That new money for Chicago Shakespeare comes with moral strings attached

On June 27, a group called Chicago Muse, the remnants of a nonprofit organization that once owned the Theatre Building Chicago on the North Side, announced it was disbanding and would hand over $500,000 to Chicago Shakespeare Theater, specially earmarked for the development of new musicals.

Now, half a million dollars is a nice chunk of change for any arts nonprofit; Chicago Shakespeare says the cash will allow it to create an endowment for its mission to "commission, develop and produce" new musicals. But Chicago Shakespeare is an organization with a roughly $14 million budget; it has other funders who support it at that level.

This money, though, is different from a check written by a corporation. "It comes," says Larry Carpenter, a local writer of books and lyrics and a self-described irritant, "on the backs of a lot of small Chicago theater companies and Chicago artists over many years."

He's right. Here's a little history. The Theatre Building (now known as Stage 773) was founded by Byron Schaffer Jr. in 1977. It had a dual mission — to rent out incubator space for small arts groups and produce musicals under a program called (among other names) New Tuners. Over the years, the former mission became more prominent than the difficult latter, with the Theatre Building helping countless small companies (including, at one point, Steppenwolf) get on their feet. But after Schaffer's death in 1990 , the board of directors started getting restless and wondering why so much energy was being put into renting space to others, rather than producing new musicals.

The Theatre Building long had incubated shows, under a small program run in more recent years by artistic director John Sparks, but had generally stayed away from full productions, which are expensive. But the board decided that the only way to find the money to really produce — per, they said, the mission — was to unload the building. A quiet sale was made to investors involved with Lukaba Productions, which created Stage 773 (and, it should be noted, has greatly improved the building).

The old Theatre Building became a producing entity called Chicago Muse. A new artistic director named Sean Cercone was hired and plans were made to stage at the Biograph Theatre a new production of "The Story of My Life," a Broadway flop that Muse thought it could resuscitate. But the show got poor reviews, few people came to see it and closing came quickly.

At that point, everything went quiet. Cercone left to work in New York. Carpenter began a monthslong series of emails asking the board of directors (and copying me) what it planned to do with the remaining money from the sale. Carpenter said that he was determined to hold those who control the assets accountable.

On June 27, the big announcement came. I asked Carpenter what he thought of the resolution. After making clear he admired Chicago Shakespeare, he expressed some sadness that the money had not gone to a more grass-roots organization, more in the off-Loop tradition of the Theatre Building. Were it not for artists working for little money and putting up shows there over 30 years, he argued, the building would have been torn down for condos. The sweat equity of Chicago artists kept it going, he said. I'd add that the many small donors to the American Blues Theater or the Griffin Theatre also had a role, not to mention those who worked at the Theatre Building over the years and hardly made their fortunes.

I pointed out that Chicago Shakespeare has talented artists and a history of producing new musicals (although it has tended to use the same artists and has been a bit stuck in the mainstream, family arena.) And although it's now a big banana, it once was a seedling. Carpenter allowed that was the case. I asked what he thought Chicago Shakespeare should do — and together we came up with some suggestions.

Fund some of the small theaters in town to help with the early stage of the development of shows. Pay back the obligation to Chicago writers, musicians, designers and artists. Take risks in the off-Loop tradition. If a show hits, plow as much of the money as possible back into Chicago theater. And create great, moving, beautiful, excellent shows, worthy, even in failure, of all those struggling artists who will have helped pay for them.

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