Surviving in the suburbs

The tale of two theaters and their struggles for resources, and respect

The suburbs still may offer a more desirable lifestyle for millions of Americans, but the performing arts industry relentlessly glorifies the urban experience. The arts, we're often told, thrive on big-city challenges and iconography. That's especially true in Chicago, with its long-standing but self-aware tradition of gritty theatrical excellence.
    But while the big downtown theaters -- with their spiffy new facilities built with the help of City of Chicago largesse -- suck up most of the attention and money, theaters beyond the city limits are struggling. And it has become increasingly clear that a theatrical life in the suburbs -- even in the more affluent areas -- does not necessarily mean greener pastures.
    The Apple Tree Theatre of Highland Park has been around for 20 years; Writers' Theatre Chicago of Glencoe has existed for only 10. One continues to struggle with deficits; the other has seen rapid growth. One does an eclectic range of material; the other concentrates on the classical repertoire.
    But their situations reveal striking similarities about the suburban challenge. Both theater companies operate in communities without an entrenched tradition of civic giving to the arts. Both worry about how their work is perceived. Both have to fight for board members with the big downtown cultural institutions that have a long tradition of pillaging the suburbs for backers. Both have come to realize that their facilities are inadequate.
    And both theaters are wondering where they go from here.
   
    Apple Tree: A veteran's worries
   
    Over the last 19 years, Apple Tree Theatre has fought its way into the top tier of well-respected Chicago-area theaters. People tend to take it for granted.
    They may not know the Highland Park theater has just been through a major financial crisis and carries a hefty deficit from year to year.
    "I'm worried every year," says Apple Tree's founder and artistic director, Eileen Boevers, "that it's all going to go away."
    After 20 years as the theater's driving force, Boevers is ready to take a lower-profile role. But she's clearly worried that a public pronouncement of anything like that would further weaken the theater's shaky financial position.
    "I'd love to be able to say this is a legacy that I've left for this entire community," Boevers says. "I'd like to be able to reduce my responsibilities, but I want to keep the vision of the theater intact."
    For 19 seasons, Apple Tree Theatre has produced a diverse range of theater from the second floor of a strip mall. It has done more than 90 productions and is regarded by many Chicago-area theater-goers as an entrenched local institution.
    Name actors such as Daniel J. Travanti have appeared on its stage, and its repertoire has included new musicals from hot young composers such as Jeanine Tesori. Over the years, it has paid careful attention to the young people of Highland Park, offering an array of classes and children's programming.
    So, with all of these creative accomplishments, why is Apple Tree still on such weak financial ground?
    Clearly, part of Apple Tree's problem has been a lack of audience support in its immediate community. Although the theater has about 2,500 subscribers, that's only about 40 percent of the available seats. The current money problems stem largely from the financially disastrous 1999-2000 season, when productions of "Shakespeare's R & J," "Via Dolorosa" and "The Dying Gaul" all sold very few single tickets. For a theater without an endowment -- or any kind of financial cushion -- those weak sales represented a painful blow.
    "We tanked financially," Boevers says of that season. "We have trouble attracting single-ticket buyers."
   
    Small-time budget
    That explains why Apple Tree's annual budget is still only $1.2 million, a mere fraction of the large theaters in Chicago.
    Boevers says much of the trouble is the result of a perception problem.
    "It's frustrating to get the community to realize that we are here," she says. "We had to take a show to Chicago [`Sweeney Todd' in the mid-1980s] to be discovered by Highland Park. We face the phenomenon of not being accepted in our back yard. It's like when a member of your own family becomes famous. It's not the same."
    In other words, a suburban theater not only has to fight for respect from local cultural denizens, it also has to fight for respect among those residents who regard Chicago's institutions as higher quality.
    If that were not tough enough, there's another wrinkle.
    Boevers thinks that the artistic success of her theater for all these years has actually reduced -- rather than increased -- people's willingness to help.
    "People equate artistic success with financial success," she says. "Contributors have told me they put our requests aside because they figured we were doing fine because they kept reading our name in the paper."
    But until very recently, Apple Tree probably put too much emphasis on its artistic product at the expense of building the kind of political infrastructure it needed to push for more resources in a competitive marketplace. Its board of directors was composed of actors and directors, not local movers and shakers. As a result, the board lacked the long-term ability to raise the kind of funds that can protect a theater from weak results at the box office.
   
