Chi Center marks commercial turn

With the planned opening of the Chicago Center for the Performing Arts next September, the city’s theater industry will take another giant turn toward a more commercial, user-friendly mode of operation and away from the makeshift storefront theaters that were in many ways the local legit business’s trademark for the past two decades.

Tony Tomaska, who rose to prominence on the local theater scene over the past two years with his hit production of “Tony ‘n’ Tina’s Wedding” in a specially constructed environmental theater on the city’s near north side, and Joyce Sloane, for many years well known in theater circles as a Second City improv producer, are teaming up to open a 30,000-square-foot performing arts venue at 777 N. Halsted, on the city’s near west side.

Among other things, the Center will house four theaters, a restaurant and a space devoted to theater training classes. The Center will offer classes covering subjects such as dance movement, auditions, voice and screenwriting.

New quartet

The four theaters include a 375-seat mainstage facility for the Center’s largest productions, along with three other flexible spaces that will seat between 100 and 200 people and will feature a mix of music, cabaret and theater productions.

Tomaska and Sloane will be joined in their venture, estimated to cost well in excess of $1 million, by Tomaska’s brother, Joseph, and Sloane’s daughter, Cheryl. They will run the Center as a for-profit business, and one of its primary goals will be the development of local talent. Says Tomaska: “We want to give talented theater people a place in Chicago where they can be nurtured.”

However admirable Tomaska and Sloane’s intentions, their project is a risky one for a couple of reasons. The Center is being opened in a location that has not yet proved to be a particularly hospitable spot for theater operations. The Chicago Dramatists Workshop, a small not-for-profit company, has operated for seven years in a theater space near the proposed Center, and Workshop artistic director Russ Tutterow says the area seems increasingly isolated from the heart of the theater community on the city’s near north side. Tutterow says his company is looking at other sites on the city’s north side and is considering a move next year.

Aside from the location issue, Tomaska and Sloane will be under considerable pressure to keep their four theaters lit with productions that will attract paying customers. “Do we really need more large venues for theater production?” wondered one local producer. Indeed, some of the city’s existing, large off-Loop theaters, such as the Apollo Theater, often go dark for many months at a time for lack of product or producers ready to mount shows.

In addition to importing shows and talent from other cities, Tomaska and Sloane expect to develop new works in the Center’s small theaters, and if the shows have audience appeal, move them to the mainstage for extended runs.

Whatever its eventual fate, the Chicago Center for the Performing Arts is yet another sign that Chi’s indigenous theater industry is maturing. Describing how he plans to operate the Center, Tomaska talks at length about the need to provide good service and to ensure that the theatergoing experience is as pleasurable as possible.

Ticketbuyers are demanding more comfortable theaters and better production values. To satisfy that need, several other new theater venues are under construction or proposed in the city and suburbs.

Veteran commercial production Michael Cullen is building a 350-seat proscenium theater, the Mercury, also due to open in September on the city’s north side. A new theater complex is under construction in the northern suburb of Skokie.

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