In the small, 100-seat basement of the Chopin Theatre, a long runway cuts across the center of the room. Throughout Kokandy Productions’s edgy new musical, American Psycho, the 16 cast members can, at times, feel unnervingly close as they weave through the audience to reach the unconventional stage.
The experience is a far cry from the proscenium theaters of downtown.
A year ago, Kokandy filled this same intimate space in Wicker Park for a critically acclaimed run of Sweeney Todd, which earned the storefront musical company six non-equity Jeff Awards earlier this year and raised its profile. Now, amid a string of bad news about Chicago theaters cutting back budgets, seasons and staff, Kokandy is aiming for another hit.
But the company, founded in 2011, must wrestle with the same challenge faced by performance arts organizations citywide: how to get people to turn off Netflix and other streaming TV services and leave their couches. And its leaders must also contend with an unfolding controversy over the theater’s current performance space.
After another local arts organization leader detailed on Instagram an exchange with the building’s owners that included disturbing comments about race and trans issues, Kokandy and a second theater company took to social media to explain why, for now, they are choosing to stay put. Before finalizing the statement, the show’s director, Derek Van Barham, held an open discussion with the American Psycho cast.
“While we complete these contracts,” as renters, Kokandy’s statement reads, “we will be in ongoing dialogue about expected levels of respect and safety while we are in the space.”
The upstart theater company has navigated an unpredictable few years for Chicago arts groups through a combination of business savvy and enthusiasm for stripped-down, in-your-face productions.
“We tend to try to present a show differently than people have seen it before,” said Scot Kokandy, the company’s co-founder and executive producer, whose day job is in finance.
Kokandy aims for surprise, whether the show is a family-friendly summer production of Spongebob The Musical or this Halloween’s American Psycho, which is the Chicago premiere of a musical based on a Bret Easton Ellis book. The runway in American Psycho, for example, is both an economic and artistic choice — the tight space doesn’t allow for many props or elaborate sets and, instead, narrows the focus on the performers.
The company has also figured out a business formula that works: fewer shows per year with longer runs and extended previews. In fact, Kokandy said 44 shows seems to be the “magic number,” rather than doing around 25 shows like in the early days.
“I found just the math works much better if you do longer runs, because essentially, all that upfront expense is there” regardless of the number of shows, he said.
The theater company has also extended the typical preview period, which allows buzz to generate while ticket prices are lower. It also lets the cast and crew work out kinks before the press opening when critics see the show, Kokandy said. He describes three forms of marketing — word of mouth, Facebook and Instagram ads, and an email list — and among those, word of mouth is by far the most valuable.
Last year, 90% of Sweeney’s run sold out. Tickets sales for American Psycho have started strong, with Kokandy selling out its preview run, though sales overall are pacing behind Sweeney, according to the company. Adding another boost to fall revenue projections, Kokandy is also reprising Sweeney in concert form for two days in November in Munster, Indiana.
But the recent successes don’t mean the company is immune from the pressures on Chicago’s storefront theaters in a post-pandemic landscape.
In a typical year, Kokandy’s revenue is about 80-90% ticket sales, with the rest coming from individual donors and some foundation money from organizations like the Illinois Arts Council. When the pandemic eliminated ticket sales entirely, the company relied on a Shuttered Venue Operators Grant. Without that, Scot Kokandy said his company would have had to close up shop.
So when they staged a hit, Sweeney Todd, the company extended it to 60 performances.
“Sweeney Todd was not only the most critically successful, but it was the most financially successful show and what that allows is some runway because that lightning may not strike again,” said Kokandy, whose foray into storefront theater started in 2010 when a friend asked him to serve on the Jeff Awards committee.
“That really opened my eyes to oh, you don’t need 1,500 to 2,000 seats in a beautifully renovated, majestic downtown theater,” he said. “You could put on a show anywhere, you just need a room and people.”
Still, getting those people out of the house is the key to helping theaters of all sizes recover from the blow of the pandemic. Marissa Lynn Jones, head of the League of Chicago Theatres, speculates it will be another year before the industry is really back on its feet.
“It’s an interesting conundrum because people are at Taylor Swift, people are at Beyoncé, so it’s not that people have a problem coming out and being together,” she said. “I think we just have to exercise that muscle of a theater again and get people to remember why theater’s so special and it is different from being alone and separated in your house.”
Kokandy and Van Barham, the company’s artistic director who is staging American Psycho, are picky about their programming choices and the decisions they make center around audience. When thinking about a show, they ask themselves: Who would come see it? Beyond the musical theater diehards, they try to identify another audience for each show. For Spongebob, that was families. For a 2022 production of Cruel Intentions, it was nostalgic millennials eager for a night of ’90s music.
“We’re not like the ‘we only do movie musicals’ company and I don’t want us to be thought of as that, but that’s certainly an easy entry point for some audience members,” said Van Barham, whose day job is in marketing at Steppenwolf Theatre.
Earlier this month, the Chopin basement was abuzz with chaotic energy and excitement as the Kokandy crew put the final touches on American Psycho, based on the novel turned movie starring Christian Bale about a high-powered banker with a designer wardrobe and unhinged behavior. Kokandy’s take officially opens Friday and will run until Nov. 26.
Set in the indulgent world of Manhattan and Wall Street in the late ’80s, the show is a flash of bright lines, droll dialogue and violence. This is the type of fresh production Kokandy has become known for, prompting many actors to audition eagerly even if, as far as non-equity gigs go, the pay is middle of the road — decent, but not enough to live on.
“I saw Sweeney Todd and it spun my guts around, so when I saw that Derek was directing this one, I was like, I want to do it,” said cast member Sonia Goldberg, who is also a part-time theater teacher. “I was like American Psycho, that’s pretty weird, but I trust Derek so much, let’s just see what happens.”
Goldberg said she’s “grateful for the robust storefront scene in Chicago” right now, even if a lot of actors have to keep full-time jobs. “I think other markets have like two theaters. That’s it. And there’s not a lot of opportunity. Chicago, you have a lot of opportunity. I think that is a particular blessing and challenge.”
Even the show’s lead, Kyle Patrick, who hasn’t been working while preparing to play the creepy lead, says he’ll need to find a job after the show wraps, perhaps teaching as a circus aerialist. For now though, he’s focused entirely on his character — and on playing the part so he leaves audiences a bit unsettled. Hopefully, that will be enough to convince them to spread the word about the show.
Courtney Kueppers is a digital producer/reporter at WBEZ.
If you go: American Psycho will run Sept. 29-Nov. 26 at The Chopin Theater, 1543 W. Division St. Tickets from $40.