Some big new theaters cost tens of millions of dollars — even more than a decade ago, the new
And then there is the matter of the Griffin Theatre in Chicago, a very modest deal for a very frugal theater company that, at this juncture, is not yet done.
A little history. Back in 2008, I first reported on Griffin's plan to renovate the long-vacant, former 20th District police station at 1940 W. Foster Ave., in the Ravenswood neighborhood's Bowmanville community. Griffin had the support of local businesses and Ald.
There already was a precedent for the city's making such buildings available to nonprofit groups for the benefit of the neighborhood at little or no cost — the most prominent example being the deal that Lois Weisberg, the former cultural affairs commissioner, hatched for the Lookingglass Theatre Company. Lookingglass soon will open its latest production, "Bengal Tiger in the Baghdad Zoo," at the
In the case of the old North Side police station, the city dragged its feet, despite the efforts of the Bowmanville Community Organization. But finally, in 2010, Mayor
An elated Griffin huddled with the fine theater architect
That never happened — the excellent Griffin production of "Flare Path" can currently be seen at Theater Wit. On opening night, I found myself sitting by the company's board chair, Claire Conley. I asked for a status update. As "Flare Path" amply demonstrates, Griffin is a proven player on the off-Loop scene, with a track record that few other itinerant companies have been able to match. I can't think of another itinerant company with a better case, made over many years, for its own space.
In essence, Conley said, the company has been struggling to raise enough money for the board to feel fully comfortable starting construction (even though Conley was, in fact, sitting next to the general contractor that night at the theater). "We just don't have one of those boards with really deep pockets," she said. "And we're being very cautious."
I was struck by the relative smallness of the figures involved. The theater-loving general contractor had run the numbers, and since time had moved on, the $500,000 budget had become $800,000. That's no minor chunk of change in the arts, granted, but if one divides investment by bang for artistic buck, I'd say the Griffin deal compares quite favorably with those mentioned earlier. Griffin has raised about $150,000 to date and has secured a $250,000 construction loan. By my math, that leaves it about $400,000 short. And so nothing is happening. Even though the building sits there vacant, benefiting nobody.
Griffin's artistic director Bill Massolia said in a later phone conversation that once permits are pulled, construction must be completed within the year, hence the reluctance to get things under way. "We don't want to start without knowing where we will get the money," he said. Fair enough. But it's frustrating for Griffin, its potential new neighbors and for its audience. There is an opportunity here that Chicago should not let get away.
Griffin is not the only small theater seemingly inches away from a new home. The City Lit Theater Company has been working with the financial support of the city of Evanston to take over a space at 729 Howard St., in a neighborhood that could use the stabilizing presence of a theater company.
All was going well until Evanston's aldermen balked three weeks ago at an increase in renovation costs: an expected $600,000, which Evanston was going to pay for through its TIF district monies, had become $1.66 million.
"Too rich," the Evanston RoundTable newspaper reported, "for council's blood."
So that theater is also on ice, and that space stays vacant. Terry McCabe, who runs City Lit, says he's trying to work on ways to reduce the cost and make it palatable to the aldermen. Sometimes, it seems, the more frugal the project, the less attractive to funders and philanthropists and the harder it is to get done.