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Bailiwick's Fight to Stay Alive
by Andrew Davis
2008-01-16

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Given the steady streams of plaudits ( including over 150 Jeff Committee citations, recommendations and nominations ) , hit productions ( such as Jeffrey, Jerry Springer: The Opera and the Barenaked Lads series ) and seemingly successful fundraisers associated with Bailiwick Repertory since its 1982 inception, one would expect the company to be extremely financially successful.

However, one would be wrong, according to Bailiwick's founder and artistic director, David Zak.

Zak said that the financial problems have snowballed in "the past 12 months." He said that the perception was that things were going smoothly all along. "Our sense was that everyone thought we were fine. [ Even ] the foundation community thought we were fine."

Part of the problem, Zak told Windy City Times, is the burgeoning Broadway in Chicago series that takes place downtown. "We sent a fundraising letter to our people that talked about the change in the marketplace," he said. "It's great that people are going to Altar Boyz, Jersey Boys and all these other 'Boys' that are down there, but it's expensive. If people spend $80 for Wicked or $100 for Jersey Boys, [ the effect ] is what a lot of the smaller theaters are feeling. People will see the big stuff like Jerry Springer, but we've done workshops and smaller gay and lesbian plays, and we've found that audiences aren't coming for those—and that's true across the country."

Zak also said that technology is responsible for the financial hit Bailiwick has taken. "It's a cultural change," he said. "People have their TiVos and Netflix, so they have their neverending supply at home of gay and lesbian television programming. In the old days, our subscribers would announce a new show and people would trot out to see [ it ] , and then with Broadway, everything assimilated; I mean, Hairspray is about as gay as it gets. So it's an interesting cultural change, where young people don't seem to be going to gay theaters; young people don't seem to identify with coming-out plays—it seems they were born out!"

However, Zak said those have not been the only factors, citing competition with such entities as "Gay Games and Center on Halsted fundraising" for Bailiwick's slump. "As we were talking with individuals and foundations, we realized that people's funding dollars [ were geared ] toward priorities like the Gay Games—and thank God [ it was successful ] . Then, people went from there to the Center on Halsted, or vice versa. A lot of times, the phrase 'donor fatigue' came up."

Since noticing the financial slide ( which Zak stated is in the six figures ) , Bailiwick has altered its strategy, he said: "We have some programs that have always targeted different programs, such as [ the upcoming ] Sunday on the Rocks, which is part of our women's series, and this summer we have Lesbians Who Kill, and a summer play. We won't have a festival of shows, but maybe just one show.

"We've cut back, but we still do the [ occasional big show ] such as Hunchback, with [ musician ] Dennis DeYoung," Zak said. " [ Cutting back ] is something we've been discussing. This summer, all the Pride Series shows are two or three characters, so there isn't a lot in terms of sets or productions," adding that Hunchback will be the last big show for a while.

Zak added that "we need help with benefits. ... I heard of people doing fundraisers for other not-for-profits; I hope that if someone has a benefit, they would make Bailiwick [ a ] beneficiary of that. That helps a lot of us— [ including ] the people here and Hell in a Handbag [ Productions ] ." He also said that Bailiwick is working on lengthening its donor list and is collaborating with such troupes as Handbag.

'What the hell is going on here?'

While talking about the debt, Zak commented that "we always try to take care of the artists first. We try to pay a high level for our non-Equity people." ( When asked point-blank if all the actors have been paid, Zak responded that "yes, all the actors" were. )

Maybe the actors were, but at least one writer has a different story to tell.

Jim Provenzano is in the midst of a lawsuit against Bailiwick, saying that he was never paid for his playwriting efforts regarding Pins, a production revolving around wrestling that ran in 2006. ( Provenzano also wrote the novel the play was based on. ) Talking with Windy City Times, Provenzano said that being unpaid is not the only thing that irritates him. "The play was so poorly done," he said. "The director made over 50 script changes, [ the play ] got bad reviews and I was incredibly, horribly disappointed in them. ... I wanted to sue them for damages because they made so many script changes I feel that it was incredibly bad and damaged my reputation as a writer."

