Theatre Building Chicago building theater without a building
After declining comment Wednesday, the staff of Theatre Building Chicago released a statement last night addressing the news, first reported Wednesday by the Chicago Tribune's Chris Jones, that the nonprofit entity is selling its physical facility to unidentified buyers operating as 1225 W Belmont LLC. Lukaba Productions, the entity behind Chicago SketchFest, which makes its home at TBC every January, plans to enter a long-term lease with the LLC and take over operations of the facilities. While TBC executive director Sean Cercone told me and the Chicago Reader's Deanna Isaacs on Wednesday that he could neither confirm or deny any rumors, Jones confirmed the sale with TBC board member Craig S. Wilson. Wilson's been at the center of some controversy among TBC supporters for his role, as then-president of the board, in the firing last July of longtime executive director Joan Mazzonelli and steering the organization in a new direction; see Isaacs's report for the Reader.
Though most theatergoers likely identify TBC as a venue, housing untold numbers of itinerant theater companies over its 33-year history on Belmont, the organization also has a parallel mission as a developer of new musical theater. According to TBC's statement, the org will use proceeds from the sale—terms of which are not being disclosed—to establish an endowment and expand its musical development arm, which will become TBC's main priority. Meanwhile, the booking of tenants continues; in an interview last night, Cercone suggested in carefully chosen words that Lukaba may bring on TBC's current facilities staff in the operations transition. "My understanding is the desire and intent of the new ownership is to evaluate the TBC staff for inclusion in their business plan moving forward," he said.
Cercone, who started January 1 as Mazzonelli's replacement, put a positive spin on TBC's getting out of the landlord business. "At a time when most theater companies and arts organizations across the entire country are cutting programming and restricting in their staffing, we're looking at an opportunity here for both organizations to expand what they're doing," he said. "99 percent of our time, energy and finances were dedicated to renting space. We really weren't doing a very good job or service to the musical theater community of Chicago that we set out to do."
"This opportunity presented itself, which is going to allow us to expand the Stages Festival, to expand our writers' workshop and new musicals for kids, and actually get into business with what we intended to do, and that's produce new musical theater," Cercone said. The Stages Festival of musicals in development, which in the past has taken place in August, will be pushed back to spring 2011 and is planned to include more full productions in addition to readings.
The shift in focus is consistent with the grand new plan Wilson began pushing for last year—and whether you admire it or not, there's little question that TBC is abandoning a third of its stated trifold mission in order to pursue it. And there's no telling the long-term intentions of the building's new owners; as for its new managers, Lukaba has yet to respond to request for comment. UPDATE 2:30PM: Lukaba released a statement this afternoon. In it, board president Laura Michaud says, “We have spent the last several years searching for a permanent home that can serve as a base for our own productions, as well as helping us fulfill our mission of serving and nurturing Chicago’s theatrical artists. We will continue TBC’s tradition of offering Chicago’s off-Loop companies affordable performance space so that the building will continue to serve as an incubator for Chicago theatre.”