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Uptown Businesses Pull Together...Too Late to Save a Theater

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Uptown Businesses Pull Together . . .

For years real estate developers and merchants have sought to attract new residents and visitors to Uptown. But there continues to be tension between advocates for the rights of the poor and those who say the neighborhood must go upscale or down the tubes. Area artists have long tried to recruit residents to attend and participate in the performing and visual arts, and there have been sporadic efforts to forge connections between these artists and the area's business community.

"Efforts to upgrade the area with the involvement of artists have been undertaken in the past," says Solomon Chu, executive director of the Uptown Chamber of Commerce. "But often these collaborations have had more heart than brains--they were not as well thought out as they should be."

Chu hopes that pattern will begin to change next week, when his organization and the Illinois Arts Alliance Foundation unveil a new initiative linking artists and businesses in Uptown.

As part of the project "Working Together: Building Community Through the Arts," the plan finds its roots in a survey conducted last winter in Uptown, Pilsen, West Town, and South Shore, as well as suburban Schaumburg. The survey asked artists, arts groups, and social service agencies to "assess their economic contributions to their communities," says the foundation's executive director, Alene Valkanas, "the moneys they've invested in upgrading their properties, the individuals they employ, the volunteers they bring into the community, and their audiences' range of economic levels, which is really quite impressive." The survey also examined "what issues they might begin to address in terms of improving their own positions and that of the community," Valkanas says; chief among those issues in Uptown was "the perception of crime--not the reality, but the perception."

In connection with the survey, the foundation began hosting a series of meetings among respondents. "Most of these people knew each other, but they seemed to need a catalyst to come together," says Valkanas. In Uptown, the meetings resulted in a committee consisting of artists and business people. Sponsored by the chamber of commerce, the Arts/Business Task Force is still developing its agenda. But, Chu says, the group will address three broad areas: "First, some type of cooperative advertising--you know, show a theater ticket and get a 10 percent discount in a restaurant. Second, getting the input of arts people in community development projects, like decorating CTA stations." Third, says Chu, is identifying ways that Upcorp--the Uptown Community Development Corporation, a nonprofit arm of the chamber of commerce--can help arts groups find homes for their programs. "Except for the People's Music School, nobody owns anything. Everybody rents. And they're very nervous about what landlords might do."

Valkanas stresses that the project is not just a front to attract the affluent and sweep out the area's have-nots. "There is a great sensitivity to that on the part of people who have worked long and hard on behalf of the poor," she says, pointing to the involvement of people like Beacon Street Gallery's Pat Murphy and the People's Music School's Rita Simo. Adds Arlene Crewdson, executive director of Pegasus Players: "This is a way to ensure that as the economic problems of the neighborhood are solved it doesn't force out the very things that make Uptown unique--racial and economic diversity." Still, the task force faces a delicate problem: how to upgrade Uptown's image while preserving that diversity and protecting the rights of the community's poorer members.

. . . Too Late to Save a Theater

The Uptown initiative comes too late for at least one arts group: Transient Theatre, a small non-Equity troupe at 1222 W. Wilson, which closed its doors last weekend after a five-year struggle on one of Uptown's dreariest strips.

Like a lot of off-off-Loop theaters, Transient was formed by a core of college pals--Scot Casey, Bill Mann, and Tom Daniel, all alumni of the University of Illinois at Chicago. Itinerant for its first two years, the ambitious young company moved into its own place in 1990 when Uptown developer Randy Langer offered a generous five-year lease, charging for a run-down 5,000-square-foot space what many people pay for a studio or small one-bedroom apartment.

Transient's second-floor home housed a 73-seat main stage and a 32-seat studio, which for a couple of years was occupied by the Playwrights' Center (now operating under the auspices of Loyola University). The company focused principally on new or unusual scripts (including a Jeff-cited staging of Steven Berkoff's Greek), sometimes resorting to more familiar fare as box-office boosters. It earned a reputation for commendable though inconsistent quality as it produced five shows a year on a $14,000 budget. Actors were paid out of box-office receipts, Casey says, while he and artistic director Tammy Berlin took no salaries and often made up shortfalls out of their own pockets.

Casey recalls making efforts to reach out to local merchants, but "we mostly met with ambivalence." He echoes the notion that fear of crime is a major problem faced by Uptown artists: "People feel they're hostages of their homes at night." And though there's plenty of free parking space, Berlin notes, "People don't feel confident leaving their cars on the street." Besides failing to build a solid audience base, Transient faced an inexorable decline in grant money; says Casey, "It's getting to the point where unless you're one of the big boys you're outta luck."

In mid-July, Transient was notified that its rent would be tripled; Casey and Berlin scrambled to cancel a production and organize a liquidation sale last weekend. They plan to keep Transient alive on a nomadic basis more appropriate to its name. "What we'll do now is fund-raise, rent a theater, and do a show when we want, like most of the companies out there," says Casey.

"We've decided to take the outlook that this is the next step up. That's our story and we're sticking to it."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Transient Theatre's Tammy Berlin and Scot Casey by J.B. Spector.

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