Whenever a theater stops producing, its fans and supporters start to worry. So it was this fall with Chicago Dramatists, the 35-year-old nonprofit theater company known for its support of emerging Chicago playwrights and their new plays.
Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago Ave., didn't announce a 2013-14 season, and has fully produced nothing since May when it staged "Homecoming 1972," a play by Chicago playwright Robert Koon that got mixed reviews and played to small houses. There are no productions on Dramatists' winter or spring slates, either.
Now, production is hardly the only arrow in the Dramatists' quiver. The company offers an array of classes, readings and workshops aimed at established, beginning and aspiring playwrights. Indeed, these programs have had a formidable influence on American playwriting, developing the work of such famed scribes as Rebecca Gilman (who has a new play coming at the Goodman Theatre), Lydia R. Diamond (whose work has been seen on Broadway) and Keith Huff, who became a significant theater and TV writer.
But there have been troubling signs. Brian Loevner, Dramatists' managing director, left to work on the Chicago Commercial Collective and was not quickly replaced. Meghan Beals McCarthy, the capable associate artistic director, was laid off, and there has been talk of daunting fiscal deficits at Dramatists.
So what is going on?
"Well," said Russ Tutterow, the longtime artistic director and public face of Dramatists, "we had been unrealistic about the money."
Tutterow went on to say that Dramatists thus decided to postpone its production program, which were Equity shows, and rent out its theater to others to raise cash, as well as to "re-focus programatically," which I took to mean ensuring that all the money that comes in from classes and workshops should not go out the door on money-losing shows that don't have their own means of support.
The chairman of the Dramatists' board of directors went a little further than postponement, essentially saying that it did not seem viable anymore for Dramatists to produce on its own, and that the company would need to find producing partners.
"We invariably have lost money on our small productions," said Neill Shanahan, noting the risks inherent to producing new work and saying that Dramatists has struggled to attract corporate and other philanthropic support because of its small footprint. "We want to find partners who can help us share costs and increase our artistic output," Shanahan said, adding that, while not ruling it out, there were no current plans for Dramatists to produce again on its own.
All of this hardly is good news for those writers affiliated with Dramatists.
"Production is the final stage of play development," Tutterow acknowledged. Indeed. It's much easier for a playwright to coax agents and producers to a hit Chicago play with great reviews than to try to get attention for a promising manuscript.
Had Dramatists not produced Huff's "A Steady Rain," it's unlikely that show, which starred Daniel Craig and Hugh Jackman on Broadway, would have gone so far.
Those Dramatists productions — which, on balance (and with a few exceptions), have been of decent quality and discernment — have launched many a Chicago scribe into other major commissions and gigs.
Still, both Tutterow and Shanahan said that any reports of the demise of Dramatists were inaccurate, and that this was merely a re-ordering of priorities born of a determination to better follow the organizational mission to serve the playwright.
"We are going to be fine," said Shanahan. "This was just a question of being prudent."
Indeed, a couple of days after our conversations, Dramatists put out a press release to say that it had finally hired a new managing director in Cindy Jo Savitski-Lantz, formerly the executive director of the Rockford Dance Company.
One idea for her first few days in the office: see if either Jackman or Craig, or their producers, might care to support the little, clearly struggling place that birthed and nurtured the play that made them so much money on Broadway.
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