Ann Filmer just received good news. She’s learned that the house carpenter for Steppenwolf Theatre has offered to fix a severed $150 sound cable for free. In a universe where the budget for Bono’s much-delayed Broadway musical, Spider-Man, Turn Off the Dark, can balloon past $50 million, $150 sounds like pocket change. But it represents about 1 percent of the average budget for a production at 16th Street Theater, a 49-seat operation in Berwyn that champions plays by underappreciated Illinois writers.
“I’m doing everything from stocking the bathrooms to writing all the grants and doing all the marketing,” says Filmer, the theatre’s founder and artistic director. Judging from the overstuffed trunk of her car, she also schleps posters, office supplies, and tools. With a projected operating budget of approximately $100,000 for the three-play 2011 main season, 16th Street is representative of dozens of scrappy Chicago theatres that excel in the art of stretching dollars as well as audiences’ imaginations.
For her next production, Menorca, by the Chicago playwright Robert Koon (running through October 16th), Filmer must figure out how to stage dueling locations: an archaeological dig on a Spanish island and the desert border between Southern California and Mexico. “A lot of times a small budget enhances creativity,” she says. The set designer Kurt Sharp’s particular challenge will be representing the interior of a U.S. Border Patrol vehicle onstage for $500 or less. On the day we talk, Sharp doesn’t know yet what he’ll do.
“Buying is never the first choice, ever,” says Filmer, who draws a salary of $31,000 a year. “It’s like, where can we borrow this?” One of her board members runs an antiques business, and that’s the company’s first stop for period-specific furniture and props. Directors, designers, playwrights, and actors (even non-Equity performers) all receive small, but consistent, checks. Resident playwrights, such as Koon, earn a flat rate of $1,500—a better deal than the standard 5 percent of box-office receipts.
The company keeps ticket prices low ($16) to encourage non-traditional theatregoers in culturally diverse, working-class Berwyn. Still, 16th Street generates half of its income from box office (subscribers number around 170), with corporate sponsorships, grants, and individual donations making up the rest. But Filmer has one big financial advantage: She doesn’t pay rent, usually the biggest budget buster for most small theatres. Instead, 16th Street resides in a basement black box in the Berwyn Cultural Center. Lately, some shows have started here and moved on: In a coup for Filmer and her actors, their most recent effort, This Train, sold out a summer run in Steppenwolf’s Garage Theatre.
GO: Menorca runs September 9th through October 16th at 16th Street Theater, Berwyn; 708-795-6704, 16thstreettheater.org.
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