Provenzano added that Bailiwick also skimped on the production. "I gave them multiple examples, links and catalogs where to get wholesale wrestling shoes, mats [ and other pieces ] ," he said. "When I went to see it in 2006, I had already read several bad reviews and I'm like, 'What the hell is going on here?' ... What the director did was chop up the dialogue. ... It even took them a year and a half for them to even send a videotape of the show—and the first half-hour of Act Two the video camera was off, so I don't even have proof of how bad the show was. ... I hadn't seen that bad a show in years. They cast it wrong; the runt of the wrestling team was taller than anyone else in the cast, even the father—so they cut out all references to weight classes, which are kind of pivotal when you're talking about wrestling."

When told about Provenzano, Zak admitted that things got out of control, financially and managerially, when he was away from Bailiwick for a while after having open-heart surgery, adding that "Jim's show was one of those shows that opened while I was in the hospital, and [ he ] was not happy with the show the director had made. I think a lot of what we've done in the past 18 months can be attributed to when I wasn't here. People said that they would take care of things, and they didn't get it done." ( According to Zak, those people are no longer working at Bailiwick. ) Zak—commenting that he's heard from "a really small percentage, because you never hear from the people who are happy"—said that "it's all going to work itself out."

Zak also said that "the fact that so many people have worked here so long and keep coming back testify, in general, to the artistic integrity of the plays."

Provenzano, who said that he will never work with Bailiwick again, confirmed that his situation occurred while Zak was away, but added that Zak's operation "is not an adequate excuse. They still haven't paid me; they wanted to settle for a few hundred dollars. ... Don't tell someone you're going to pay them when you can't.

"There were five contract violations: they haven't paid my royalties; they didn't put my bio in the program—which was even criticized [ in ] two reviews; they didn't credit New Conservatory Theater with having commissioned the first production; they provided an incomplete videotape; and they made [ dozens of ] script changes."

Brian Lobel—whose production about testicular cancer, Ball, ran at Bailiwick in 2006—e-mailed Windy City Times that he also ran into financial difficulties regarding Bailiwick, having received his royalties late. However, unlike Provenzano, Lobel ( who currently lives in London ) felt that the situation was related to Zak's absence: "While it is true that I received royalties late, I am tempted to agree with David that the lapse was because of his absence in my specific case. While getting paid from Bailiwick was not easy, it was not significantly more difficult than getting paid by small theaters who want to be big theaters. As a touring performer, from 2005-2007, I ... received on-time payment about 50 [ percent ] of the time."

However, Lobel added that he is "so conflicted about my experience with Bailiwick. On one hand, it was a point of entry for me and so many young artists ... and for that I'm thankful. Would I have preferred them to be more honest about their budget, ability to reimburse [ and ] capability to fill a house? Absolutely. But I was warned. Warned sufficiently. ... In a world where space is key, Bailiwick has it and is relatively generous with it... I just so wish that they focused their efforts on quality, not quantity. While Bailiwick may be guilty of [ lack of ] focus, many [ others ] are, too." ( Another performer, Tim Miller, e-mailed that he "performed two years ago at Bailiwck before David Zak's surgery, I believe. It took a while but I was paid." )

Closing?

When asked if Bailiwick Repertory will have to close its doors, Zak said, "I don't think so. We don't own this building, so that's something else that's pressing on people's minds. This neighborhood is a hot neighborhood. We are trying to figure out [ the payment ] of debt and what the long-term life is going to be."

Zak also said that he and the rest of the company are trying to get the message out about Bailiwick's standing in the community. "Art should be a big priority, and sometimes it's not," he said. "Bailiwick has contributed tremendously to the cultural fabric of this neighborhood over the past 25 years, and I think people would miss us if we were not here."

See www.bailiwick.org .


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