Inconvenient Truth about Art and Money - Zygmunt Dyrkacz and Lela Headd


Dear PerformInk:

To Kerry Reid’s elaborate and thoughtful article on Sketchbook 2007 at Steppenwolf, we’d like to add that Sketchbook had six successful editions at Chopin Theatre, culminating in it having the “hip Wicker Park/Bucktown following” mentioned in the article. But we’d like to add another dimension to the article that is rarely spoken of openly—the importance of money for sustaining good art companies.

Back in 1999 when Sketchbook was the One Act Festival, it played at the smaller Chopin Theatre Studio at $500/week and was an artistic success. The next year, the Studio was booked and Collaboraction didn’t have funds to rent the bigger Mainstage. After a lot of convincing and guarantees from Chopin Theatre to cover possible deficits, Sketchbook moved to the Mainstage and really started to rock. In 2001 Chopin was already booked and the festival moved to the much bigger and open space of Viaduct Theatre. But for the next four editions, Sketchbook moved back to the Chopin Theatre. Seats were rearranged. Sketches were presented seven days/week. Enthusiastic crowds hung out late into the night. And the reviews were very enthusiastic about the atmosphere and ambiance. Despite all of this, the festival did not make enough to cover production costs.

We could see the same under-financing problems with Collaboraction’s outstanding anti-war production of Guinea Pig Solo. Chopin Theatre tried to extend this very much needed, and mostly sold-out, production by offering $5,000 but Collaboraction could not find any organization in Chicago to help with the other $5,000 to keep it running.

So the recent move to Steppenwolf, where we understand the rent is free or almost free. That, along with the huge marketing prowess of Steppenwolf, is a great financial move and not necessarily for artistic reasons.

Similarly 500 Clown, which had two long and artistically acclaimed engagements at Chopin Theatre, has now been adopted by Steppenwolf. 500 Clown is also trying to enhance their financial possibilities by performing in Lookingglass Theatre and Millennium Park’s Chicago Children’s Theater.

Low/no funds also factored in to the decision to discontinue for two resident directors at Chopin, both selected as two and three of the most exciting directors in the City by Timeout Chicago: Mikael Garver (off to Columbia University in New York with a scholarship) and Brandon Bruce (off to the University of Iowa with a scholarship). Both spent years trying to make a small living from their excellent work; subsidizing their productions with their own free work and finances. Mikael’s company, Uma Productions, was also on the list to work at Steppenwolf this fall, before it folded (see Curtain, page 8).

Low/no funding has claimed many others like Body Politic, New Crime, Roadworks, Defiant etc., who, like good soldiers, faded away from the theatre scene (sometimes to more lucrative enterprises). Most became weary of the bureaucratic, compromising, tiresome process of obtaining support. Part of the process depends on your paper production prowess, who you know, how you approach the wealthy, what’s your programming, if you do outreach for children and minorities, whether you have a star, etc. Eventually these mature experienced artists, who could influence the cultural, social and political discourse of our city and country, give up. They begin to think about having enough income to start families, buy their own housing, etc.

Mr. Bill Ivey, former chair of NEA, says that the American system for financing and supporting art is broken. And there is not much in that system to support independent, unsubsidized, privately owned theatres like Chopin Theatre, who could grow with these theatre companies through their mid-life crises.

Many years ago, Richard Christiansen wrote a review about A. Dybbuk at Chopin Theatre entitled “The Best Theater Came in Small Packages.”Now the money and energy of the city has moved to the expensive Disneyland otherwise known as Millennium Park.

And maybe that’s why Sketchbook has to become a “show” and theatres like Chopin Theatre are always financially off-balance.

Zygmunt Dyrkacz
Lela Headd
Chopin Theatre