4:11 PM CDT, May 9, 2012
Mel Brooks' savvy producer Max Bialystock would never have closed down a hit show. But in Chicago, it happens all the time.
The Goodman Theatre production of David Mamet's "Race" sold out its final weeks of performances, yet the show still closed with much public demand unmet. "Hit the Wall" by The Inconvenience had lines around the block, but it managed only a couple of weeks' extension at the Steppenwolf Garage. "The Homosexuals," a hit this time last year from About Face Theatre, was forced to vacate its space long before demand for tickets was exhausted. And those are just three of many hits that closed in a way that would never happen in New York.
So what's the difference? In Chicago, many of the best shows bubble up from nonprofit companies that make up the bulk of the city's theatrical offerings. Those companies usually are committed to subscription seasons, meaning that spaces must be vacated for the next show. And it's not typically in their mission, nor their modus operandi, to risk their own funds to transfer their work.
When a show hits in New York, commercial producers usually swoop in and take things from there, paying the producing company a fee and a royalty. That rarely happens in Chicago, mostly because such producers are not thick on the ground. Plenty of New York producers keep an eye on Chicago hits, but they generally want to move them to New York. But it would be much better for our local economy — attracting tourists, helping restaurants and putting Chicago theater artists to work — if those shows stayed here.
Enter the Chicago Commercial Collective LLC, a newly incorporated group of young producers who say they intend to do just that. Starting this summer.
"I think the situation here is frustrating," said Aurelia Fisher, an arts consultant and one of the three partners in this new venture, along with Brian Loevner (managing director of Chicago Dramatists) and Monty Cole (who works for Groupon). "In New York, a show could go to Broadway from the Public Theater. If a show moves from here, the goal is to take it to New York. But we think there is a market in Chicago, plenty of venues in Chicago and a lot of art that could fill them."
The first endeavor is a remount of Keith Huff's cop drama "A Steady Rain," replete with its original Chicago cast at Chicago Dramatists, opening in early July and produced by the Chicago Commercial Collective.
Loevner says his group is also eyeing the TimeLine Theatre production of "To Master the Art," a play about Julia Child that blew out the box office in 2010.
Loevner and Fisher say they've raised about $150,000 and plan to concentrate on smaller shows that could be capitalized for $30,000 to $100,000. The spaces would depend on the needs of the show. "We think venues like Stage 773 and the Mercury Theater would really benefit from having these shows in their buildings," Loevner said. "And we also want to find downtown venues, such as the Broadway Playhouse, where we can bring these shows."
The trio has met with some of the heavy hitters in town, including Broadway in Chicago, and they say that everyone has been supportive.
It will all take money, of course. Conventional wisdom has long been that commercial productions in Chicago don't make money, but that model has usually involved bringing in hit shows from Broadway or elsewhere. The Collective is trying something different (and potentially cheaper) by relying on shows that bubble up from the ground in Chicago. In essence, they think there is an untapped audience for the best of Chicago theater, and, perhaps more crucially, some untapped investors.
"There is a big community on the North Shore that invests in Broadway shows," Fisher says. "Our hope is that we can also persuade them to invest in shows in Chicago."
Indeed, many of those potential investors sit on the boards of area nonprofit theaters. Loevner knows that he has to tread carefully there — "we are not looking to poach anyone," he says — since a good philanthropist is hard to find. But a lot of Broadway money comes from Chicago investors, and those who give to nonprofits also might like to stick their toes in the commercial waters. And there's no question that costs in Chicago are far lower than in New York.
"We want to build an investor class in town," Loevner said. "And we got tired of seeing shows close too early in Chicago and that find success in other places."
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