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Home News Theater Village Players Stops Producing
Village Players Stops Producing Print E-mail
Theatre
Written by Kerry Reid   
Friday, 11 June 2010 11:27
When the lights go down on the Village Players Theater production of Christopher Durang’s The Marriage of Bette and Boo this weekend, it will mark the beginning of a crucial period of financial regrouping for the Oak Park company—and the last hurrah for artistic director Dan Taube after just one season at the helm.

Taube took over less than a year ago from outgoing artistic director Carl Occhipinti, who was the first person in the company’s nearly 50-year history to hold that title. Occhipinti had led the theatre from the brink of an earlier fiscal crisis and overseen a physical makeover of the Madison Street venue. When Taube came on, it was with the specific intent of focusing on “new American classics,” and he also put together a “Women on the Edge” black-box series of work either by or about women. The last show in that series, Naomi Iizuka’s Polaroid Stories, has been cancelled. The Durang show, the only one directed by Taube during his brief tenure, is closing two weeks early. It had originally been expected to run through June 27.

According to a June 7 article by Chris LaFortune in the Pioneer Press publication, Oak Park Leaves, the company had a $21,614 deficit recorded in its August 2009 tax filings—down from a surplus of almost $98,000 in 2007. But with the economy tanking in September of 2008, contributions and gifts dropped nearly 57 percent (from $225,000 in 2006 to $97,040 in 2008), and declines in box office over the past year meant that the company simply couldn’t make payroll.

Rosemary Foley joined the board three months ago and has already moved from being a board member to vice president to president—she assumed the current role in time to run the May 10 meeting, at which time, she says, she was unaware of any looming financial problems. Foley, who served as assistant director for the Durang play, had also interviewed for the artistic director job, as did Megan Wells, a storyteller and teacher who has been involved with the Village Players’ educational programs for three years. Wells is also on the board now, and she and Foley are struggling to find ways to keep the company together so it can celebrate its 50th year.

“There was no budget crisis mentioned at a board meeting,” says Foley. “The board was never made aware of it.” But the board had changed over almost entirely once Taube was in place. “We don’t have a bookkeeper,” says Foley. “I am working as best as I can to go through the books, as well as manage this property [the company has a mortgage on the theatre, and Foley says that they are current with their payments on that] and figure out the future for this theatre.”

Wells says that at the time Taube was brought on, “The board felt they were really ready to make the leap to create a Chicago-style, regional-ready theatre in Oak Park. But within a couple of months, it started to appear that the board, while they emotionally and artistically wanted that, didn’t have their financial ducks in a row to support Dan in that idea. That was the beginning, I think, of the attrition.” Foley notes that there are only two board members who have been around longer than three months.

Further complicating matters is that Village Players, unlike most non-profit performing arts organizations, has never had a separate executive or managing director to oversee the day-to-day financial operations. Occhipinti, in addition to being the first artistic director, also served as managing director.

“Dan was brought on as artistic director,” says Wells, “but the management needs were so great that that was an attrition point as well.”

Rick Julien was brought on as a production manager this season, and Wells says “Between Dan and Rick doing everything they could to the limits of their phenomenal talents, coupled with a struggling board, coupled with the economy and [decreased] box office—it just couldn’t survive that constellation.”

Foley notes that, though there has been some good press for the company, box office has been in decline for two years—before Taube came on board—and that the company didn’t do a subscriber drive last year. And while VPT is certainly not the only company to see a drop in subscriptions, for a smaller company on a tighter margin, that can make a big difference. Foley estimates that the payroll costs for the seven staff members came to about $5,500 per month. And since VPT also pays actors and designers, there were additional personnel costs that they simply couldn’t meet.

Kyra Lewandowski, the director for Polaroid Stories, and her cast offered to try to raise some funds so the show, which was already in rehearsals, could go on. But, says Foley, “It was a pretty herculean task. They spent three days thinking about it and after talking to myself and Megan, they decided it was impossible.” Foley notes that the company didn’t have the funds to pay for the rights or to pay production costs for the set.

With no income stream to make payroll in the future, the board decided to close down productions for the time being. However, the summer children’s theatre camp, run by Wells and Foley, is filled to nearly capacity and will begin classes on June 21.

“The children’s portion is where our arts and service and audiences are meeting, and are in love with each other,” says Wells. “Rosemary and I have passion for this. We have been naturally evolving forward with this anyway. There is a true need in Oak Park for legitimate theatre experiences for these children. There are musical experiences, but if you’re not a triple threat, you are left out of the picture a little. So they can play in our sandbox.”

Of his time at VPT, Taube (who also founded the now-defunct Thunder Road Ensemble in Chicago) would only say, “I’ve had very positive experiences here. I’ve loved working with Rosemary and Megan, and I know they’ll do a great job of turning things around and I hope to come back and work with them again.” He plans to focus on freelance directing and teaching in the immediate future.

It would seem that a theatre in a town as culturally alive as Oak Park shouldn’t have any problem attracting “angels,” but then again, the Apple Tree experience suggests that a desirable address is no bulwark against financial reality. Founded in 1961 as the Oak Park River Forest Civic Theatre, Inc., the company acquired its current permanent space in 1984. But from the beginning, says Foley, there was resistance. “I think A Man for All Seasons was their first production, and it was considered very racy for the time in Oak Park,” she says.

In addition to running the children’s theatre program, Foley and Wells are looking into other options for keeping Village Players viable. Wells says that they are “very open” to rentals to other companies, and also are looking into plans for what Wells calls “a fun and soulful” 50th anniversary benefit that will help them get back on track to produce for their golden-anniversary season. And of course, they will gratefully accept any and all donations at the Village Players website.

“Short of an angel walking through our doors, we will proceed as if we are our own angels,” says Wells.

If you’re interested in helping out, contact Wells and Foley at 866/764-1010 or through the website, www.village-players.org

Last Updated on Friday, 11 June 2010 11:34