Home > Arts/Culture/Entertainment > From Greenhouse to hotbed

Last weekend, Judy and Liza—Once in a Lifetime: The London Palladium Concert—A Tribute became the first indoor theater production in Chicago to open in phase four (or reopen, more accurately, since it originally ran for one weekend in March before the COVID-19 shutdown). That experiment in bringing back live indoor theater backfired in the light of widespread criticism on social media even before the first performance, including a very public resignation from Greenhouse Theater Center general manager Derek Rienzi Van Tassel on July 18.

The show, coproduced by Nancy Hays (who plays Judy Garland alongside Alexa Castelvecchi’s Liza) and the Greenhouse, closed after three performances. And William and Wendy Spatz, the owners of the Greenhouse, now say they will no longer be producing or coproducing any shows: it’s all rentals from here on out. (The Spatzes note that the decision to close Judy and Liza was made by Hays.)

In an open letter published on the theater website, William Spatz asserted that “the Facebook mob impugned our characters, our reputations, and our contributions to the community. There was little nuance, thoughtful suggestions, nor any kindness from our fellow theater producers and creators. We were all swept up in one big pile and treated like total dirt.” (For her part, Hays issued a Facebook statement reading, in part, “We love the theatre and had no intention of causing distress or danger to anyone, so we apologize to those affected.”)

The Spatzes bought the building on North Lincoln (the longtime home of Victory Gardens and the defunct Body Politic Theatre) from Victory Gardens after the latter moved up the street to the Biograph in 2008 for $2.5 million, in a deal that assures that at least part of the building must remain as a theater until 2033. In addition to serving as a rental facility, the Greenhouse (which is set up as a nonprofit) has also been home to resident companies such as MPAACT (who were also there when the Greenhouse space was still owned by Victory Gardens). 

Starting in 2014, the Greenhouse moved into producing with the solo show Churchill by Ronald Keaton. According to Spatz’s letter, “In the last 5 years we have produced or co-produced 30+ plays, mostly in Chicago but also in NYC and Florida, including numerous world premiers [sic].” (Coproductions, according to Spatz, generally paid about half of the usual rent for one of the five current venues in the building, and resident companies receive rent reductions and “a little more in benefits.”)

Reached by phone, William Spatz referenced (as he also did in his open letter) an earlier controversy involving an aborted 2018 coproduction with Skokie’s MadKap Productions of David Mamet’s Oleanna, which came under social media fire when an actor in a previous mounting of the show raised red flags about several safety issues, including claims of inadequate fight direction. But he maintains that the decision to stop producing arose solely from the current controversy. 

“We got picked on because the theater community likes to pile it on. But the bottom line is there already are venues out there. There are jazz clubs that are open, there are museums that are open,” says Spatz. Because the Greenhouse doesn’t operate under an Actor’s Equity contract, they are immune from Equity’s current “four core principles” for reopening using union actors. “AEA is at some point going to have to decide—I hate to compare it to the NFL, but you’re going to have to decide are you going to stay closed forever, or are you going to try to create a situation where the risk has been limited as best as you can and then it’s up to the actors and the directors and everyone else to decide whether it’s safe enough to come back?” says Spatz.

In practical terms, the Greenhouse is still open for rentals, though Spatz notes that no company is planning a production there for the rest of 2020 at this point. In his letter, Spatz asserted, “But my prediction is someone will do what we did next year or sooner when the pandemic is still with us. I also predict the reactions will be substantially more muted. Reality will kick in. At least I hope so.”

But for now, there seems little appetite for Chicago theater artists to take the risk of returning to live performance absent a vaccine and/or a cure.

New leadership at See Chicago Dance and About Face

While dance takes a few steps forward into (socially distanced and outdoor) performances, as Reader contributor Irene Hsiao wrote about earlier this week, most dance companies remain in the same “wait and see” limbo as their theatrical counterparts when it comes to live performance. But that hasn’t stopped See Chicago Dance from moving ahead with a vision for the future. Last week, the service organization announced the appointment of Julia Mayer as executive director. 

In addition to a background in dance, Mayer has an extensive resume in the nonprofit field, including serving as manager of development for 3Arts, senior program officer at the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation, and assistant director of programming and performance for the Chicago Humanities Festival. In an official statement, Mayer says, “See Chicago Dance is committed to becoming a more equitable and diverse organization. I look forward to leading and learning with my colleagues and the community as we embrace change in the expansive and embodied way that only dancers can.”

Meantime, About Face Theatre has named Mikael Burke as associate artistic director. Burke previously worked with the LGBTQ-oriented company as a director in the 2016 “AIDS on Stage” reading series and as director of the 2018 production of Harrison David Rivers‘s This Bitter Earth. Burke noted in a statement, “As a queer Black artist and educator, I am dedicated to building spaces for learning and creating that decenter whiteness and embrace the full spectrum of experiences and identities.”

Honoring Samuel G. Roberson Jr.

Samuel G. Roberson Jr., the actor and artistic director of Congo Square Theatre Company, died in 2017 at age 34 of complications of pneumonia. Now the League of Chicago Theatres has announced the Samuel G. Roberson Jr. Resident Fellowship, designated for early-to-mid-career Black artists. 

The fellowship, funded by the McMullen & Kime Charitable Trust, is designed to provide a one-year residency in partnership with a Chicago-area theater, with preference given to theaters that “have a stated mission to produce work by Black or BIPOC artists.” The goal is to help the artist and resident company develop a piece for public performance, with the selected artist receiving $20,000 and the partnering theater $7,500 for the year. The fellowship also will focus on a different discipline each year, with this inaugural fellowship designed to support a Black playwright. Applications are open from August 1-September 13, and this year’s recipient will be announced October 30.  v

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