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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org . 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.