Jason is a producer, manager, and designer with 17 years of experience in Chicago, New York, and in the touring market. In 2015, he founded Lotus Theatricals – the publisher of Performink, and an independent commercial producing company – with Abigail Trabue.
Photo: Highland Park’s Karger Center
Updated 11/2/16, 10:12 AM – The City of Highland Park has released a statement to PerformInk which has been added to the end of this article.
Updated 10/31/16, 6:26 PM – Musically Human Theater has ceased operations, according to a statement. Actors will not be paid, because they did not give two weeks notice.
Updated 10/26/16, 3:30 PM – This article has been updated to incorporate comments from David Norwood, Musically Human Producing Artistic Director, including the promise to offer refunds to customers.
When Musically Human Theatre announced its move from New York City to Highland Park, IL, there was a lot of excitement in the Chicago theater community. After all, as the former home of Apple Tree Theater, and then the Music Theatre Company, Highland Park has had a long history as one of the few suburbs that hosts an Equity theater.
Maybe we should have stopped and asked why they were moving here.
Musically Human’s inaugural Chicagoland season was to kick off October 29th with a production of Stephen Sondheim’s PASSION in the renovated Karger Center. The company had arranged for a lease from the city of Highland Park for just $800 per year. Tickets went on sale, auditions were held, casting was announced. PerformInk received a press invitation to opening night earlier this month. A few days later, the production was quietly canceled.
David Norwood, the company’s artistic director, blames lack of space preparations. “Coming into the Karger Center isn’t as simple as turning the lights on and doing a show. We are having a new lighting grid installed, purchasing theater seats, procuring lighting instruments, repainting the lobby,” Norwood says in a conversation with PerformInk. “It was very ambitious of us to believe we could renovate our new home, while rehearsing a production at the same time and we apologize to our actors, designers, musicians and patron for this unfortunate decision that had to be made.”
“PASSION was not canceled because of ‘small building delays,’” says a statement from the cast, stage manager, and musical director. “In response to information we obtained about how [Musically Human] was conducting business, the cast unanimously left the production at the end of the second week. The music director resigned. The stage manager resigned. This was not a decision we made lightly. Everyone above had put hours of work into rehearsals, and significant advance work had been done on the production side. Beautiful costume renderings and set models were produced. The production was also in the time-consuming process of being re-orchestrated for a small orchestra.”
Problems began when Norwood was an hour late to the first rehearsal, keeping the cast waiting outside with no way to get in. Actors quickly found out that there were still roles to be cast in the show. Contracts weren’t handed out. After a few days, rehearsals started to get canceled at the last minute.
An Equity actor we spoke with said they found out from their union that the bond (a sum of money to guarantee actors get paid) had not been posted, even though auditions were held at the Equity offices. A representative from Equity declined to comment, but the actor was told not to continue working on the show by the union shortly before the production was halted.
It was also unclear to the cast whether Musically Human even had the rights to do the show. Licensing agencies require rights to be obtained before productions are announced, and certainly before tickets go on sale. The cast received photocopied scripts and scores, and found that the production was not listed on the Music Theatre International (the organization responsible for licensing PASSION) website as an upcoming production. PerformInk spoke with a representative from MTI, who confirmed that Musically Human was not licensed to produce the musical.
“The team received a message that the production would be pushed back a month, out of the blue, with the assumption that the cast, crew, musicians and back-of-house staff would be available and willing to do so,” the cast says. “Mr. Norwood has said in the press that he has reached out to us individually, but it’s never happened. None of us has heard a single thing from him.”
Nobody has been paid.
Productions of SPRING AWAKENING and PASSING STRANGE were announced by Musically Human in New York for 2015, but never happened. Sources in New York tell of similar troubles during a production of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, including unpaid staff, quitting actors, and loans that were bailed on.
Norwood says a managing director who had to be let go on October 5th was to blame for dropping the ball on the administrative duties. He says licenses were granted for all three productions, but the proper payment and paperwork was not returned to MTI. He says that Musically Human has long been an Equity company, and he and the board of directors are working with Equity to pay the union actor for the time he worked. “[We are] in talks with Equity to make sure all of the proper paperwork and bonds are in place for future productions at least six weeks before each production begins rehearsals. Equity has made it very clear that they want to see MHT succeed in Chicago and will be working with the theatre each step of the way to ensure that we are as humanly prepared as possible,” he says. Cast members
Cast members say they never met a managing director, nor anyone else with the company for that matter.
Norwood was originally cagey with Crain’s regarding refunds for patrons who had purchased tickets to PASSION or season tickets. He stated definitively to PerformInk that Musically Human will offer refunds for the ticket value, but will also be encouraging customers to offer their purchase as a donation.
“There has been an egregious lack of communication and transparency with the actors and creative team of Passion that MHT takes full responsibility and greatly apologizes for,” says Norwood. Musically Human is planning to continue with the originally scheduled dates for the remaining productions in the season.
In the wake of Musically Human’s closure, the city of Highland Park reached out to PerformInk with this statement.
“The City of Highland Park is supportive of arts and cultural activities that help shape our vibrant community,” said Mayor Nancy Rotering. “We use our Cultural Arts Strategic Plan as a guide. As such, we provided Musically Human Theater the opportunity to call Highland Park home at the Karger Center. It is unfortunate that for reasons beyond our control, they are unable to open.” –