Aug. 28--In an unexpected flurry of late summer activity, it was revealed that two Chicago theater companies are eyeing new homes in buildings that once were put to use by the city of Chicago.
Chicago Children's Theatre, in residence at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts in the Near North neighborhood, is looking at rehabilitating the old 12th District police station at 100 S. Racine Ave., in the growing Near West Side neighborhood. Meanwhile, TimeLine Theatre, currently in residence at the Wellington Avenue United Church of Christ in Lakeview, is considering a move to the former Trumbull Elementary School in Andersonville. Trumbull recently was closed by Chicago Public Schools.
Neither of these companies made any kind of announcement; on the contrary, they had been trying to explore these potential moves as quietly as possible. But when you are dealing with city-owned buildings in Chicago neighborhoods, there has to be aldermanic involvement and neighborhood meetings and the like. News leaked out, as it always does. The neighborhood organization in the Near West Side scheduled a meeting. In Andersonville, Ald. Pat O'Connor, 40th, put details of all the redevelopment proposals he had received for the school on his website. Both Chicago Children's Theatre and TimeLine were scurrying to catch up; there are lessons there in getting ahead of the news with a viable public relations strategy.
These hardly are the first examples of reused city buildings becoming attractive to arts groups.
Rehabilitating a building, even one as far removed from a theater as a police station, usually is considerably cheaper than building a new theater from the ground up. Moreover, retired city buildings are usually in the hands of politicians who cannot be seen to be merely interested in getting the most bang for the buck. A building like Trumbull (which is emotionally resonant) already is attracting enormous amounts of attention in Andersonville. O'Connor cannot be seen as just handing it over to a developer, especially since local preservationists are watching like hawks.
The other major advantage of rehabbing city buildings is that they typically are available for below-market rates.
Under former Mayor Richard M. Daley's administration, many former city buildings were given to nonprofit groups virtually free of charge. Examples include the former Summerdale police station on Foster Avenue, which the city sold to the Griffin Theatre Company for $1. And then there is the granddaddy of all these sweet deals: Lookingglass Theatre Company's tenancy of the high-profile Water Tower Water Works on Michigan Avenue. That space is rented for $1 a year, although the building remains the active Chicago Avenue Pumping Station, and Lookingglass had to fund the build-out itself.
And there's the rub. Griffin acquired that police station in 2011, and yet it still has to raise the relatively small amount of money required to turn it into a theater. I've written about this issue several times. It remains perplexing but also a cautionary tale.
Both the Chicago Children's Theatre and TimeLine will, it seems likely, have to raise capital funds to do the work. In the current climate, that is far from easy. For one thing, there is a great deal of competition. Steppenwolf Theatre Company is trying to raise money for its own expansion plan in Lincoln Park, in an era when city support is much harder to come by than when the Goodman Theatre made its move into the Loop a decade ago. And with all the redesign work taking place on Navy Pier, you can bet your life that Chicago Shakespeare Theater is about to announce a capital campaign to support its own ambitions of more and better space. Those are big, competitive dogs if you are a TimeLine or a Chicago Children's Theatre.
Nonetheless, history teaches us that theaters need a home if they are to survive in Chicago. Precious few itinerant companies last beyond a few years, but a company like LifeLine Theatre can last for decades if it has a place to hang its shingle. Both of these theaters are smart to consider these moves. Ruth Page is an adequate space, but it's the Ruth Page. Chicago Children's Theatre can't put its sign on the door. And although the Wellington Avenue church has been mighty good to TimeLine, allowing the theater to create a better-than-adequate performance space, it's still a room inside a church building. It is not exactly the Guthrie Theatre.
Up north in Glencoe, there is the imminent groundbreaking of the new Writers Theatre, designed by star architect Jeanne Gang. If you're working in a church, you can be forgiven for casting an envious eye.
I think both the new proposals are promising. Theaters are attractive to neighborhood groups. The Near West Side has changed greatly since I lived there throughout the 1990s, but even then there was a determination to attract families and cultural assets to a generally underserved area (beyond cutting-edge eateries). City Winery, a music venue with some family programming, has blazed a trail. Chicago Children's Theatre will have to educate its audience as to its locale, where no one is used to going for a show, and I've long thought downtown was the place the company needed to be. Still, this could work, assuming the company can raise the money.
TimeLine, which opens its new season this weekend with "My Name Is Asher Lev" at Stage 773, has one advantage over the Children's Theatre -- it is in league with a developer that wants to use the neighborhood-friend notion of a new theater in a historical auditorium as a way to smooth the passage of other forms of commerce (housing, retail) in the school. There will be a vested interest in making sure the theater gets a deal that will work for the theater. Plus, Trumbull already has a theatrical space.
There is, of course, no reason former cells cannot become dressing rooms or performance spaces. But the Chicago Children's Theatre is both pushing west and, it appears, going it alone.
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