Going to the theatre?

By Jonathan Abarbanel

If you’ve got tickets for your favorite Off-Loop theater, better call first to make sure it’s open.

Days before Thanksgiving, Chicago’s Department of Revenue shut down six Off-Loop theatres in a surprise enforcement sweep of Public Place of Amusement (PPA) licensing laws. All theaters, clubs, concert halls and sports venues are required to have a PPA, issued only after an inspection task force signs off on the venue.

Closed in the sweep were TimeLine Theatre, Playground Improv Theatre, the Artistic Home, Profiles Theatre, Theatre Sports and WNEP Theatre. The first five were issued cease and desist orders for not having PPA licenses, while WNEP was closed for displaying what authorities claim was a counterfeit license. None of the six small venues was closed for reasons of safety.

Earlier in the fall, the City issued inspection notices to all holders of PPA licenses, following the nightclub disasters in Chicago and Rhode Island. But the Thanksgiving sweep was not related to that effort, instead targeting non-PPA venues.

A chilling effect. Coming at the outset of the holiday theatre season, the closures have had a chilling effect on the industry, which perceives the action either as punitive or woefully ignorant of the economic realities of the industry. TimeLine, for example, was six weeks into a very well received 10-week run of “The Lion in Winter,” while the Artistic Home had earned rave reviews for “The Miss Firecracker Contest,” which opened just days before the sweep.

Observed League of Chicago Theatres executive director Marj Halperin, “I’d like to think the city didn’t realize how severe the consequences would be. They would never close down department stores the week after Thanksgiving, because they understand how important that is to the economy.”

The inspection sweeps are a bitter pill for the League, which has spent several years attempting to establish better communications between the Dept. of Revenue and the League’s 140 member theatre companies, and to ease the Byzantine PPA approval process. So complex is the process that some theatres intentionally fly under the radar, willing to risk closure rather than an inspection process that might cost them tens of thousands of dollars in repairs and upgrades; costs rarely shared by venue landlords. The shuttered Profiles Theatre has operated without a PPA license for a decade.

TimeLine Theatre’s Catch 22 The biggest misery of all –and the biggest joke–is the Catch-22 in which TimeLine Theatre finds itself. For a decade, TimeLine has performed in Baird Hall of the Wellington Avenue Presbyterian Church, just west of Broadway.

Baird Hall has housed various theatre companies on a continuous basis for at least 40 years; but the Dept. of Revenue says that no PPA license shall be issued within 100 feet of a house of worship, thus conforming with state liquor laws since many PPA licensees sell alcohol. It makes no difference that TimeLine is a tenant of the Church at the Church’s request.

Many Chicago churches host theater troupes on a regular basis as part of the cultural component of their community programming, and some have found ways around the confusing PPA regulations. The 900-seat Athenaeum Theatre is part of St. Alphonsus Church. The PPA license there is held by the Redempterist Fathers, the Church’s owners. And the Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church has had a playhouse for 25 years. The current tenant, City Lit Theatre Company, was issued a PPA in September, although only after 49th Ward Alderman Mary Ann Smith smoothed out a zoning snafu. So the City’s action against TimeLine appears to be discriminatory and inequitable.

JONATHAN ABARBANEL is theatre editor and critic for the weekly Windy City Times newspaper, and covers theater for WBEZ Chicago Public Radio.