Small Theater Survival Stories

Published October 18, 2004

By Cara Warfield

WNEP SignBefore each production in the 50-seat theater on Chicago's North Side, the production staff strategically plans around and stretches the inadequate budget that plagues most small theaters. An estimate of opening-weekend revenue becomes the production budget needed for the set, props, rehearsal space, costumes and countless other costly details that keep a business going. But despite such financial struggles and corner-cutting, What Now Entertainment Productions (WNEP) prides itself on the creative, quality performances and intimacy that please its regular patrons.

"If we can cut a corner and get away with it, we will," said Don Hall, executive director of WNEP. "If the audience can see it, we won't cut the corner. But backstage looks like we put the show up with spit and toilet tissue. Ah, the magic of illusion."

Known for the unusual, the strange, and the confrontational, WNEP features nearly all original material in the form of dramatic and comic plays, improvisation, sketch comedy, musicals and performance art. "[Our artistic director] compares our work to the heffalump from Winnie the Pooh," Hall said. "I can't describe it, but I know it when I see it."

Retaining such artistic flavor poses additional financial dilemmas for WNEP, the largest of which is marketing. Forget print ads or radio spots — its pockets don't run that deep. So Hall and company proceed to poster the entire city and use the Internet to promote upcoming productions. Moreover, set costs are brutal, resulting in modular, reusable sets.

And of course the staff itself often sees little compensation. "We rarely have money set aside to pay people," Hall said. "Most folks are willing to act, build, tech, direct for free, but our commitment is to find ways to give everyone a piece of the pie without getting our electricity turned off. Sometimes it works out. Sometimes it doesn't."

Although a well-deserved slice of the financial pie may be more satisfying to those in the tiresome small theater business, it is certainly much harder to come by. Indeed, the small theater exemplifies the "starving artist."

[Editor's note: In December of 2003, WNEP was one of a number of theaters that fell victim to the City of Chicago's crackdown on small theaters operating without proper licenses. This is part of a broader ongoing sweep of places of entertainment in the wake of the E2 nightclub tragedy in early 2003. The long-term effect on storefront theaters may be profound. WNEP has vacated its home of 3 1/2 years and is now renting other spaces for each new play.]