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Mercury Theater rises from the dead

Retractions generally aren’t fun for journalists. But the announcement last week that Mercury Theater Chicago isn’t dead after all makes me happy—even if it means that my obituary for them as one of the losses in Chicago theater for 2020 now has to be taken back in its entirety. The fact that the company is also bringing in Christopher Chase Carter as artistic director just adds to the spirit of renewal for the venue.

The Mercury originally announced that they were closing up shop for good back in June 2020. The for-profit organization that ran the space, headed by executive director L. Walter Stearns and his life/creative partner and Mercury’s business manager, Eugene Dizon, obviously couldn’t make money from box office revenues and bar concessions or event rentals during the shutdown. The stay-at-home order shuttered the Mercury’s then-running production of the whodunit comedy, Shear Madness, on the theater’s 290-seat mainstage space (originally built as a nickelodeon in 1913). It also forced the cancellation of their next show, the already-in-rehearsals musical Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, which was slated to open in the smaller Venus Cabaret space at the end of March 2020. 

Stearns says, “A year ago, none of us knew what to expect. There was no vaccine. There was no vaccine in the air. They’ve been working 30 years to get an AIDS vaccine and we haven’t seen that yet, either. We had no idea how long we would be in a lockdown mode and we were faced with a huge financial decision at that moment and had to close up shop. It was one of the real crushing losses of my life to say goodbye to these artists, to the staffers, to the audience who had made a home at the Mercury Theater.”  

So why the change of heart? 

Partly it’s the result of the opening up of the Shuttered Venues Operators Grant (SVOG) program through the Small Business Administration. Says Stearns, “That really is helping us because if we’re able to get some of that revenue that we lost last year, that’s going to help us obviously ramp up as well. We also did some refinancing and other things too to become much more stable financially than I think we thought we could be.” He adds that the company lost about $300,000 due to the shutdown, though he also stresses that they were never in the red. As Dizon puts it, “We were able to pay all the actors and all the other things [including severance payments to staff] and by the time we totaled it up, it was like ‘That’s a lot of cash out the door.'” But with SVOG offering the possibility of grants up to 45 percent of gross earned revenue, that’s bought a little breathing space.

Another big factor was that they’ve found a new tenant for the restaurant next door to the theater. Grass Roots (formerly Deleece) had announced its closing in December 2019. But now, though Stearns won’t name the new tenant yet (“I don’t want to steal her thunder”), he says “She’s an established restaurateur and she’s bringing a restaurant concept to the neighborhood that’s never been done, that is not in our neighborhood, that I think is going to be very successful and very fresh.” Dizon adds, “It’s really going to bring a lot of new patrons to our theater, too, but it will also bring them to the Southport corridor.”

“There’s an ecology at the Mercury Theater where the restaurant feeds the theater and the theater feeds the restaurant,” says Stearns. “You know how young people are told they have to have something to fall back on? That’s sort of our something to fall back on.” 

What Carter brings to the table, other than a ridiculously long list of credits as a dancer, actor, director, and choreographer (including choreographing productions of Little Shop of Horrors and Hair for the Mercury) at theaters large (Drury Lane, Marriott) and small (Theo Ubique) is a vision of how to connect what Stearns calls the “ma-and-pa business” aspects of the Mercury and its Lakeview neighborhood with nationally recognized performers.

A lot of that vision centers on the Venus Cabaret space, which was carved out of the former Cullen’s pub. Cullen’s was named for Michael Cullen, who originally bought and opened the Mercury with restaurateur Joe Carlucci in 1994. (Carlucci ran the Italian restaurant Strega Nona in what became the Grass Roots space for several years.) Stearns and Dizon, along with other investors, acquired the properties in 2010 after Cullen suffered a major stroke. 

Carter says Stearns and Dizon reached out to him a few months ago for ideas about what to do if they reopened. 

