Fighting the Blight/Vital Signs Up at MCA | Culture Club | Chicago Reader

Fighting the Blight/Vital Signs Up at MCA 

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Fighting the Blight

In 1994 the closing of Wisdom Bridge Theatre seemed like another nail in the coffin of east Rogers Park--not even one of the city's most dynamic companies could overcome the neighborhood's reputation for crime and poverty. Since Wisdom Bridge abandoned the space at 1559 W. Howard, safety concerns have discouraged other theater troupes from moving in. But aggressive development seems to be turning the area around. East of the building, on Sheridan, the foundation is being laid for a massive condominium complex with a view of the lakefront. West of the building, at Howard and Clark, ground has been cleared for a shopping center that will include a Dominick's and a 14-screen multiplex. Now the Wisdom Bridge space may finally have found a tenant: Michael Menendian, founder and artistic director of the Raven Theatre, says his company might need a new home.

For the last 14 years Raven has staged its plays in a converted storefront at 6931 N. Clark, a few blocks south of Touhy. But two weeks ago Menendian's landlord notified him that the building might be razed to make way for a new public school. Joe Moore, alderman for the 49th Ward, says that school officials have yet to make a final decision on where to build. But Menendian has wasted no time in scouting other locations around Rogers Park. So far he's looked at a half dozen spots, but the cost of building out a storefront would be prohibitive for a company whose annual operating budget is only $150,000. "It could run us anywhere from $25,000 to $250,000 to put in all the electrical wiring and air-conditioning," says Menendian, "and we just don't have that kind of money. We didn't start paying our actors until a few years ago."

Moore didn't want the 49th Ward to lose the Raven Theatre, and he urged Menendian to check out the Wisdom Bridge space. Menendian admits that it could prove to be a workable option. The 70 seats in its Clark Street theater will no longer accommodate Saturday night crowds, but the facility on Howard seats 190. Menendian says Raven would have to do some serious renovation, repairing a leaky roof and installing an elevator so handicapped patrons could reach the second-floor performance space. Tony Kahan, executive vice president of the company that owns the Wisdom Bridge property, would like to see Menendian take the space. His company, Urban Retail Services, is a principal developer of the retail corridor along east Howard, and the process has been hindered by an environment he euphemistically refers to as "a real urban setting."

Raven Theatre would be a worthy heir to the Wisdom Bridge facility; for nearly 15 years it's been the model of a professional neighborhood theater. Menendian started the company in 1983 and two years later moved it into the Clark Street storefront, which he was able to convert for $20,000. The theater quickly made a name for itself mounting high-quality productions of new plays like Preston Jones's A Texas Trilogy. But over the years Raven has shifted its focus to classics and well-known modern plays in order to develop an audience base among less adventurous theatergoers. Raven's last world premiere, a musical comedy called The Elvis, was a flop with critics and patrons, but three recent revivals--David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross, John Guare's Six Degrees of Separation, and Kaufman and Hart's You Can't Take It With You--ran a combined total of 18 months.

Given the harsh realities of the business, it's a miracle that Raven has survived at all, much less flourished. It doesn't pay well, and even Menendian works a day job to make ends meet. But the troupe is committed to Rogers Park. "It's a truly integrated community where the shopping and the rents are reasonable," he explains. That sort of neighborhood spirit could explain why Moore and Kahan want Raven Theatre to stay in Rogers Park. For his part, Menendian hopes that moving the theater will bring it greater success: "What's happened to us in the past couple of weeks could very well turn out to be a blessing in disguise."

Vital Signs Up at MCA

Attendance figures are creeping upward at the Museum of Contemporary Art, where Robert Fitzpatrick recently completed his first year as director and CEO. According to spokesperson Sally Blanks, the MCA's attendance totaled 273,676 for fiscal year 1999, an increase of 3.4 percent over the previous year's 264,567. (The figures include both paid and unpaid attendance.) The museum's board gave Fitzpatrick a mandate to increase paid attendance, and Blanks thinks the figures will continue to improve as his new curatorial team adds more attention-grabbing exhibits such as Roy Lichtenstein's "Interiors," which opened last week. Fitzpatrick has reportedly increased charitable donations by nearly a third, and recently he named John Orders as his new associate director. During the 80s, Orders served as Fitzpatrick's executive assistant when he was president of the California Institute of the Arts; more recently Orders has been a program officer for the James Irvine Foundation in California.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.

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