Court Theatre keeps costs low and theatergoers happy

The theater said it will find a healthy balance between financial and artistic concerns.

By Hannah Fine

Court Theatre is moving away from large-scale productions this season to help balance the budget in a difficult economic climate, but theater administrators said its relationship with the University may spare it from severe cuts felt throughout the business. The theater said it will find a healthy balance between financial and artistic concerns.

“Like all arts organizations, we were very cautious when budgeting this season,” said Heidi Thompson Saunders, general manager of Court Theatre. “But because of the University, we do not have those same concerns about the day-to-day budget that other theaters may have.”

In addition to providing performance space on campus, the University pays five percent of the theater’s operating budget, and half of the theater’s board is affiliated with the University. The rest of Court’s income comes from season subscriptions, ticket sales, donations, and arts foundations, Saunders said, but she added that subscription sales are lower than in past years.

In addition, drastic funding cuts to the Illinois Arts Council mean that Court is receiving substantially less overall funding this year.

Along with “minor cosmetic cuts to the budget,” Saunders said Court chose to produce shows with fewer performers this season. The Mystery of Irma Vep, starting November 12, features two actors, and The Year of Magical Thinking, starting January 14, has only one. Overall, Court will be using approximately half as many actors as last year.

Still, Saunders said Court “didn’t want to compromise on any of the artistic integrity of the shows. We wanted to create an interesting season with great plays and fewer actors.” Court often performs classic plays and musicals that are proven crowd-pleasers, as well as comedies and more intellectual plays. The theater won four Jeffs—Chicago’s version of the Tony—last month for its production of Caroline, or Change last fall.

“The only thing that was decided to be off the table this year was our musical, because it is a double cost with an orchestra and a cast,” said casting director Cree Rankin.

Although the season’s productions will be smaller, Rankin said Court would have put these shows on any year. Since the theater is fairly small—around 250 seats—ticket sales are less a consideration when choosing plays than keeping production costs down.

Despite not having felt the brunt of the recession, Rankin said tough budget challenges for the theater are on the horizon. “We haven’t really felt anything, but that doesn’t mean we still won’t have trouble down the road; it really takes about three years for the long impact to hit,” Rankin said. “There is a lot more anxiety about what might happen, for some people, than what is actually happening, although that is very bad for some as well.”

Court’s most recent play, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, played to a sold-out house during its last few weeks. According to Saunders, the play is a major attraction in Hyde Park because of its ties to the neighborhood.

“August Wilson wrote 10 plays about the African experience, and this was the only one about Chicago in the South Side, and we are a South Side theater,” she said.

Rankin said the play was cast as a larger production would be, auditioning well over 100 actors. “When you are thinking of doing a small show, it is so vital that you have really good people,” he said. “We wanted to make sure we had a strong cast.”

Rankin said he was “overjoyed” at Ma Rainey’s success. “It was a good indicator in a tenuous season,” he said.

Court’s upcoming production of The Mystery of Irma Vep will play like a larger show, with 25 costume changes. Rankin expects the production to be fun and bring new audience members to the Court. Although the plays are smaller, they were chosen with care. “We still offer aesthetic variety to our audience,” Rankin said.