“I’ve worked all over. And the one thing that I’ve noticed is that everybody always has a sense of working at the Marriott, working at Drury Lane, working here, working there,” says Carter, adding, “I was expressing [to Stearns and Dizon] ‘We need to come together. We need to have a place that really elevates our Chicago talent. Put our Chicago artists on a map, on a level. Raise the bar for them and really put them out there and create a place that speaks Chicago theater and what we do while telling stories unapologetically and being uniquely different the way we are.'”

For Carter, the intimate Venus space offers the opportunity to open the Chicago version of New York’s legendary cabaret room 54 Below.

Dizon says that Carter’s idea resonated for several reasons, noting that the plan is to serve “Chicago’s main talent, the people we’ve seen on our stages for decades that would love to have a venue to perform much like 54 Below, but also bring people from New York. The actors who perform in New York would love to come to Chicago [for cabaret shows], but all that was available was Davenport’s.” 

Stearns adds, “You know, Broadway in Chicago has been such a great funnel of talent through our city. If someone is doing eight shows a week with Broadway in Chicago, they could step off the stage and come over to the Southport corridor and perform a cabaret with us.”

Adds Carter, “Wouldn’t it be nice to have that energy when people come to town to say, ‘Hey, up close and personal with these artists if you’re a big fan?’ We don’t have a place like that and I’m excited to try to explore this and try to give us something like that, you know?”

The idea also seems to be to keep big talent in a small intimate package that plays up the best of what the neighborhood has to offer. And it comes at a time when other venues are either closing up for what seems to be for good (the Royal George) or getting out of the traditional theater venue model altogether, as with Stage 773’s announcement in late March that they’re changing over their four-venue facility to a more immersive experiential event-driven space, housing what executive director Jill Valentine described to the Tribune’s Chris Jones as “a Willy Wonka meets Burning Man meets the Museum of Modern Art immersive experience.”

Carter isn’t the only person getting a promotion at the Mercury. Stearns notes that Shane Murray-Corcoran, who has been working at the theater for about six years since moving to Chicago from Dublin (he’s an alum of Columbia College Chicago) is moving up to the managing director position. Both Stearns and Dizon praise Murray-Corcoran as a key behind-the-scenes “backbone” of the theater. Stearns and Dizon will also continue in their roles as executive producers, and presumably will continue to offer their creative skills as director and musical director, respectively, as they have for many productions together at both the Mercury and their former artistic home, Porchlight Music Theatre.

Carter also sees strength in the diversity of the leadership team. “The one thing that I do love about the dynamic of me and Walter and Gene is that we’re so different in every different aspect. I’m a dancer, I’m so different from them. Walter is a performer—a legit opera singer. He’s the musical man and Eugene is the music man. And so that dynamic—throwing me into that dynamic has given me ideas and made me stronger. It’s more of a powerful voice. We have perspective. Eugene is Asian American and I’m a Black man, and then you have Walter who is white. Hearing those perspectives and our stories, just talking we’re like, ‘We need this onstage. This is what people want.'” 

The company will stay with the for-profit model, though Carter wants to expand the good relationships that the Mercury has with neighboring businesses, including the Music Box, which has in the past coordinated screenings of the original 1960 The Little Shop of Horrors cult film during the Mercury’s run of the musical and Monty Python and the Holy Grail during Mercury’s 2019 run of Spamalot.

“Maybe we do a signing with a baseball player in the Venus one day,” muses Carter. “Or we do things that let audiences know ‘You are welcome, and we are here to support you in this community and this neighborhood. We’re your neighborhood theater.'”

When will this neighborhood theater reopen? Carter notes that it depends upon getting the go-ahead from Actors’ Equity and other unions for when they deem it safe to let their members go back to work. He says, “We’re looking at the holiday season. We’re playing it by ear. What we have to our advantage is that we don’t already have a show already premade.” He adds, “It’s not really an advantage but we do get to start fresh.”

A fresh start is good news right now for Chicago theater.  v

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