Few theaters in Chicago have been as influential in the nurturing and developing of off-Loop theater as the Theatre Building Chicago, the venerable venue that has stood near the Lakeview corner of Belmont and Racine avenues since its founding in 1977.
But for the audience, it was never the most comfortable place to see a show. And for the performers, the building's three 150-seat, black-box theaters meant that this was basically a one-size-fits-all situation. Even when it didn't fit at all.
Well, that's all about to change. The roughly $2 million renovation of this Lakeview building, to be officially unveiled next month, is a stunner.
The Theatre Building is, of course, not the Theatre Building anymore. Ever since the building was sold in March 2010 to a secretive group of investors associated with Brian Posen and his Lukaba Productions, the venue (and Posen's company) has been known as Stage 773. Within the next few weeks, a new neon sign will hang from its front wall. You'll be able to see it from the elevated train station several blocks away.
I took a hard-hat tour of the new Stage 773 last week and emerged dusty and mightily impressed with architect John Morris' work.
The once-dark lobby is filled with natural light from new front windows. The old box office has been knocked down and replaced with a concierge desk at the northeast corner of the building, where digital signs will advertise shows. There are two high-end bathrooms with enough stalls to ensure that women don't have to race for the line at intermission. And there is a beautiful new bar — Morris has relocated it slightly, sliding it cozily under the offices above and creating a distinctive space for a cocktail.
It'll all improve the audience's experience and make the space more competitive for shows. In the past, commercial producers were wary of the venue, something that will no longer be the case; the finishes are the equal of any theater in town.
But it's inside the theaters where the real transformation has taken place. The old South Theatre (Posen said he is getting rid of those prosaic, directional names) has been turned 90 degrees on the same footprint. The result is a beautiful proscenium-style theater with a huge, clean stage ideal for dance companies. This feels like a major theater, even though the seating capacity remains at about 150. A least until a sponsor emerges, this space will be known as The Pro.
The old North Theatre has been split in two. The big news here is the creation of a cabaret-type space (The Cab) that will seat about 70. I'd expected a small black box, but the space has the red banquets, cocktail tables, cocktail service and other classy trappings of a hotel-style cabaret room.
Posen said he plans to rent this venue by the night, rather than by the week. This, he said, is the space for which the demand has been strongest. Outside of Davenport's, it's hard to think of a better space for cabaret artists.
The other half of the old North Theatre is an 80-seat black box, a much more viable capacity for some of the city's smaller theaters that prize intimacy. This will be known as The Box.
The West Theatre, now The Thrust, remains much the same. But a new HVAC system will do away with the whirs and clicks that were becoming a major impediment to shows.
Rental costs for the big theaters are slated for about $2,700 a week, The Cab about $300 a night. Stage 773 looks like it will be worth every penny.
Laura Michaud, the board president of Stage 773 (and Posen's sister), said the investors who bought the old Theatre Building also bought the building immediately to the east, formerly a fireplace and furniture store. Once the main building is up and running, she said, the plan is to turn that space into a fourth theater.
"We're now talking about the Belmont Avenue theater district," Michaud said.
And why not? Stage 773 sits next to Theater Wit. There are now seven brand-new theaters within a single block. All have been built without public help in the middle of a recession. None are ostentatious but all are comfortable for the audience, suitable spaces for a night out, and built to serve the art. I find this quite remarkable. I only wish the Greenhouse Theater Center would take notes.
On Friday night, Liminality Theatre quietly starts previews for its new production of "This is Our Youth." And thus the new Stage 773 will host its first show. The grand-opening celebration is slated for Oct. 16; Posen said the celebration will go late into the night.
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