Aspiring theater groups thrive in cheap digs

With a ready supply of affordable storefront theaters and a large pool of actors willing to work cheaply, Chicago's aspiring producers are thriving.          

Storefront theaters are everywhere, not only in Lakeview and Lincoln Park, but in Edgewater, Rogers Park, Bucktown, and Andersonville.  A survey of theater websites shows at least 35 small theaters throughout the city that are available for rent.

And at prices that keep the shows coming.

Though it can cost $40,000 to rent a major venue for a weekend, Chicago's neighborhoods are home to dozens of small theaters where a four-week run can cost one-tenth of that.

Mary Scruggs, head of the writing program at Second City, says the spaces are small, but the creative potential is endless.

"You can have everything," she says. "You can have helicopters," because they can be imagined. 

Josh Zagoren, of the theater group Hobo Junction, agrees.

"Artists forget that boundaries can help shape their work," he says, "like pressure shapes coal into diamonds."

The unassuming entrance to the Strawdog Theatre Company on North Broadway / Photo by Amy Crider

Hobo Junction's "signature look is made of wood, bubble gum, and duct tape," he says.

Hobo Junction's first show, "The Temp," which started at The Playground in 2006, quickly developed a following among DePaul University students, who kept the show sold out, Zagoren said.

The box office profit enabled them to mount future productions, like their current work "The Regulars" at Gorilla Tango Theatre.

Zagoren says the 88-seat Gorilla Tango is a particularly good deal for producers because managers deduct their rent from ticket sales, instead of demanding up-front payment, and rehearsal space is included in the rate of $200 per show-hour plus half of the box office.

With tickets priced at $12, Hobo Junction makes $700-$1,000 per three or four-week run and the money goes toward seeding the next production, he says.

Rebecca Zellar, of GreyZelda Theatre Company, is running  "Skriker" at the Mary-Arrchie Theatre, for which she paid $2,000 for the first and last week's rent up front. She will owe another $2000 from ticket sales for the show's full four-week run.

Other expenses include $500 to rent masks for the costuming, more for the set and advertising, and about $600 for the royalties to Samuel French, the play publishing company that owns the rights to most published plays.

She says she "hopes to break even" with ticket prices at $20. 

Sketch comedy and improv are also staples of small theater venues. Pedro Castro, of the company Big Dog Eat Child,  says Chicago is saturated with sketch groups, so a company has to stand out.

Currently running "The Boozelegger's Ball" at Gorilla Tango, his group has garnered favorable reviews in the Sun-Times. Castro's first show, which opened in June, didn't break even, but establishing a reputation means "more opportunities to perform and more stage time," says Castro.

The group recently had the chance to perform at a competition at The Laugh Factory in Los Angeles.

"A show is a success if it breaks even," says Robert Whitaker, artistic director of the Viaduct Theatre.

But Broadway-style success is not the goal. Producers say the rewards come in the form of creative control and artistic collaboration.

Aly Bockler, producer of the burlesque show "Varietease Cabaret" playing at the Strawdog Theatre, says small theaters give her the ability to improve her work as a producer and performer while watching new acts improve and flourish.

"It's nice to have creative control," she says.

Blockler says the show has been enough of a success that she is considering a larger venue.

For the writer, success can come with a play's migration to other cities or venues. The widely praised play "The Sparrow" premiered at the Viaduct before moving to Steppenwolf.

But small theater production is not risk free.

"You can't rely on ticket sales," says Alex Goodman, artistic director of the Strawdog Theatre, who says it is wise to secure financing in advance.

Many f
ledgling companies hold fundraisers and seek donations. Christopher Plummer of, Echo Road Productions, held a karaoke night at The Spot to raise money for the recent premiere of "The Tape" at Gorilla Tango.

Tiffany Joy Ross, who worked on five productions for Bruised Orange Theatre Company, spoke of the challenge of "convincing people your art work is worth donating their hard-earned money to," and the greater challenge of putting aside business concerns to focus on the quality of the work on stage.

It's common to have to wear many hats. Ross considers herself primarily an actor, but has also served as Bruised Orange's managing director and wants to support the theater community in any way she can. 

Blockler says there is a danger in trying to do too much. "You can't be at the back of the house and at the front of the house and on stage at the same time," she says."

Among the Chicago theaters available for rent are:

  • Viaduct Theatre, at 3111 N. Western Ave. This theater is hidden under the viaduct, as the name indicates. It's a music venue as well and is available for negotiable rates in the range of $1000 for the 80-seat space and $1800 for the 130-seat space. Rehearsal space is $10 an hour with a four-hour minimum. They run the box office.
  • Gorilla Tango Theatre, at 1519 N. Milwaukee Ave. Rental of the 88-seat theater costs $200 per show-hour plus half the box office receipts. Rehearsal space is included as well as box office service.
  • Stage Left Theatre, at 3408 N. Sheffield Ave., can be rented for $825 per week for peak time slots and $250 per week for off-night and late night slots. Rehearsal space for limited hours can be added. Groups must run the box office themselves. The theater has 50 seats.
  • Strawdog Theatre Company , at 3829 N. Broadway St. has costs that vary with the season and hours, but are generally $1500 per week for the 70-seat main stage and $900 per week for the 55-seat Hugen Hall Cabaret. The theater will run the box office for an additional fee.
  • Prop Theatre , at 3502-4 N. Elston Ave. Prop isn't primarily a rental theater, yet is rented frequently. With a mission of youth outreach, subsidized rental is available for groups like the Association House, so  rates vary. Professional rates range from $1700 to $2000 for the 75 or 99-seat spaces.

Correction: This article has been updated to reflect that Stage Left Theatre's address is 3408 N. Sheffield. An earlier version of the article gave a different address.
Also, Aly Bockler is producer of the burlesque show  "Varietease." An earlier version included an incorrect spelling.