International Theatre Festival Loses Its Leader/Introducing Vinyl, the Two-in-One Night Spot/First Chicago, Then Miami | Culture Club | Chicago Reader

International Theatre Festival Loses Its Leader/Introducing Vinyl, the Two-in-One Night Spot/First Chicago, Then Miami 

Can the International Theatre Festival survive the loss of executive director Jane Nicholl Sahlins? How about the loss of $250,000?

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International Theatre Festival Loses Its Leader

The fate of the International Theatre Festival of Chicago grew more uncertain last week with news that Jane Nicholl Sahlins, who helped found the biennial event ten years ago, will resign as executive director January 1. She'll reportedly retain the unsalaried title of "principal artistic adviser." On top of that Pam Marsden, Sahlins's second-in-command, is taking a six-month leave of absence to work on an animation project for Disney Pictures. Marsden said she'd be willing to return when she's done, but earlier this week festival board chairman Richard Gray remained ambivalent about the festival's future. "A lot of people on the board want to see this thing continue in some form," he said, but declined further comment until the full board of directors meets next month and marketing and financial studies are completed.

Sahlins's abrupt resignation raised a question among many observers: Did the board of directors force her departure, or did she choose to abandon a sinking ship? Neither Sahlins nor Marsden returned phone calls, but Gray said they made their respective decisions "completely on their own." Sahlins claims she could no longer handle the job's fast pace or management responsibilities. One of her chief duties, aside from helping raise money, was scouring the globe for new and interesting productions that might be suitable for mounting at the festival.

But she's also been taking the heat for the whopping deficit this year's festival incurred, believed to be about $250,000, most of it attributable to lower-than-expected ticket revenue. This year's crippling debt came on top of the festival's previously accrued deficit, also around $250,000. Sahlins and festival operations have been criticized in recent weeks for other reasons as well: Theater Week, a small but influential national magazine, praised the festival's offerings in a recent story, but said it appeared disorganized. And Carrie Kaufman, managing editor and publisher of the local trade paper PerformInk, recently slammed the festival for, among other things, failing to get word out about discount vouchers that were available to local theater professionals. Kaufman claims her repeated phone calls to one festival executive prior to the event were not returned for a week and a half. The city's dailies have generally preferred to dwell on the importance of the festival to Chicago's image as a theater capital than to scrutinize its operations.

The board's search for a new executive director certainly won't be made easier by the organization's financial troubles or the ticket-buying public's apparent apathy. And the kind of leader the festival needs--someone with considerable managerial skills and a savvy sense of theater that is both artistically and commercially viable--is not the kind of arts executive widely available these days. Nor will it be easy to find someone who has traveled as extensively as Sahlins or nurtured her extensive theater contacts.

Introducing Vinyl, the Two-in-One Night Spot

Cal Fortis and Kenny Smith, partners in Big Time Productions, have proven that they know how to run both restaurants and nightclubs; their long-running successes in both arenas include the clubs Ka-Boom! and Crobar and the north-side restaurants Angelina and Oo-La-La! Now they're about to try a formula that has proved difficult for others: in late September Fortis and Smith plan to unveil Vinyl, a combination nightclub/restaurant at 1615 N. Clybourn. The bilevel club, being designed by Thomas Schlesser (who also masterminded the decor at Ka-Boom!), will encompass an 80-seat restaurant with what Fortis calls a "loungelike" atmosphere. Chef Jill Rosenthal, who also oversees the kitchen at Oo-La-La!, has devised a menu that features bistro fare influenced by the cuisines of Italy, France, Asia, and the U.S. Menu items will run the gamut from pot pies to pasta to pork chops. On Sundays Rosenthal plans to offer a southern-style brunch called "Breakfast With Elvis," for which the wait staff will sport bouffant wigs and long sideburns. The club portion of the space will feature 30-foot ceilings, a mezzanine for people-watching, decor that's a mix of contemporary and 50s-retro, recorded music spun by a DJ, and live entertainment ranging from torch singers to reggae bands.

Fortis, who is aiming for a target crowd age 28 to 45, thinks the time is right for the concept. "Restaurants have become nightclubs for a lot of people," he says. But at Whiskey River, just up the street, co-owner Dara Kron has been unsuccessful at making the restaurant portion profitable. Since the club opened two years ago, the attached restaurant has gone through no fewer than four different menus. "It's been difficult to get people to go back and forth between the club and the restaurant," says Kron, who put the place through two incarnations with her husband before leasing it to Dick Novak, who owns the Fireplace Inn on North Wells. Novak first put in a ribs-oriented concept called Hickory Dick's, but last week he renamed the restaurant the Fireplace Inn and reworked the menu to try to attract a crowd familiar with his Wells Street restaurant. Jimmy Goldman, who earlier this year opened a restaurant/nightclub called the Gulf Coast on North Lincoln, has been somewhat more successful, but he concedes it's a battle. "The perception is that you are either a restaurant or a nightclub; people will come for the music, but don't realize we have food."

First Chicago, Then Miami

Mark Lyman, executive director of SOFA, a new art fair having its first run in October at the Sheraton Hotels & Towers, already has plans to expand his operations into the Miami Beach area next March. Lyman left faltering art fair impresario John Wilson's Lakeside Group last fall to start up his own fair, whose name stands for "sculpture, objects, and functional art." For a number of years Lyman managed Wilson's fair New Art Forms, which had a similar but somewhat narrower focus. He says he decided to explore the idea of a Miami fair after a number of art dealers suggested it might be a good location, and expects about 65 percent of the approximately 60 dealers at the Chicago SOFA fair to sign up for his Miami event.

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

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