    Tightening the belt
    Since the close of the 1999-2000 season, when its deficit ballooned to $200,000, the theater has had to engage in a cost-cutting program that has involved deferring expensive productions. It has also realized it needed to retool its board of directors.
    "We've now gone from an artistic board to a more business-oriented board," says Cecilie Keenan, Apple Tree's new managing director.
    But board recruitment is far from easy in the suburbs -- especially on the North Shore. Many potential board candidates have already been tapped by Chicago institutions or by Ravinia, the 800-pound gorilla of North Shore philanthropic recruitment. Since board members are often motivated by perceptions of prestige, the local arts group often suffers.
    "We need the same people who sit on the Goodman Theatre board, the Chicago Symphony board or the Field Museum board," says Boevers. "It's hard to compete with that."
    "I guess we're not as sexy," says Keenan.
    Then there are the perceptions about Highland Park itself -- and its reputation for not needing the help of outsiders.
    "`You've got a wealthy community,' people tell us. `Why should we help you?'" Boevers says.
    And yet Apple Tree actually has had very little help from Highland Park. Should the city offer more support?
    "It all depends who you ask on the city council," says councilman Michael Belsky. "In my view, Apple Tree is part of the economic life of our downtown."
    When Apple Tree first moved into its current facility, the city helped negotiate a rent-cap arrangement with the facility's landlord. And in the depth of the 2000 crisis, Highland Park quietly kicked in about $50,000 in emergency help. But while the City of Chicago negotiated innovative facility funding options for groups such as the Chicago Shakespeare Theater (which is newer than Apple Tree) or the Goodman Theatre, Apple Tree still is stuck on the second floor of a strip mall without a scene shop. Large items have to be carried through the window of one of its offices. There has not been a significant renovation in 20 years.
    Highland Park has only $25,000 in its cultural arts budget, which has to serve all arts groups in the city. Funding beyond that takes a lot of political maneuvering.
    "We aren't in a position to build them a theater," Belsky says. "There are many other demands on our community."
   
    Making strides
    Boevers and Keenan say that Apple Tree finally has turned the corner with respect to the local government. Within the last few weeks, the city council has agreed to pay Apple Tree's rent for the next year -- a commitment worth about $50,000. There is some talk of help with a major renovation, although little is firm.
    "We don't want Apple Tree to go out of business," says Michael Brenner, mayor pro-tem of Highland Park. "But there are many groups competing for attention."
    That rent is small potatoes compared with what the City of Chicago recently handed, say, the Noble Fool, which got more than $1 million in city funds for a new theater.
    But for a suburban theater that, this year, has sufficiently pinched pennies to reduce its deficit to a little less than $100,000 -- a recent cause for celebration -- it could well be a lifeline.
   
    Writers' Theatre: Growing pains
   
    Writers' Theatre Chicago attracts the area's top actors, has a stellar reputation for classical drama and has seen rapid-fire budgetary development. It's probably the fastest growing theater in the Chicago suburbs.
    Its annual budget has grown from $450,000 to $1.3 million in less than three years, and almost all of its performances, which take place in a tiny room behind Books on Vernon in downtown Glencoe, are sold out.
    Clearly, its suburban strategy has been a smart one, even if it admits to no such strategy.
    "I don't feel that we're thought of as a suburban theater," says artistic director Michael Halberstam. "We've never attempted to program to any kind of suburban idea. We just do plays and try to do them well."
    It also does them conveniently.
    "Local people can take the train home from work, have dinner at home and then walk to the theater," says Writers' new managing director, John Adams. "Those same people are not willing to spend 90 minutes in traffic going back downtown and paying $100 a head for dinner."
    Convenience aside, there's no question that Writers' classical repertoire -- which is heavy on the likes of George Bernard Shaw and Noel Coward and eschews edgy commercial drama -- appeals to an older demographic.
    Clearly, Writers' has figured out that communities full of highly educated people are happy to listen to the Shaw's musings or Coward's bon mots, especially when the major Chicago theater companies have moved more and more in the direction of contemporary works, which may be loud and profanity-laden.
   
