How Many Writers Does It Take to Pay for the Lightbulbs? | On Culture | Chicago Reader

How Many Writers Does It Take to Pay for the Lightbulbs? 

Two new writers spaces will be sharing the business each thought it was pioneering.

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It was last July that fledgling writer Julie Saltzman and her business partner, Susan McLaughlin Karp, first heard they might have competition. They were three months into converting a 1,200-square-foot office on Broadway into Uptown Writer's Space, which they thought would be Chicago's first and only fee-based shared workspace for writers, when Karp, who lives in Evanston, heard rumors of another space opening on the same street, run by an Evanston soccer mom and a partner. Saltzman, a former commodities trader and Wilmette resident, didn't believe it. "I said, 'Susan, this is a classic telephone game. Someone's gotten the information wrong. It's my son who plays soccer. One woman from Evanston? On Broadway? Come on, what are the odds of that? I'll bet anything it's our space they're talking about.'" Now she says it's a good thing no one took her up on that bet: later this month the Writers WorkSpace is set to debut less than a mile away.

The Uptown Writer's Space opened September 18 on the second floor at 4802 N. Broadway, above the Green Mill and a few doors down from the shuttered Uptown Theatre. Karp, a dramatist and performer (she'll be appearing with the monologuist ensemble BoyGirlBoyGirl at Prop Thtr next week) says she and Saltzman considered Evanston as a location but were drawn to Uptown because of its diversity and affordability. And then, says Karp, "I fell in love with the view." It's easy to see why: the big white-walled corner studio has an expanse of windows overlooking the five-corner intersection of Broadway, Lawrence, and Racine, with the imposing Bridgeview Bank building (and a Starbucks) at dead center.

Karp and Saltzman broke up several smaller offices to create this bright, open bull pen, complete with a conference-and-snack room and an entry that doubles as their office. The main room's been outfitted with thrift-shop art and twinkling lights, but the piece de resistance is the furniture: custom-made pine-and-plywood desks by Chicagoan John Lindsay, all grain and curve and gorgeous enough to inspire or hypnotize. There are 12 mostly shoulder-to-shoulder workstations--no real visual or auditory privacy--with six more on order. Saltzman says they have a one-year lease, with a handshake agreement on a renewal. It was empty when I visited on a Wednesday afternoon, but according to Karp they have 20 members so far and are busier on evenings and weekends. Hours are 9 AM to 9 PM Monday through Thursday, 9 AM to 6 PM Friday through Sunday, with additional hours available by special arrangement. Membership is $75 per month (plus a $50 application fee) or $800 for a full year, but the commitment-shy can get a ten-visit pass for $100. There'll be an open house on Sunday, October 22; check uptownwritersspace.com for other events and classes.

Meanwhile, up the street at 5443 N. Broadway, the other soccer mom, Evanston writer and teacher Amy Davis, is monitoring construction at the Writers WorkSpace, a 1,380-square-foot storefront in the building that also houses the Windy City Times. She and business partner Pat Cronin are anticipating an end-of-October opening, but as of last week the planned communal writing studio (13 cubicles and a couple of tables, no view), lounge, conference room, kitchen, small private studio, office, and bike room were still delineated with metal studs. The space will have 12-foot ceilings, cork and carpet floors, and, like the Uptown facility, Wi-Fi access and communal printers. Davis, editor of Fish Stories (a literary annual published in the 90s), and Cronin, who worked with Davis on WorkShirts fiction workshops, say they have a five-year lease. Full-time members will have key-card access from 5 AM to midnight 365 days a year and four hours' use of the conference room each month. Membership is $125 per month (plus a $65 initiation fee), with a part-time, evenings-and-weekends-only option for $70. Ten-visit passes are also available for $125. Anyone signing up for six months or more will receive a 10 percent discount, and since construction will likely still be in progress, the month of November will be free of charge. Check writersworkspace.com for tours and events.

The catalyst for this pair of experiments was a New York Times article published last year about Paragraph, a writers space in Manhattan. Comparing the concept to health clubs, the Times story remarked on the ever-growing number of writers yearning for a sense of community as well as a quiet place to work, and noted that spaces in New York have two-year waiting lists. Both sets of Chicago owners turned from the article and said, "Why not here?" And both say news of the competition merely gave them pause. "If I thought there were just 50 writers in the city looking for space, I never would have opened it," says Saltzman. "But I have to believe there's a bigger pool out there. Is it ideal that there's another writers space a mile away from us? Probably not. But I think we're different enough that we'll both be sustainable." Karp agrees, noting that her own background and network is theatrical and journalistic, while the other space may be more fiction oriented. Still, "Would it be better if one of us was in Wicker Park? Sure."

Theater History

When a merger with the DuSable Museum failed to take shape earlier this year, the board of the Chicago Theater Company took a hard look at their options and decided it was time to pull the plug. Board chair Carol Hartley says CTC, which has produced Equity theater at Parkway Community House, 500 E. 67th Street, for 22 years, had a persistent operating deficit and was missing its longtime artistic director, Douglas Alan-Mann, who became ill and left about a year ago. The company is getting help disbanding from Lawyers for the Creative Arts.

CTC, which mounted its last show a year ago, was founded in 1984 by Mann, Chuck Smith (who moved on to the Goodman), Michael Perkins, and Charles Finnester. Like actor and director Robert Townsend, they'd all been part of Clarence Taylor's X-BAG (Experimental Black Actors Guild), a community theater in the same space. Board member Delia Gray says "CTC always did wonderful, challenging work," but "the business side never caught up with the artistic side," and the location, in a neighborhood some considered unsafe, made it difficult to regularly fill even the 91 seats in Parkway's house. Peter Chatman, who ran the children's theater program for CTC, has taken over the space; he says his group, the newly named NU Stage Theatre, will present three or four shows annually featuring the 5 to 20-year-olds in his classes. That's NU as in new, Chatman says, not Northwestern University.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Carlos J. Ortiz.

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