Chicago theater is big business

By Jonathan Abarbanel

An exuberant John Calloway moderated a recent City Club of Chicago luncheon panel devoted to the business of live theater, the first City Club event focused on the arts within anyone’s memory.

As keynote speaker, League of Chicago Theatres executive director Marj Halperin unveiled a new study setting the economic impact of local theater at $347 million annually and growing, an increase of 110% in the seven years since the last study. The report said our local theater industry provided 6,417 jobs in 2002, and played to an audience that was 63% female, 37% male and 37% in the 18-34 year old group.

In addition to Halperin, the panel featured executives from Boeing and Humana, and Chicago Dept. of Buildings Commissioner Alicia Mazur Berg, all of whom spoke to the success of partnerships and sponsorships between the business sector and the theater industry, which is dominated locally (but not exclusively) by not-for-profit institutions such as the Apple Tree, Chicago Shakespeare, Court, Goodman, Lookingglass, Noble Fool, Northlight, Prop, Steppenwolf and Victory Gardens theaters.

Halperin closed the disucssion by inviting any corporation to schedule a 30-minute presentation on partnerships with representatives from the League of Chicago Theatres.

Numerous studies across the country long have shown that many more people attend cultural events than attend all professional sports events, but the figures released at the luncheon are stunning. Of 8.45 million overnight visitors to Chicago in 2002, 10% attended a sports event while 30% attended a cultural event, including nearly 600,000 who attended a theater, dance, music or opera performance.

The League of Chicago Theatres is celebrating its 25th anniversary in 2004 with a record-high 152 member theaters out of an estimated 200 companies in Greater Chicago. The League’s bi-monthly program magazine, Chicagoplays, is distributed in 75 theaters reaching an estimated 150,000 readers each month.

Jonathan Abarbanel covers theater for WBEZ Chicago Public Radio, for the weekly Windy City Times, and for the national trade paper, Back Stage. .