    The tried and true
    A classical repertoire also means that the script, at least, is virtually assured of a warm reception.
    And by sticking with the tried and true, Writers' Theatre does not have to get involved in the competitive -- and expensive -- bickering over the rights to do the Chicago premiere of the latest hot show from New York.
    "Certainly, we appeal to people's education," Halberstam allows.
    "It's not a condescending experience. People are challenged by the material. They seem perfectly happy to come and hear 2 hours and 40 minutes of talk."
    Such fare, of course, requires good actors. And Writers' Theatre gets the best by putting an unusually large percentage of its production budgets into salaries.
    Given the length of its runs, its paychecks are among the most lucrative in the area and comparable to Northlight Theatre, a much larger organization.
    "Writers' Theatre," says actor David Cromer, who has worked all over the city, "pays very, very well."
    At Writers' Theatre, the actors are rarely more than about 10 feet from the audience -- some of the time, they're merely inches away.
    "We've selling intimacy," Adams says. "It's a niche."
   
    The space crunch
    Intimacy, though, has its limits. Both men say that the theater has gone as far it can in its current space. "I don't want to be the best 50-seat theater with two bathrooms forever," Halberstam says. "In order to work on something that's not in miniature, I have to work somewhere else."
    Writers' Theatre badly needs a new theater. Initially, it was hoping the village might help pay for one.
    In the past, though, Glencoe has provided little financial support. When the theater requested the modest sum of $10,000 in operating help this winter, Glencoe gave them only $5,000.
    Halberstam, who says that the performing arts have appeared "not to be part of the village's budgeting process," admits that he long has found this situation frustrating
    The harsh reality is that Glencoe, which has a population of only about 8,500, has a limited amount of funds to spend on culture.
    "We're proud that Writers' Theatre is located here," says village trustee Nancy Alessi, "but we're a small community. And it's difficult to find suitable spaces in such a small commercial district."
    "We don't have a lot of money sitting around for the arts," says village President Anthony Ruzida.
   
    Increased appreciation
    But there has been a sea change in the relationship between Writers' Theatre and its home community in the last few weeks. That change has come about partly because village leaders have come to better appreciate the economic benefits of the theater, and partly because Halberstam and Adams have come to a more realistic understanding of what the village can and cannot do.
    Writers' has decided that the best location for its new theater is at the cash-strapped Woman's Library Club of Glencoe, located in a 1938 Colonial-style building at 325 Tudor Court. The site has an auditorium that has been rented out for weddings and used for luncheon programs.Some members of the Women's Library Club oppose the rental, which will take from the club one of its most popular spaces. "People on both sides have very passionate feelings," says Alison Vernon, a club member.
    But the village trustees areexerting subtle pressure to make the move happen.
    The club needs a new roof and cannot pay for it with its own funds. So the village has indicated its willingness to offer a $350,000 low-interest loan (or to provide loan guarantees) -- but the money is contingent on the club signing a deal with Writers' Theatre.
   
    Trying to work it out
    "We're trying to do everything we reasonably can to put these two groups together. It helps the theater and the community," Alessi says. "That's what we like to do."
    "It's a very big thing for this community to put that kind of public money behind something," Ruzida says. "This is something unique for our village. And in order to do it, we're deferring some of the expenses for our village hall. That should show Writers' Theatre we want to keep them in Glencoe."
    At a recent opening, Halberstam was pleased to see two village trustees. It seems to him that village and theater are finally appreciating each other.
    "We're learning how they operate politically," he says. "We have to understand them as much as they have to understand us."

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