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City Cracks Down on Storefront Theater
by Rick Reed

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The intermission of the Artistic Home's wonderful production of The Miss Firecracker Contest (now running in their space at 1420 W. Irving Park) involved something unique. As I stepped out into the company's tiny lobby to stretch my legs, I passed several Chicago police officers, badges displayed, entering the theater. Were these just starstruck cops? Did they think Miss Firecracker was bearing more than clever barbs? I didn't know. As I returned to finish viewing the play so that I could write my review for Windy City Times, I quickly forgot about the rather odd appearance of the Chicago police at intermission.

At least until Dec. 2, when I discovered the police were visiting the theater because of a Chicago Department of Revenue crackdown on venues with the required Public Place of Amusement (PPA) licensing. Not only was the Artistic Home affected, but also impacted were the WNEP Theatre on Halsted (which decided to close its home for good), the Playground Improv Theatre (which makes a serious dent in this art form in Chicago), Profiles Theatre, and the Timeline Theatre (who closed their critically acclaimed and popular production of The Lion in Winter early).

Although the PPA licensing requirement (which requires a license from the city for venues offering live entertainment for an admission fee) has been around for a long time, PPA enforcement is a new, and sudden, development. City Revenue Director Bea Reyna-Hickey said, 'Like any other business, theaters cannot operate unless they have the necessary license. We're charged with enforcing the municipal code for the safety and welfare of the public.' What prompted the city's newfound concern for the 'safety and welfare of the public' remains unclear.

John Mossman, a principal at the Artistic Home, is baffled by the crackdown. 'This is not business as usual,' Mossman said. 'It seems to be a crackdown. It's going to be devastating to small theater. Storefront theaters have made Chicago an inspiring place for small theater.'

The red tape, bureaucracy, and costs involved with licensing and even defending themselves could have devastating consequences for Chicago's vibrant small theater scene, which relies more on pluck, imagination, and love of theater than it does on budget concerns. Many of these venues produce their work barely breaking even, or at a loss, just so they can do what they love and bring quality work to Chicago audiences. Actors and creative teams often work for free in storefront venues.

Mossman, for example, returned to Chicago after a five-year stint in Los Angeles because of his belief that Chicago offered a welcome home for people who wanted to create good theater and could do so, armed with little more than desire. The recent crackdown, for Mossman and his associates at the Artistic Home, has been 'very disheartening and disillusioning.'

The crackdown also makes it look as though many of these small venues have been trying to dodge licensing compliance, when many of them—the Artistic Home included—are well into the process. Mossman said that the Artistic Home has 'spent nearly $5,000 in legal fees on it already this year.'

Chicago has a rich history of fostering the creative development of small theater. One has to wonder if such crackdowns were taking place 25 years ago, when a small company was producing astonishing work in a church basement and later on, at the Jane Addams Center on Broadway, might have fared. Would we have the international theatrical force that's known as Steppenwolf today?

The city of Chicago certainly has a right to demand proper licensing from businesses. And theater companies who charge admission are businesses. The sudden crackdown doesn't feel right, however. And one wonders who wins when this kind of bureaucratic maneuvering forces small theaters to go dark, or try to continue on, surviving on donations in lieu of admission fees (as the Artistic Home is currently doing). Chicago and storefront theater have been synonymous terms for many years. Wouldn't it make more sense for the city to be encouraging this rich tradition—of which the city can justifiably be proud—rather than throwing up road blocks to its development? Filling city coffers with licensing fees and fines might be good for Chicago in the short run, but if red tape curtails the growth of small, independent theater in this town, the loss is immeasurable.

Is there anything you can do to help ensure the future of Chicago storefront theater? Yes. You can contact your alderman or get in touch with Mayor Daley and cc Bea Reyna-Hickey, Director of the City Department of Revenue, and express your opinion about the recent crackdown. Letters can be faxed to: (312) 362-9708. Or you can e-mail letters of support to the Artistic Home at . They'll see that your voice makes it to City Hall.

The League of Chicago Theaters is in talks with the Mayor's office to resolve the issue. According to the Chicago Sun-Times, the League has been asking the city to streamline its licensing procedures for years, so that it's less difficult for small theaters to meet requirements.

If you want to continue the Chicago tradition of supporting the growth of small theater, now is the time to speak up.

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