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Farewell To Broadway: Strawdog Theatre Company Draws Curtain on its Lakeview Loft

Strawdog Theatre - Once In A LifetimeMoving to a new home is always an occasion for contemplation, whether coming after years of planning or launched in the heat of expediency. For the Strawdog Theatre Company, the prospect of abandoning an environment associated with a thirty-year history of hope, ambition and creativity cannot help but call forth memories.

To be sure, these memories may vary substantially. The neighborhood providing Strawdog two planks for its passion has undergone many changes over the nearly three decades that this particular tenant--one of many taking advantage of the area's transition from light-industrial to commercial usages--has resided therein. Below and adjacent to Strawdog's second-story loft is a storefront that now houses a liquor store, but once served as the outlet concession for Martha Washington Candies, located upstairs. Current Strawdog artistic director Hank Boland recalls a conversation circa 2003 with a baker's son who reminisced about the aroma of melted chocolate that greeted him when reporting for work on cold mornings at his father's nearby store. Other playgoers recollect stopping in the sidewalk-level Gallery Bookstore--or its Mystery/Sci-Fi annex upstairs on the first landing--to browse the shelves and chat with the curmudgeonly vender (both of which can be found nowadays at 923 West Belmont Avenue).

More than the glass-shard-and-poster-paint restroom decor or the exterior ledge off which an actor once made his entrance through a window, however, was the process by which the young theater ensemble made the empty space--according to Aristotle and Peter Brook, an indispensable component to performance--their own. Senior company member Mike Dailey recounts the tale of how plans for a long-awaited backstage connecting doorway were finally implemented.

"It was 1998, and we were rehearsing HurlyBurly with the expectation that there would be access to the stage from what is now our Green Room, but time was running out. Then, on the night before first tech, as we left rehearsal, [our set designer] Garrett Todd, walked in carrying a sledge hammer and a case of beer. When we came back in the morning, there were bricks and empty Old Style cans lying everywhere--it looked like the Incredible Hulk had marched through our theater. We had our wall opening, though, and it has allowed us, in the years since, to do a number of big-cast shows requiring actors to wait offstage between scenes."

The Strawdog loft has always had its front-of-house difficulties--minimal street signage, a shortage of parking spaces and no alternative access to the steep entrance stairway with its oversized rails--but any ambivalence the company may have harbored over their playhouse's shortcomings was put to the test in 2003, when Chicago's unlicensed storefront theaters were suddenly threatened with closure in the aftermath of the shocking E2 Club disaster, involving a security confrontation in the overcrowded cabaret that spurred customers to stampede for the exits, sustaining fatal injuries in their flight. It was time for Strawdog to decide its future.

"We'd just come off the biggest box office success in our history when the city inspectors decided to enforce the PPA (Public Place of Amusement) license requirements. Eventually, [46th ward alderman] Helen Shiller and the League of Chicago Theaters got the city council to make it easier for small theaters to complete the necessary paperwork, but in the meantime, we were facing a whole laundry list of upgrades to the property."

"We had a show that was renting from us at that time," adds company member Kyle Hammon, "but no license meant that it wasn't permitted to charge admission. Fortunately, we had already started on some of the renovations, and with the help of our board and some former company members, we stayed in business--"

"But up to then, we'd been flying by the seat of our pants, like so many other theaters in town," Dailey concludes, "Some of them, like Timeline and Mary-Arrchie, pulled through and some, like WNEP, folded their tents altogether. For us, though, it was our wake-up call to get our act together or quit. Our administration took a turn for the better and never looked back."

After so much time and effort spent tailoring the space to their needs, how is the company taking the news of their eviction? "There was talk of redevelopment in 2008," recalls Dailey, "We discussed moving and even went so far as to consider buying a building ourselves. Soon after, the economy went bust, so we still don't know if it was a missed opportunity or a dodged bullet." Boland cites more recent warnings, "Once our landlord had pushed through his plan to turn the Uptown Hull House into apartments, it was pretty evident that the clock was ticking for our block of Broadway. We didn't expect that we'd have to leave until 2020, though."

Playgoers still have a few more weeks to bask in the nostalgia of pioneering off-loop theater. (A pair of Strawdog alumni were spotted in the lobby re-enacting their first line-of-duty kiss before a select audience consisting of their three young children.) The choice of Once In A Lifetime--Kaufman and Hart's madcap farce about Hollywood's transition from silent movies to talkies--seems ironic in light of its timing, but Boland denies any clairvoyance, "I used to joke about programming every show as if it were going to be our last, but the fact is that we were long overdue for a comedy and this was a project that Damon Keily wanted to do with us, so while we didn't know that this would be our final appearance at this address, we're glad to make our exit laughing."

Factory Theatre's new auditorium, tucked behind the freshly-restored Neoclassical facade of a former Balaban & Katz odeon in Rogers Park, will provide temporary quarters for Strawdog's upcoming season (which kicks off on August 25 with The Distance, directed by Erica Weiss), but the company has always been able to picture their ideal workplace. "It has to have that intimate 'found' feel," insists Boland, who notes the Factory's "new theater" smell, "Climbing those stairs at Broadway and Grace was never a passive act. The challenges of a physical space, and the emotional response they engender, create a level of engagement for the audience the moment they arrive, even before the play begins."

Elevators or mainstage sight-lines unobstructed by supporting posts don't necessarily guarantee disengagement, of course, but while Dailey admits to subscribers warning them, "Don't screw it up by getting something too nice," he is adamant on the importance of actors' backstage comfort, "I don't think anyone can overestimate the impact that a spacious dressing area and Green Room has on promoting an ensemble dynamic and a behind-the-scenes energy reflected onstage."

Hamman concurs, "Even if it's a shoebox, it has to feel good. It has to feel like home."

Once In A Lifetime runs through June 11 at the Strawdog Theatre Company loft (3829 North Broadway)

The Distance opens August 25 at Factory Theater (1621 West Howard Street)

Mary Shen Barnidge
Contributing Writer

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