The vast majority of Chicago's 250 theaters operate as nonprofits. The most notable exceptions to this are Broadway in Chicago, the Blue Man Group, and the Million Dollar Quartet, all of which operate on a very large scale. However, there are a few efforts afoot to bring for-profit models to Chicago's smaller venues. One of those is Gorilla Tango Theatre (discussed here), another is the Chicago Commercial Collective, which invests in successful productions that grow out of local nonprofit theaters and develops them as commercial properties. According to Brian Loevner—one of the Collective's partners—the nonprofit collaborators, the artists, the investors, and not least Chicago as a theater town all stand to benefit from the increased commercial activity. CAR Theater Researcher, John Carnwath, recently sat down with Brian to get some more details about the venture.
CAR: What is the Chicago Commercial Collective?
Brian Loevner: The Chicago Commercial Collective was started in 2011 as an organization focused on working with Chicago’s nonprofit theater scene to ensure that “good shows don’t close.” We have extremely high-quality nonprofit theater here in town but shows are often forced to close earlier than they should, either for reasons of subscription—you have a sold-out run, but you have to close because you’ve promised your subscribers another show—or because the space is being used by someone else and you have to leave. We feel those aren’t valid reasons for good shows to close. The companies could make more money from them. The actors could make more money being in those shows for longer. Our hope is to find a way to help those companies to continue those productions beyond their initial runs.
Could you tell me about the name you’ve chosen? Why “Commercial”? Why “Collective”?
Well, “commercial” is important. There is a very strong and thriving non-commercial, nonprofit theater scene here in town. We feel that one of the things that’s missing in the community is an active class of people investing—not just donating, but investing in the arts. It’s a normal occurrence in New York, in London, in other places where you have significant commercial theater activity. People invest their money and hope to get a return on it just like they would in the stock market. Here the norm is to donate money. We’d like to see an investor class for the arts built in Chicago. There are investors in the arts living in Chicago, but they don’t invest in Chicago. They invest in New York, or in London, or in LA, or wherever the commercial activity is. If we can build an active commercial theater community here in town, I hope that we can turn some of that money around and keep it here in Chicago.
The “collective” side … it’s a little bit communist in that we are working very closely with the nonprofit community. The Chicago Commercial Collective’s partners are all nonprofiteers. I work at Chicago Dramatists, Aurélia Fisher was most recently at the American Theatre Company, Monty Cole worked for Victory Gardens Theater. So we approach this endeavor understanding that in addition to wanting to be commercial and make investors money—thereby making us money—we also really want to do this for the good of the community. And we want to do it with the community. For me “collective” brings that together. It says we’re all in this together, and together we can build a commercial theater community in town.
Who are the investors?
Many of them are people who regularly donate to theaters all around Chicago. We’re very careful not to poach donors from someone else. That is, if you were planning on giving $5,000 to the Writers’ Theatre in Glencoe, we don’t want you to not give them that money because you’re investing with us. However, many of the donors to theater companies have the capacity to do more. We are working with investment bankers, investment advisors and money managers to reach out to a higher net-worth investor than we see in a normal day at our nonprofits. We’re also looking at those people who invest in Broadway.
Do you have any institutional partners at this point? Is there a group of theater companies that are collaborating in this?
The project requires support from the theater community or it won’t go anywhere. We’ve put together an advisory council that includes the managing director of Steppenwolf, David Schmitz; Cathy Nathan, a local commercial producer; Anthony Mosely from Collaboraction; Sandy Shinner, formerly of Victory Gardens; and a few others. So it’s not necessarily the companies that we’re partnered with, but we have several well-respected nonprofit leaders from the community on our advisory council. That’s important because we want to be clear that we’re not out to poach the community’s donors or take their money; we’re here to help.
We’re working on a partnership with Broadway in Chicago. We’re very lucky because as the largest commercial theater in Chicago, they don’t have to be nice, but they are extremely nice to the nonprofit community. They give back in all kinds of ways. Our discussions with them have not only been about commercial theater and producing commercial theater together, but about finding a way to do that and to support these wonderful, highly accomplished theater companies in the city.
Companies I think would work well with what we do are TimeLine Theatre Company, Writers’ Theatre, Steep Theatre, The Hypocrites and Collaboraction. These are companies that have good administration, good execution. They have clear missions, and they are well respected for what they do.
That list also describes companies of a certain size and level of maturity.
Right. The Goodman doesn’t need us. Steppenwolf doesn’t need us. If they want to take a show commercial or go to Broadway, they make three phone calls and they’ve got somebody there the next day with a million dollars. It’s the companies with half-million- to three-million-dollar annual budgets that are always on a shoestring and never have the time to take advantage of something like this. Those are the companies we’re interested in.
