Home Theatre AMERICAN THEATRE | BoHo Theatre and the ‘Brutal Calculus’ of Chicago Storefronts

AMERICAN THEATRE | BoHo Theatre and the ‘Brutal Calculus’ of Chicago Storefronts

AMERICAN THEATRE | BoHo Theatre and the ‘Brutal Calculus’ of Chicago Storefronts


“Everytime you’re unsure of what to do subsequent, return to the story,” BoHo Theatre’s last inventive director Elizabeth Swanson stated, recalling predecessor Stephen Schellhardt’s motto as they confronted a crumbling monetary mannequin at odds with firm values. “Our tales contained every part we have been aspiring to be. And once we couldn’t inform these tales anymore, it was time to go house.” Swanson’s voice betrayed a mournfully sincere observe. After almost 20 years of manufacturing theatre round Chicago, BoHo firm members, “a household of pervasive kindness” as Swanson put it, have dispersed among the many Chicago winds.

Swanson echoed a wider reckoning for artists within the Chicago storefront scene: The will to inform stunning tales continues to be there, however the funding to assist truthful and livable compensation is just not. Working out of rental venues and struggling to regain audiences post-pandemic, Chicago storefronts discover themselves at a crossroads. In 2023 alone, First Folio Theatre, Sideshow Theatre Firm, The New Coordinates, and Interrobang Theatre Mission shuttered after grappling with these exacerbated points. Chicago PR veteran David Rosenberg voiced considerations about whether or not these traits signify the non-Fairness scene’s impending “obliteration” or a second wherein it may very well be revitalized in a communal name to motion. 

Sana Selemon. (Photograph by Sydni Randle)

Born of a volunteer mannequin, BoHo’s pre-pandemic days weren’t with out their challenges. Govt director Sana Selemon identified that “each three to 4 years, somebody in a better administrative place would start to really feel very burnt out.” Through the years, firm members would carry up the query of closure. Every time, although, somebody would take it upon themselves to save lots of the corporate, unpaid. “Actually, my place was the primary stipended place within the firm, after which the inventive director, then our advertising director,” Selemon stated. BoHo, which reported a price range of simply over $50,000 in 2021, down from round $150,000 again in 2018, had hoped to reply requires livable wages, thereby enabling individuals with no sustainable day job to work with the corporate. However there merely was no cash to provide. “We couldn’t afford an abundance mindset,” Swanson admitted.

“What we did was to create a way of household with our casts, crews, designers, inventive workforce, and firm members,” stated Peter Marston Sullivan, a BoHo inventive director within the 2010s. “So I believe that’s how we have been in a position to, frankly, not pay individuals very a lot cash.” 

Returning to in-person programming coincided with a much-needed dialog round pay fairness and tangible range, fairness, and inclusion integration, but it surely additionally introduced with it increased supplies prices and smaller budgets. “Do all that for much less cash,” Sullivan stated, describing their dilemma. At a time when it’s completely clear that theatre staff have to innovate if we hope to get well—or, relatively, higher—our observe, he lamented that not each firm has the agility or the bandwidth to radically pivot. “Evaluating the danger and reward is a problem,” he stated.

Elizabeth Swanson. (Photograph by Ian McLaren)

The corporate sought each avenue attainable: fundraising, grant writing, probably scaling again their season to only one musical per yr, even merging with one other nonprofit. Their first makes an attempt discouraged them. For the 2022-23 season, Swanson stated they raised each price range line related to employee compensation, however nonetheless discovered their funds “unacceptably far beneath dwelling wage.”

“Sustained improvement had by no means been in our firm or board DNA,” she defined. “For many of its historical past, BoHo had operated largely on ticket sale proceeds. The corporate had a number of of us giving generously, however we didn’t have a wholesome donor base.” 

