Signs of Trouble - Can our Storefront theaters survive the Broadway Blitz?

Chris Piatt and Kris Vire, TimeOut Chicago

Storefront frontlines

"On Division Street, at Ashland and Milwaukee Avenues, the Chopin Theatre overlooks the “Polish Triangle,” where neighborhood residents and elote vendors gather around the Nelson Algren fountain. Behind the theater’s shabbily impressive terra cotta facade, Chopin owners Zygmunt Dyrkacz and Lela Headd have played host to some of the most thrilling theater the city’s had to offer during the last 17 years: performances by such essential storefront companies as the Hypocrites, Collaboraction, Backstage and Signal Ensemble, among others, not to mention the European troupes the husband-and-wife team has imported and produced on its own dime. The two also have seen the demise of several respected storefront companies; Roadworks, Defiant and Uma Productions each put up their final shows under the Chopin’s roof in the past few years.

Headd rattles off a list of Chopin-based shows that have played to rave reviews and sold-out houses—and still couldn’t cover their production costs. Dyrkacz recalls how he offered to put up half the cost of an extended run so more audiences could see Collaboraction’s well-received Guinea Pig Solo in 2005. Though the houses were full, Collaboraction couldn’t find a matching donor and the show closed; it was $5,000 short.

Faced with the changing Ukrainian Village neighborhood, Dyrkacz and Headd have occasionally considered closing up shop themselves. The Wicker Park gentrification to the north and west is moving their way—Mr. Algren is now surrounded by three large bank branches—and property taxes are on the rise.  “We’re one of the few remaining arts and cultural organizations here,” Headd says. “When Zyg started I think there were at least 15, maybe even double that many theaters and 100 galleries; now it’s incredibly different.”

For small theater companies struggling to pay their bills, Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s August budget cuts were a crippling blow. Among the governor’s changes was a $3.3 million slash of the Illinois Arts Council’s funding—nearly half of the state agency’s budget for grants to artists and arts organizations—which “will have a devastating impact on theater groups in Chicago and throughout the state,” according to executive director Ra Joy of the Illinois Arts Alliance. “The cuts will result in fewer IAC grants to artists and arts organizations, and those that are awarded funding may receive a much smaller percentage of their requests.” Emerging companies that depend on state grants could easily fold.

To put things in perspective: Good, in-demand shows go unseen for lack of a few thousand bucks. A $3.3 million drop in state funds could threaten the very existence of dozens of storefront companies. The $60 million the city sunk into the downtown district’s nine theaters suddenly feels a little more…lopsided. Sure, downtown is the face of Chicago’s theater scene. But what good’s a face without a heart? Chicago loves to describe itself as a city of neighborhoods, but the city’s determination to create a central theater district comes, Headd says, “at the expense of our neighborhoods.”

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