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VOL. 121 | NO. 87 | Monday, April 24, 2006

Playhouse's Dramatic Monologue Continues

Old venue poised for fresh infusion with new $10 million building

By Andrew Ashby

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PLAY ON, MISTER: Playhouse on the Square is on the cusp of getting a new $10 million facility as soon as the old Union Avenue Antique Mall is demolished and construction begins. -- Photograph Courtesy Playhouse On The Square

Professional theater company Playhouse on the Square is $7.5 million into a capital campaign to build a $10 million, 400-seat theater at the corner of Cooper Street and Union Avenue.

The organization recently used funds from the city to start demolishing the old Union Avenue Antique Mall that sits on the site.

With the initial private fundraising concluded, the organization soon will start a public campaign to raise money for the theater, which will be designed by John Morris, a nationally known architect who designed the Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago's Lincoln Park area.

Too legit to quit

The new campaign will focus on soliciting smaller gifts for the project. Once the Playhouse reaches around $10 million, the group plans to break ground on the new theater building. Construction should take about a year.

Playhouse officials visited the Steppenwolf Theater about two years ago when exploring the idea of a new space.

They talked to stage and technical managers about what - if anything - they would change in the Steppenwolf after its 30 years of use.

"They said they would pretty much not change anything," said Jackie Nichols, founder and executive producer of Playhouse. "That's pretty phenomenal because usually you spend five years fixing everything the architects did wrong."

Playhouse, which used to be the Memphian Theater, a single-screen Malco movie house, sits at 51 S. Cooper St., across the street from the new project. It's been in its current incarnation for 20 years, but the organization's board of directors decided it was time for an upgrade.

"We realized that the quality of work we were putting on the stage far exceeded the facility that we had to put it in," Nichols said. "If we were ever going to go to the next level artistically, we had to have a legitimate theater. The Memphian Theater, as creative as our designers and directors had been, is still a movie theater and not a legitimate stage house."

A more perfect Union

The current Playhouse has no wing space, no orchestra pit and no fly system to bring in scenery. It also has sight line and acoustic problems.

The new facility will fix most of that and increase seating capacity. It also will bring more intimacy, with the farthest seat being within 45 feet of the stage.

The main stage will go 12 rows back and the new facility will have an overhanging balcony.

"We realized that the quality of work we were putting on the stage far exceeded the facility that we had to put it in. If we were ever going to go to the next level artistically, we had to have a legitimate theater.."
- Jackie Nichols
Founder and executive producer of Playhouse on the Square

"That's easy to do with the seat count we're working with here," said John Morris, who owns Chicago-based Morris Architects/Planners Inc. "The idea of a theater like this is to keep the theatrical experience really immediate, and that requires keeping everyone as close as possible to the stage."

Even so, the new facility will bring its own challenges for the Playhouse staff.

"We'll be dealing with scenery that flies in and out, which we've never been able to do," Nichols said. "So it's going to require an increased emphasis on technical work we've done on stage."

The new Playhouse also will be connected to a five-story office building behind it on Union Avenue.

The building, which has underground parking, will have dressing rooms, rehearsal space, a theater café and the Playhouse offices. Its top three floors will be part of a nonprofit art center and will have office space available for nonprofit organizations to rent at below-market rates.

Taking it on the road

Once construction is completed, the current Playhouse's productions will move into the new facility.

The Circuit Playhouse will move from its 1705 Poplar Ave. location into the current Playhouse building. The Circuit Playhouse, which is next to Playhouse's Varnell Education Building, will then be used for youth theater programming and for the community to rent out.

With additional performances at both theaters in the area, 50,000 more people are expected to be attracted to Midtown each year, Nichols said.

Playhouse has done surveys before that show between 85 percent and 90 percent of people who go to an arts event also go to restaurants for dinner or drinks before or after a show.

"At that point, it's up to the individual restaurants to try and get their share of the pie," Nichols said.

Windy city, breezy prospects

The Steppenwolf Theater recently celebrated its 30th anniversary. When it was being built, the Lincoln Park neighborhood around it was marginal.

"I remember we put bulletproof glass in the box office windows," Morris said. "There was a lot of 'Oh, you're going there?' reactions."

However, the neighborhood has been on an upswing and now has expensive restaurants, shops and even a nearby Barnes & Noble bookstore.

"Steppenwolf may have given it a little bit of a turbo charge or a boost to help it along," Morris said. "It may have helped it happen a little faster and you can see the same things in Midtown."

A new theater can bring immediate benefits to the neighborhood and to Playhouse itself.

"There is usually a boost of attendance in the first year because there is a lot of curiosity about the building," Morris said. "It could be the case with Playhouse that the existing facility is keeping people away to a certain extent because the seats might not be as comfortable as they should be or the amenities may not be there."

When Playhouse officials were looking into a new building, they considered a Downtown site. However, they decided to stay on Cooper Street.

"In the end, Playhouse is a Midtown phenomenon and it's going to be a Midtown institution and I think that's what drove this decision," Morris said.

Morris said he will enjoy working on the project because it's a single-purpose facility that will be used for one thing: live theater.

"That's what drives it rather than it being a concert hall one night, a live theater the next and a lecture hall the next," he said. "That will make it a better theater by not having to be anything else."

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