-and-improve model takes far less cash, and any loans taken out tend to be far shorter term than a mortgage. The downside, however, is that if you disenchant the landlord you can be out at the end of your three-year or five-year or even ten-year lease; and even if the landlord loves you, he/she/they/it may increase your rent at lease renewal time. Also, landlords can (and frequently have) let you make all necessary capital improvements to the space.
Still, rent-and-improve can be the way to go if conditions are right, as they were in 2011 for Rivendell Theatre Ensemble, which now has its first-ever permanent home after 15 years of gypsy life. The new Rivendell space at 5779 Ridge Avenue in Edgewater opens March 8 with Falling: A Wake after about six months of gut rehab and build-out of the interior space, reportedly achieved for a mid-six figure sum. One hopes the troupe, guided by co-founder Tara Mallen, has a good, iron-clad ten-year lease!
Not too far south, on Lawrence Avenue, National Pastime Theater soon will unveil its new home on the fourth floor of the Preston Bradley Center (The People’s Church) in Uptown. With over 6,000 square feet, the spacious quarters prominently feature a classically columned Masonic Hall, easily being converted into a 300-seat theater. James Cappleman, alderman of the 46th Ward, helped broker the arrangement so, presumably, it’s a solid one with a multi-year lease. National Pastime previously had occupied the Old Speakeasy in a large commercial and apartment building on Broadway at Buena; a building which also houses Profiles Theatre. But National Pastime ran afoul of the landlord and had to choose between a large rent increase or finding new quarters. Not so the companion Profiles, which quickly snapped up the Old Speakeasy as its second leased space in the building. Apparently perfectly happy paying rent, Profiles also operates the Second Stage, a storefront theater on Sheffield at Roscoe.
At least two very large new performing arts venues now are on the horizon as well. Last week, Northwestern University announced plans for a $117 million, five-story building for the Bienen School of Music, which will adjoin the existing theater and music venues facing the lakefront. The hall will include classrooms, rehearsal rooms, offices and studios as well as a black box theater and a 400-seat recital hall. Groundbreaking is to be in May with a three-year construction schedule.
Navy Pier also has plans to dig more deeply into the theater biz with its current principal partner, Chicago Shakespeare Theater. Earlier this week, the media revealed that three finalists are competing for a redesign of the outdoors public portions of the Pier; a series of projects slated to cost $155 million and be completed in time for the Navy Pier centenary in 2016. But the Pier’s centenary plan includes much more than an exterior make-over: it also features a plan to replace the Skyline Stage with a large, indoor flexible theater that can seat 500-1000 depending on configuration and will have proscenium arch capabilities. At present, there is no start date or price tag for this project, which certainly will be in eight-figures. Folks at Chicago Shakes began talking about it a good five years ago before running into the roadblock of a sour economy. Don’t rule out the possibility, however, that this addition to the Pier might, somehow, see the light of day in 2016.
Skyline stage has a wonderful, iconic shape (the permanent parabolic tent) but is limited to seasonal use as a concert venue and—for the last several years—home to the summer-long Cirque Shanghai. Moving from the 1500-seat Skyline Stage into a 1,000-seat indoor house doesn’t seem to make good business sense, even supposing Chicago Shakes would want an all-summer tenant. So what, one wonders, will the Pier do with Cirque Shanghai? It’s a bridge that may need to be crossed a few years down the road, but not just yet.