Steppenwolf Threatens Move to Suburbs

Steppenwolf Threatens Move to Suburbs

Enjoy our little April Fool’s joke from 4/1/16

Steppenwolf Theatre Company threatened to move the ensemble out of Lincoln Park if plans for a big, new video screen are blocked, saying Monday they need new advertising revenue to help bankroll the expansion of the Halsted Street venue.

Steppenwolf Managing Director David Schmitz until now had said nothing as dire, despite months of contentious negotiations over how to keep everyone happy in sprucing up the 25-year-old venue in the heart of Lincoln Park on Chicago’s North Side.

“The fact is that if we don’t have the ability to generate revenue on our own building, we’ll have to take a look at moving — no question,” Schmitz told reporters after outlining renovation plans to Chicago business leaders.

He added that he remains committed to working out a deal and it is difficult to imagine Steppenwolf playing anywhere else. But the fight over the theater boils down to money and, of course, something unusual — it’s Steppenwolf, after all.

By far the thorniest issue is the plan for a 6,000-square-foot video screen over the stage house, a common feature in many major institutions. The difference is that Steppenwolf is surrounded by privately owned clubs with rooftop bleachers whose owners object to any changes that could block their bird’s-eye views of the theater’s shows.

The rooftop businesses have been left out of discussions on the proposed upgrade, but they feel they should have a seat at the bargaining table. Legal action is a possibility.

Schmitz presented an architectural rendering of the video screen during his speech to the City Club of Chicago and insisted that the theater’s own studies have shown it would have minimal, if any, impact on the views. He described the sign as “midsize” compared with those at other theaters, though it is nearly thirty times as large as the marquee currently in front of the building. Another smaller sign with the name of a sponsor is planned for the parking garage.

He said without such signage, the theater was losing out on $20 million a year in ad revenue — essential for helping fund the extensive renovations without dipping into taxpayer funds.

“All we really need is to be able to run our theater like a business and not a museum, Schmitz told the audience.

Schmitz said the theater formally filed its full renovation proposal with the city of Chicago on Wednesday. The plan must get approval from city planners and the City Council. There will also be public hearings.

The overall plan calls for more night performances, a 175-room boutique hotel across the street, a new green room and upgrades for patrons. The proposal also calls for an open-air plaza and an office building with retail space.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel supports the overall plan. The mayor’s office has already agreed that the rooftop signs can be installed, but there has been no agreement on size or design.

If the deal wins approval, Schmitz said work could begin after this season ends and be completed over the next five years. Anna D. Shapiro, Steppenwolf artistic director, said Thursday that she hopes the public approval process moves quickly so renovation work, especially upgrades to the green room, starts soon.

“If it drags on too long, it’s going to be unrealistic to get it done this winter,” Shapiro said before the theater’s performance of THE FLICK. “Then we’re probably looking at 2017 for the renovated facility.”

One of the rooftop owners, Beth Murphy, told reporters after listening to Schmitz’ speech that it was the first time she’d seen any drawings of the screen and that she and other owners would have a lot of vetting to do before determining if the proposal works.

“It looked big to me and it looked like it blocked out the neighborhood,” Murphy said.

The rooftop owners have previously threatened legal action, and Murphy said she was confident their contract, which gives 17 percent of the rooftop’s revenue to Steppenwolf, would hold up and protect their businesses.

Commenting on the possibility that Schmitz might really take the team elsewhere, Murphy said doing so would not be “a wise business decision.”

“The reason Steppenwolf is such a tourist destination … is because it’s a theater in a neighborhood,” Murphy said. “I don’t think a new theater in a parking lot is interesting and that’s why other theaters don’t have the tourism that Steppenwolf does.”

If Schmitz is serious about leaving, he already has a suitor. Several weeks ago, the mayor of nearby Rosemont said that the village near O’Hare International Airport has a 25-acre chunk of land that Steppenwolf could have for free if they wanted to build a replica of the theater there. While Mayor Bradley Stephens said the idea of Steppenwolf leaving Chicago was the longest of long shots, he wanted to make sure that if they did decide to leave they knew about the offer.

Steppenwolf patrons said they doubted Schmitz would move the team and that he most likely raised the prospect out of frustration with the negotiations.

“I’m surprised it’s taken him this long to snap,” said Don Hall, who created the fan blog www.ihearttracyletts.com.

He said he shared those frustrations and wished the rooftop owners would back off and allow Schmitz to run the club as he sees fit.

“I think we should trust this organization because they have shown over time that they take the history of Steppenwolf seriously and so far nothing they have done has diminished it, in my opinion,” he said.

And Happy April Fool’s day!

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PerformInk

PerformInk is Chicago’s entertainment industry trade publication.

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