A city-organized focus group of theater specialists is scheduled tonight to review proposals from six groups that would like to set up shop in a planned new theater in a cluster of city-owned buildings in the 700 block of Howard Street in Evanston.

At Tuesday’s Economic Development Committee meeting, Johanna Nyden of the city’s economic development staff identified four of the groups as Strawdog Theatre Company, E.D.G.E of Orion, AstonRep Theatre Company and Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre.

One other group, Nyden said, had requested to not be publicly named at this time because it’s in lease negotiations for its current space, and a sixth group’s application, she said, had just been located after being lost for weeks in the spam filter of a city staffer’s email account.

Mark Kozy, director of community resources for the League of Chicago Theatres and a member of the focus group, said the league has more than 250 member theater groups, but there are only about 100 theater venues in the metro Chicago area.

Mark Kozy.

For the Howard Street site, Kozy said, he recommends looking at theater companies that have had a lot of stability over 10 to 20 years and that have shown financial growth and have an audience that would likely move to the new location with them.

Alderman Delores Holmes asked about the possiblity of having more than one theater group control the space, and Nyden responded that most of the groups staff is talking too are in shared spaces now and want to control their own space — although perhaps renting to other groups on occasion.

“We [the city] want to get out of the business of managing a theater space,” Nyden said, a reference to issues that have come up over the years with the existing city-owned theater spaces at the Noyes Cultural Arts Center.

Kozy added, “Theater companies come and go constantly, but spaces are forever. To make a viable, long-lasting theater space, a group has to show that they can do this, that they have the fundraising background to be able to finance it.”

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

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  1. A Theater with a noose around the city’s neck?

    I hope Alderman Rainey and other Alderman will maintain her fiscal standards that she applied towards assessing the Smylie Brother's proposal at the City's Recycling Center on Oakton towards the much discussed theater proposal on Howard Street. As she said regarding the recycling center, "This is one of the best put-together teams for a project I've ever seen." A comprehensive and thorough operating and financial plan need to be presented this time. As you may recall, the last time a theater concept was proposed, the numbers proposed were ludicrous and the costs were substantially higher than the initial proposal.

    Rainey said that earlier proposals for the recycling center, "looked like a noose around the city's neck."

    How much is the city willing to spend on this theater and how much in annual losses is the city willing to lose? Ultimately, taxpayers are liable for this proposal, and hopes and dreams can cloud sound judgement.

    1. If space of value, sell it off
      If the theaters would be a good ‘investment’ then a buyer should be willing to purchase the location and run/farm-out them to groups.
      The city should take the opportunity to cut its ties with the property and any theater operations and use the money for needed items like social welfare, education and cutting taxes [not more pet projects] so residences and business are less saddled with the high costs of living in Evanston.

  2. Theater sharing is the answer

    Mr. Kozy's comments that theater groups likely don't want to share the building ignores the fact that it is extremely difficult for any one group to support the overhead that comes with such a structure. A sharing plan that would involve a lead theater company and several smaller ones would increase theater utilization and revenues and thus make it possible for the city to get out of the theater owning business in the process. With a sharing arrangement, the space also could serve as an incurbator for smaller theater groups such as ours to build an audience and a donor base (60% of most theater budgets come from donations) so we can grow and further enrich the Evanston arts scene in the process.

    1. Why the need for any of these theaters ?

      If this was Highland Park, Waukegan or any number of other cities without universities, yes theaters might be needed there. But this is Evanston. We have these needs covered in spades by NU and our close availability to them in Chicago.

      Why does the Council keep pursuing these? Is it pressure from a few rich donors or supposed arts cognoscenti or for those who want free training so they can 'be seen' and get jobs?

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