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The tale of counterpointed solo theater projects

Call it the tale of two solo theater projects. It began as one, but, as things often turn out, there was a parting of ways.

The back story: In 2014, actor Ronald Keaton and director Kurt Johns kicked off a new endeavor under the umbrella title of SoloChicago Theatre. The first show out of the gate, “Churchill” – which starred Keaton as the irrepressible British prime minister who triumphantly led his country through World War II – became a big success, first at the Greenhouse Theater Center, and then in a New York remount at New World Stages, with a subsequent return to Chicago and other engagements around the country. The show was produced by Wendy and William Spatz, the owner-operators of the Greenhouse, the “theatrical multiplex” at 2257 N. Lincoln. And Keaton and Johns made it clear they had plans for other solo shows – the work of both them and others – to be staged at the Greenhouse.

Fast forward to Wednesday morning, and the announcement that the Greenhouse Theater Center will now be host to a new project named “Solo Celebration!,” a seven-month performance series running June 2016 – Jan. 2017. It is designed to include “full-length one-person plays, special events, comedians, musical performances and more,” with a call for submissions for those interested in the form.

The facade of the Greenhouse Theater Center which has just announced its “Solo Celebration!” project.
The facade of the Greenhouse Theater Center which has just announced its “Solo Celebration!” project.

Wendy and William Spatz will produce (with all the Greenhouse’s resident companies, including Remy Bumppo, American Blues, Route 66 and others getting first choice of dates for their seasons). Named as artistic director of the Greenhouse, and curator-producer of this new project is Jacob Harvey, who recently moved to Chicago after working at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, as associate producer and interim director of programming for the New York Musical Theatre Festival, and as co-artistic director of Mechanicals Theatre Group in Los Angeles.

So what happened?

In conversations earlier today both parties admitted that the severed relationship is rooted in a disagreement about the terms under which “Churchill” might have continued its New York run.

“We thought we had a wonderful relationship with Ron [Keaton],” said William Spatz. “‘Churchill’ was his baby, and he did a wonderful job with it. We wish him well.”

Ron Keaton starred in the one-man show, “Churchill,” the initial offering of SoloChicago Theatre. (Photo: Jason Epperson)
Ron Keaton starred in the one-man show, “Churchill,” the initial offering of SoloChicago Theatre. (Photo: Jason Epperson)

Keaton and Johns retain all rights to ‘Churchill,” and will continue with their project, SoloChicago Theatre, using a different venue. Two new projects should be announced next month. But for now, the Spatzes and Harvey are trumpeting their planned 50 weeks of programming, with specific application requirements to be found at: http://www.greenhousetheater.org. The deadline for submissions is March 1, 2016, with applicants will be notified of their status on a rolling basis.

The programming for “Solo Celebration!” (which is being funded by the Wendy and William Spatz Charitable Foundation), will include as many as 15 full-length plays, which may run for up to six weeks, as well as a multitude of limited engagements, running from one to three weeks, and special events with one or two performances. Most productions will be produced by Greenhouse Theater Center or co-produced by the venue in partnership with an established theater company. All four of the Greenhouse’s performance spaces (two 200-seat theaters and two 60-seat black-box studios) will be used at various times. All artists will be paid, and all productions will receive box office, house management and marketing support.

According to William Spatz: “We already have two shows we are close to announcing – one a world premiere with a male performer; the other, already seen Off Broadway, which features an actress. Both shows are about historical figures; I’ve always admired TimeLine Theatre’s concept in that regard, though we certainly are not competing with that company. As for casting, we’ll look for Chicago actors first, but we’re also looking for ‘headliners’.”

“The ability of a single performer to mesmerize an audience has always been fascinating to Bill and me,” said Wendy Spatz, in a prepared statement. “This performance series will showcase artists, both local and from across North America, and perhaps other areas of the world, who possess this amazing gift.”

“Playwrights, producers, theater companies, actors (both Equity and non-Equity), comedians, singers, cabaret artists and other solo performers are all encouraged to apply for inclusion in ‘Solo Celebration!,’” said Harvey. “We want ‘Solo Celebration!’ to make the Greenhouse Theater Center a hub for this sense of community, showcasing the incredible talent our community of theater artists has to offer, while also bringing in exceptional productions from other cities to inspire additional artistic growth and expression.”

Meanwhile, in collaboration with Keaton, Johns (who said: “We believe ‘Churchill’ could still be running in New York”) will soon announce two new shows – one for summer 2016 and the other for the holiday 2016 period. Keaton, who will take “Churchill” to Florida soon, is writing a new piece, and Johns said he “fell in love with” a solo work via New York’s Fringe Festival that he also hopes to present here.

If nothing else, you can bet there will be a lot of “only/lonely” actors waiting in the wings of Chicago theaters this season.