Aud Apathy Sinks Chi Int’l Fest

After more than six months of considering its options, the board of directors of the International Theater Festival of Chicago has brought down the final curtain on the biennial showcase of theater from around the world.

The only regularly scheduled international theater festival in the U.S. had accumulated a daunting deficit of about $500,0000 over its 10-year life-span. The debt for the fifth – and what proved to be the last – festival in 1994 was a whopping $250,000, due in large part to attendance at most productions that fell well below projections. The festival board managed to raise about $100,000 of the total $270,000 owed to creditors, while an additional $230,000 in loans from board members will be written off as contributions to the event.

The decision to shutter the festival appears to have resulted from a growing realization that repaying existing debt while trying to raise funds for future festivals would be a nearly impossible feat.

“Things in life don’t go on forever,” noted festival board president Richard Gray. Foundations and corporate sponsors had generously supported the festival over the decade, making it a going concern to the tune of more than $1 million per fest. But such groups tend not to lend their backing to losing propositions, and the festival had taken on something of that aura after its disastrous 1994 showing.

Right up until the plug was formally pulled, fest co-founder and executive director Jane Nicholl Sahlins insisted she was completely baffled by the public’s unwillingness to buy large numbers of tickets to 1994 festival attractions, even after critics had showered lavish praise on almost every production. But theatergoers simply didn’t go for much of what the theater festival offered last year, including a half-baked new play by Alan Ayckbourn and plodding pieces performed in Greek by the Attis Theater Co. from Athens.

While the directors examined ways to keep the theater festival alive over the past six months, Gray repeatedly maintained that he and other board members, as well as local cultural leaders, believed the festival had significantly contributed to Chicago’s image locally and internationally and therefore deserved another chance. But without foundation backing or any certainty of the ticket-buying public’s financial support, no amount of civic flag-waving could save the event.

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