According to sources in Chicago, both Zebra Crossing Theatre and Chicago Actors Ensemble have called it quits, victims of the crowded Chicago theatre market and, to some extent, their ambitions.
"Both companies were experimental and risk-taking," one insider told Playbill On-Line. "Which means they were heavy on ideas and good intentions and not afraid to take chances. But the results. Let's just say they were typical, struggling young theatres, big on heart, short on brains."
More sympathetically, Chicago critic Mary Shen Barnidge ("The Reader," "This Month ON STAGE") said of the closings, "It's sad but inevitable. With so many new companies starting up or banding together, some old ones will disband. You can't have birth and growth without some death."
Zebra Crossing shuts its doors Jan. 31, 1997, at which point they will rent their current space. The Eight Reindeer Monologues and Twelve Days Of Christmas will finish out the season there. Colleen Tansey, of the League Of Chicago Theatres, told Playbill On-Line she had not heard that Zebra, a member theatre, had closed, but she was aware the company had money troubles. "I think their last show was Hamlet," she said, "and that didn't do very well. I don't think they did very many shows."
Not a member of the League, Chicago Actors Ensemble closed its last show, Fez, in August. (The company normally takes autumn off, though the theatre space housed Watchdog and a Danish Children's Theatre since then.) "We're broke," CAE artistic director Hilary Mac Austin told Playbill On Line. "We're tired, and our audiences have gone down significantly. Whatever funding is out there now is mostly school funding. And building new audiences would take marketing and funding we don't have."
"Basically we were in negotations with the landlords, and it took us six months to realize they had a different point of view on the situation than we did. We were looking long-term, hoping to band with other small groups and then approach places for funding. They just didn't want to see it as a long-term arts center."
CAE's annual budget ran between $25,000 and $60,000. The good news, such as it is, is that once CAE sells and barters off its goods this Saturday, Dec. 7, the company should have minimal debt. "Rather than divebombing to the earth, we made a conscious decision," said Austin. "We didn't want to live in perpetual debt, which is tremendously stressful and the way most companies work."
Rick Strilke, landlord of the Zebra Crossing space, told Playbill On-Line he's currently weighing the best offers and expects to make a decision before the end of the year. "If I could find a good theatre tenant, yes, that's what I'd prefer," Strilke said, "but these theatres under 100 seats are a catch 22. If they're successful, they need more seats, and if they're not, they fail. At this level, companies are either too good or not good enough." Strilke is inviting serious, interested parties to contact him -- (773) 477-0005 -- regarding the space. He noted that a couple of theatre troupes are looking it over but would not specify which ones.
Austin said the the twelve-year-old troupe is most proud of its space, which they helped design. "It's one of the greater theatre spaces in Chicago," Austin said.
-- By David Lefkowitz