CHICAGO -- For the second time in its 37-year history, Chicago's Organic Theater Company has decided that a radical change in direction under new leadership is its best hope for survival and, perhaps, recapturing its glory days. The company that created Bleacher Bums, the original E/R, and the three-part space adventure Warp (seen on Broadway in 1973, four years before Star Wars) did not produce a 2005-06 season.
Last January, Alexander Gelman quietly took over as Organic's producing artistic director from Ina Marlowe, who had run the company since 1992. The change was not publicized and became general knowledge only in May, when Marlowe was appointed artistic head of a small theatre in the private Feltre School.
Little known in Chicago theatre circles, Gelman is director of the School of Theatre and Dance at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb. He came to the United States from Russia at 14 and has built an extensive opera and theatre career, with work at the American Repertory Theatre, Arena Stage, the New York Shakespeare Festival, the Children's Theatre Company of Minneapolis, the Juilliard School, Lyric Opera of Chicago, and the Colorado Opera Troupe, among other companies.
Gelman deferred discussing details of his plans until they are finalized in the fall. He noted, however, that he's "from the European tradition of theatre that's visual and physical and interpretive. But I also like literature." He proposed reshaping Organic based on the model of a European ensemble company that sustains its repertory of productions over a period of years. The closest existing examples in the United States, he said, are dance companies such as Chicago's Joffrey Ballet and Hubbard Street Dance Chicago.
Since his appointment in January -- Marlowe participated in choosing him -- Gelman has focused on board development, finances, and planning a limited spring season. He's negotiating with a name venue of about 200 seats to be the initial home of a revived company. He will direct the first showcase season of probably two productions, which will utilize paid non-Equity actors. Gelman declined to discuss budget details but noted that Organic has no long-term debts, just some outstanding short-term bills. "There's not a ruinous deficit," he said. "The situation is entirely manageable."
Organic Theater Company was founded in 1969 by director Stuart Gordon. Under his leadership, shows such as Warp, Poe, the world premiere of David Mamet's Sexual Perversity in Chicago, and a hugely successful staging of Ray Bradbury's The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit nurtured the early careers of AndrĂŠ De Shields, Dennis Franz, brother and sister Cordis and John Heard, Joe Mantegna, and Meshach Taylor, among others. But when Gordon went to Hollywood in 1985 (Re-Animator and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids are among his film credits), Organic quickly declined. The company's 1985 budget of $745,000 had dropped to $248,000 by 1987, according to the League of Chicago Theatres. By 1989, it had stopped producing altogether, staying alive in name only by renting out its principal asset, a neighborhood movie house remade into a large, flexible black box-style theatre.
In a surprise move in 1992, Organic merged with Touchstone Theatre, a much younger operation with a vastly different aesthetic. Marlowe, Touchstone's founder, sold Organic's playhouse for an undisclosed sum rumored at the time to be around $1 million and paid off the theatre's six-figure debt. Her aesthetic, however, marked the first radical change in direction for Organic. The company's old followers didn't return for her seasons of Albee, O'Neill, Ibsen, Brecht, and the Anglo-Irish repertory, nor did a new audience emerge, despite the generally high quality of the work.
In 1999, Marlowe moved Organic to the Loyola University theatre, renting it on a short-term basis for three shows a season through 2004-05 but never managing to sustain an audience or build critical interest. Reportedly, she voluntarily relinquished control of the dormant company, believing it would best be served by new leadership.
Observed Gelman, "Who doesn't know the Organic? It goes well beyond Chicago with Bleacher Bums, E/R, Stuart Gordon, and the Mamet connection. I knew they were looking and I tossed my hat in the ring."