Will $1.8 million Eugene O'Neill series pay off?

The last time a roaring economy took a shocking nosedive was in the 1930s –  by which time playwright Eugene O’Neill had won three Pulitzer Prizes and established stage tragedy as a popular form of American entertainment.

An ambitious festival of O’Neill’s earlier works launched last week at Chicago’s Goodman Theater, but organizers certainly didn’t have such economic parallels in mind. The fest focuses on the playwright’s experimental plays, many of them with despairing themes in a world where dreams crash. In other words, the stagings are rather daring endeavors in dire times.

Conceived in a healthier economic climate, the Goodman’s festival carries a pricetag of $1.8 million, and may represent the type of bold programming that is quickly going out of style. “A Global Exploration: O’Neill in the 21st Century” is intended both to celebrate the playwright and explore contemporary stagecraft through a radical mix of local and international productions.

“It’s just so simplistic to think that people only want to spend their money on an empty farce,” says Goodman exec director Roche Schulfer. “And we’ve really seen an intense interest from people in festival programming, allowing people to explore one writer’s work more deeply.”

The Wooster Group’s race- and gender-bending take on “The Emperor Jones” kicked off the fest Jan. 7. By the time the event finishes on March 8 with an uncut version of “Strange Interlude” — typically more than five hours long — from the avant-garde Chicago company the Neo-Futurists, auds will have seen a total of nine O’Neill plays, including three of the scribe’s “Sea Plays” in Portuguese (from Brazil’s Companhia Triptal) and “Mourning Becomes Electra” in Dutch, directed by Ivo van Hove.

If the conventional wisdom holds that in uncertain times audiences want comfort food, then the timing might be troublesome. But that proposition has already been disproved at the Goodman, which has just experienced a big hit with Lynn Nottage’s new play “Ruined,” about sexual violence in the Congo.

“Audiences want substance,” Schulfer insists. By that logic, now may be the perfect time for the festival, something big enough to stand up to the scale of current events.

The idea for the fest took root once Goodman’s artistic director Robert Falls decided he wanted to stage “Desire Under the Elms” with his longtime collaborator Brian Dennehy. That centerpiece production, also featuring Pablo Schreiber, Carla Gugino and a set design from Walt Spangler with a big house suspended in midair, starts perfs Jan. 21 and has plans for a Rialto run.

Because the festival is not part of the regular Goodman season, the theater set a goal to raise an additional $500,000 from donors to support the $700,000 cost of bringing in international productions and commissioning new stagings from a couple of Chicago companies. (In addition to the Neo-Futurists, the fest includes the buzzed-about local troupe the Hypocrites, who will stage “The Hairy Ape”). “Desire Under the Elms” will cost about $1.1 million.

According to Schulfer, the theater is at about 70% of the way to the targeted fund-raising goal as of Jan. 5, a number he seems satisfied with. “It was a very aggressive target and I’m not sure we could have reached it, no matter the economic situation.”

The Goodman appealed to donors by stressing the artistic vision of the fest and that the theater wanted to create a world-class event.

While Falls had directed a lot of O’Neill’s later, more naturalistic work, he hadn’t personally explored the scribe’s early plays, which were enormously popular in their time but can feel old-fashioned today.

“I was trying to struggle as a 21st century director with a writer who was formed by the 19th century, and who then created the serious American theater of the 20th century,” Falls says.

So as he prepared for his production, Falls took a trip, traveling to several European countries to meet with about 15 artists to discuss O’Neill and his work.

He returned with the idea that the Goodman should present several productions of O’Neill in addition to his own, and expand beyond American borders to pursue them.

That’s when the fund-raising began. “Unlike anywhere else, where normally you establish a budget and go out and try to meet that budget, we just went out and tried to make this happen,” Falls says.

The tough U.S. economic outlook does seriously call into question exactly how rare this type of festival might be in the next few years. After all, we’re not hearing support for theater companies highly mentioned as part any proposed stimulus package.

Schulfer admits that Falls’ vision might not have been as readily received in today’s economic climate as it was only a short time ago.

But even so, O’Neill has a proven appeal for the Chicago theater’s core audience. “Bob’s production of ‘The Iceman Cometh’ was our biggest hit ever,” Schulfer says. It sold at 104% capacity. Advance sales for both “Desire Under the Elms” and the festival shows have been promising, he adds.

“Will we have to scale back some in the future?” Schulfer asks. “Probably, as will pretty much all organizations. But what the Goodman won’t do is compromise our mission. That would be a terrible idea.”

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