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Chicago’s storefront theaters hoping curtains will rise again once coronavirus shutdown lifts

The League of Chicago Theatres says 93 of its 237 members have budgets of under $75,000 a year — which means one show’s revenue helps pay for the next.

Griffin Theatre was forced to cancel the lucrative final two weekends of “Mlima’s Tale” due to the mandatory shutdown of all theaters amid the coronavirus pandemic. Pictured in a scene from the production are Lewon Johns (from left), David Goodloe and Michael Turrentine.
Griffin Theatre was forced to cancel the lucrative final two weekends of “Mlima’s Tale” due to the mandatory shutdown of all theaters amid the coronavirus pandemic. Pictured in a scene from the production are Lewon Johns (from left), David Goodloe and Michael Turrentine.
Michael Brosilow

The new normal for Chicago theater consists of an ongoing attempt to predict the future. A crystal ball would come in handy.

To say the coronavirus crisis has thrown theaters big and small into unprecedented turmoil is an understatement. Every theater has been jolted by the mandated shutdown of all non-essential businesses.

Taking the hardest hit in the theater community (outside of creatives who’ve lost their jobs) are the storefront organizations, most operating on a shoestring budget with nowhere near the deeper pockets of larger theater companies.

The stay-at-home edict came as many Chicago theaters were ready to open new productions and others were about to begin rehearsals for shows slated to debut in late April or May.

Other plays, caught in the middle of a run, were canceled, with a handful able to offer online streaming for ticket holders.

Many theaters also had major spring fundraisers postponed, canceled or moved online.

Some welcome relief came with Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s announcement of the Arts for Illinois Relief Fund to provide financial assistance to artists, artisans and cultural organizations.

“We’re very grateful that so many people and organizations have come together to support the arts at this time,” said Leda Hoffmann, artistic direct of Strawdog Theatre, with an operating budget of $250,000. “There are still a lot of unknowns about the long-term effect of these closures on small organizations like us, but we know relief is needed now, and I’m glad we can get started.”

The League of Chicago Theatres says 93 of its 237 members have budgets of under $75,000 a year. At these smaller companies, one show’s revenue often helps pay for the next.

Strawdog’s staging of Brian James Polak’s “Welcome to Keene, New Hampshire” was set to begin April 17. Rehearsals were moved online, as was a fundraiser, but the show is postponed.

Hoffmann said it’s a scary time for storefront theaters, but she’s “grateful to have the flexibility of a smaller organization. Small theaters have always been able to find a way somehow. The finances are the big struggle, but the will is very much there.”

At Griffin Theatre, whose annual operating budget is around $400,000, the final two weekends of “Mlima’s Tale” (usually a show’s most lucrative dates) were canceled, as were two tours of the company’s highly successful children’s shows: “The Stinky Cheese Man” and “Frindle.” Artistic director Bill Massolia said the tours are a loss of $60,000 to $70,000.

Griffin has an online fundraising campaign going to raise money to pay the “Milma’s Tale” artists through the end of the run and finance the company through July.

“If we can just get through the summer, that will give us the breathing room to be able to figure out a strategy for the fall,” Massolia said. “This is all a little bit overwhelming.”

At Raven Theatre, which is also a rental house, artistic director Cody Estle said, “I’m wearing tracks into my wood floors because I keep pacing.”

Over the past few years, Raven, with an operating budget of $750,000, worked on making sure there were some reserves, Estle said. “But when I say reserves for a theater our size, it’s not very much. It could cover us for eight weeks or so.”

Broken Nose Theatre artistic director Elise Marie Davis said her biggest fear is that some companies won’t be able to bounce back. Broken Nose moved this season’s final show, Eric Reyes Loo’s “This Is Only a Test,” to next season. Davis said the company’s operating budget is “under six figures.”

“I think we’re going to see a very different theater scene moving forward,” she said. “My big fear is this will be a death sentence for some non-Equity theaters.”

How quickly will theatergoers, many of them older, return when the OK is given?

“Perhaps smaller spaces will be allowed to open firs,t” said League of Chicago Theatres executive director Deb Clapp. “Their audiences skew younger than some others, so maybe those audiences will be more willing to go back to the theater sooner. They may be in the best position for recovery. But, of course, that is all conjecture.”

Rivendell Theatre artistic director Tara Mallen said: “I am so encouraged by how much we have actually been able to accomplish online over these past three weeks — the play readings, the production meetings, the classes we have continued to teach. We are still working at Rivendell, still crafting stories that need to be shared and lifting up voices that need to be heard.”

Mary Houlihan is a freelance writer.