I feel strongly that it’s that level of production—that mid-sized world—which is missing in our commercial theater. We have Broadway in Chicago—and they’re doing an amazing job bringing two million people to the Loop every year—and then we have Blue Man Group and Million Dollar Quartet. That’s the extent of the city’s commercial activity. There’s something missing. That something is that mid-sized commercial show that has a hundred-thousand-dollar budget. That’s where I feel we can be the most successful and really provide value for the patrons and benefit the theater companies.
What kinds of contract do you have with the companies you work with?
I’ve found that it is the Wild West out there when it comes to how commercial producers treat nonprofit partners. There are no standards—not even guidelines—so we’re really building our own model. In New York, a company that develops a play that is taken Off-Broadway by commercial producers generally gets one-half to one-and-one-half percent of the gross revenue. That’s not a lot. If the show makes millions and millions, it could be, but generally the company that first staged the show is going to get ten grand at the most.
We’re really pushing to bring that percentage up. With our first show, A Steady Rain, I’m happy to admit that we were at four percent: Chicago Dramatists received four percent of the gross receipts from the show and a large advance ahead of time. Our next project will be a minimum of five percent. It’s not easy because you have to make sure that your investors get their money back and they’re not going to want you to give away their profits. We’re building our own contracts here; when it comes to negotiating the details it will be on a case-by-case basis.
Are you trying to secure exclusive rights for the plays you produce?
The Commercial Collective now holds the Midwestern rights to A Steady Rain for a 150-mile radius around Chicago. That gives us a good range that includes Indianapolis and Milwaukee and Madison and Aurora. We can potentially do tours of the show. But if we’re working with a play that is first produced in Chicago, then, yeah, we want every right it has!
There was a great article in the Tribune about how the Goodman’s production of The Iceman Cometh starring Nathan Lane and Brian Dennehy didn’t get picked up for Broadway. At the end of the article, there was a wonderful quote by Roche Schulfer, the executive director at the Goodman, who said, “Once again, it’s an only-in-Chicago experience.” That inspires me. I would like to see a time when folks in New York say “I can’t get that show here. Let’s go to Chicago to see it.” That’s exciting to me. It’s not about being number one or number two or number three, or being best city or worst city. It’s about holding on to the work that you create and allowing your artists to benefit from it as much as possible.
Have you thought about the other end of your collaborations? What will happen to the shows when they do close in Chicago? Will you pass them on to New York ideally?
My dream would be to tell Chicago producers that we would bring them the tour. We’d leave the run here in Chicago and simultaneously tour it around the country. There’s no reason that we couldn’t have that model out of Chicago like they have out of other places. Toronto is another place that has a great deal of that. That’s my pie-in-the-sky dream; I think we’d do what’s best for the artists, what’s best for the company and what’s best for the playwright. If it means we give up our rights so that the show can be produced, for the betterment of the artists, at Lincoln Center or by Playwrights Horizons we’re likely to let it happen. We’re not here to take away opportunities.
We would like to build a Midwest tour. A Steady Rain played in Chicago, Milwaukee and Three Oaks, Michigan. We’d like to add a few other spots and turn it into a circuit that we can take our shows on.
In selecting the shows you pick up, are you looking at the cast size, production costs, your ability to transport sets and tour the production, or, if the show is right, do you find a way to make it work?
I’m not going to say no to a show because the set’s too big. And I don’t think we’re going to say no to a show because the cast is too big. Yes, those things come into consideration, but the play has to be right, before you can even think about those things. What it does change is whom I go after as a partner. When the Collective was ready to produce A Steady Rain, we knew that we could partner with Chicago Dramatists, which is a small nonprofit, because it was a two-person cast, a table, and two chairs. We could handle that between the two companies. But now we’re looking at To Master the Art, which has a cast of 10 and a working kitchen on stage, I’m looking at much larger organizations to partner with, because we’re going to need somebody with some weight. So it does come into play, but only after we’re committed to a project.
Brian Loevner is a theater manager, producer, production manage, and arts educator. Since 2004, Brian has served as the Managing Director of Chicago Dramatists, managing a budget of $700,000, serving 13,000 patrons with over 500 events each year. He is a founder and producer with the Chicago Commercial Collective. Previously, Brian served as Executive Director of Theatre Conspiracy (Washington DC) and TriArts, Inc. (Chicago). Brian has also produced and production managed nearly 100 shows with companies such as Famous Door Theatre, Timeline Theatre, Collaboraction, Screamfest, Second City, Chicago Dramatists and The Actor's Gymnasium, with budgets ranging from $10,000 to $1,000,000. He also serves as a volunteer management consultat for The Chicago Fringe Festival. Loevner served for seven years on the Executive Committee of the Board of Directors of the League of Chicago Theatres. He attended Virginia Tech University and George Mason University. He lives in Humboldt Park and has two daughters, Carlisle and Lucy. Brian can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.