“It’s exhausting to get a working board at BoHo’s stage that truly goes out and raises cash,” added Sullivan, who now serves as inventive director for the bigger Marriott Theatre alongside some former BoHo members, together with Selemon. “Despite board workouts, board recruitment, and every kind of courses, that didn’t occur. It was actually about, how a lot are we going to lose on this present? I believe it’s humorous that, when Peter Blair was with me as govt director, our first present collectively made $24. And we simply touted that in every single place, each likelihood we received. Subsequent ones misplaced loads.”

BoHo Theatre hosts its first rehearsal for its 2019 manufacturing of “Huge Fish.” (Photograph by Charles Riffenburg)

As for chopping down their season or merging with one other group, Swanson stated there have been just too many parts that wanted to vary for that to work. BoHo would have wanted to implement an organization restructure, construct a brand new basis for improvement practices, and proceed constructing out the board, all whereas programming one other season. There was a slender path ahead, however to observe it, Swanson stated management workers was taking a look at 80-hour work weeks on a “10,000-a-year stipend.” Swanson realized that these choices may delay the inevitable or doubtlessly strip the corporate of its core id. So earlier than lastly touchdown on closure, BoHo fought exhausting to reform its mannequin. 

“We had actually began fundraising in a exact and clear method,” Selemon stated. “Initially of the pandemic, we did add on a monetary guide. I believe there have been constructing blocks that have been doubtlessly serving to us develop into steady.”

Nevertheless, quickly after a January 2023 board retreat to strategize paths ahead, it grew to become clear that not solely would the corporate be unable to fulfill its fundraising objectives—it could additionally require far steeper ones, as a big sponsorship donation had fallen by means of.

Fin Coe, former co-artistic director of The New Coordinates, stated he needs that smaller firms have been afforded clearer paths to outlive. When TNC closed in Might, Coe stated grant organizations began reaching out extra to supply pandemic reduction alternatives. “Nevertheless it was too late,” Coe stated. “We fought tooth and nail to be acknowledged and funded by these organizations.” With out the protection internet or passive income of bigger homes, mere survival developed into what Coe referred to as an “more and more brutal calculus.” 

Wanting forward, creatives are taking consolation in efforts from native theatres to middle their communities. 

“There’s no higher indicator of survival and success than being extremely related to your neighborhood,” Coe mirrored after well-attended exhibits round Chicago at Raven Theatre and First Flooring Theater. These firms, he celebrated, “know who they’re making their work for.”

“I don’t wish to be getting again to regular,” Coe added, emphasizing the significance of not shedding sight of the pay requirements and accessibility for which artists have fought. “I wish to get to higher.”

On the Marriott, Selemon and Sullivan are striving to infuse their work with the human-centered values and care practices that BoHo instilled in them. Selemon nonetheless laughs with BoHo pals when inside jokes come up, however Sullivan observes the dwindling storefront panorama with a sigh, including, “It’s exhausting to lose one other coaching floor for younger artists.”

“It’s stunning to see how BoHo fashioned lives and careers,” playwright and BoHo literary supervisor Dillon Chitto stated. “It’s exhausting as a result of, you already know, I don’t wanna say that BoHo fulfilled its mission, but it surely did—BoHo did fulfill its mission. I nonetheless suppose it closed too quickly. I’m simply eager about all of the careers, all of the lives it may have touched.” 

As BoHo’s world premiere manufacturing of Valen-Marie Santos’s Nationwide Advantage wrapped up final fall, Swanson was moved when varied artists approached her, unprompted, to precise their experiences on the theatre in superlative and therapeutic phrases. As BoHo itself closed, Swanson stated their social media flooded “with tales of people that met by means of BoHo, who met their partner or companion by means of BoHo, who had their first youngster whereas on the firm, who stood in one another’s weddings.”

“I don’t fairly know what to make of all this,” she stated, struggling to reconcile the present deluge of closures, in addition to the information that BoHo tried however couldn’t innovate to assist its artists. However, for now, they’ve discovered solace in that “a few of it was worthwhile. It was worthwhile to these individuals.”

Gabriela Furtado Coutinho is the affiliate Chicago editor for American Theatre. gcoutinho@tcg.org

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