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Miracle Needed to Save Chicago Jewish Theatre

CHICAGO -- For the second time in a decade, a professional theatre company in Chicago devoted to Jewish-themed work appears headed for oblivion. Chicago Jewish Theatre hasn't been wrapped in a shroud yet, but the three-year-old company has indefinitely suspended production, is facing at least $300,000 in debts, must deal with a disintegrating board of directors, and has no place to mount its work.

The company was established in 2003 by a mother-son producing team: Elayne and Brian LeTraunik, veterans of the local theatre scene in capacities ranging from fight choreographer (Brian) to operator of an audition hotline (Elayne) to director (both). Four years before founding Chicago Jewish Theatre, the LeTrauniks leased a storefront in a popular North Side location under the banner of Red Hen Productions. Renovating the space into a legal 60-seat studio took several years and tens of thousands of dollars, but it finally opened in 2002. The next year, the LeTrauniks changed the company's name to reflect a Jewish focus and went on to produce three seasons of work.

Almost from the start, however, the operation was in debt. Working with a small and inexperienced board of just nine members (including themselves), the LeTrauniks financed the renovations to their space -- as well as the company's production budget -- largely out of their own pockets, Elayne LeTraunik says. Gerald H. Bailey, who took over as interim artistic director in April, stated in a separate interview that the company owes $275,000 to the LeTrauniks personally, plus $25,000 in outside debt. A June 1 report in the Chicago Sun-Times, meanwhile, said that $350,000 would be needed to fund a new season and pay overdue bills.

Elayne LeTraunik asserts that the board has refused to assume responsibility for the money owed to them, forcing her to declare personal bankruptcy. "Getting grants was extremely difficult because we had debt," she said. "I'd been abandoned by everyone whom I thought would help."

Bailey, a board member who has acknowledged also being a friend of the LeTrauniks, concurred with Elayne LeTraunik's view that the board has been ineffective and said he recently asked for their resignations. The LeTrauniks stepped down from the board when Bailey came on, hoping that new artistic leadership would motivate the board's remaining members to fundraise.

Chicago Jewish Theatre's closing took the local theatre scene by surprise, especially since the company had announced late last year a move to larger quarters and a larger budget as the resident theatre company at the Mayer Kaplan Jewish Community Center in Skokie, Ill. A first-season non-Equity production budget of $350,000 was planned, a sum that would have included repayment of most of the debt owed to the LeTrauniks. Vern Thiessen's Einstein's Gift, the first production, was to have opened last month.

According to the Sun-Times, if Bailey raises money sufficient to pay off the company's debts and fund a 2007-08 season, the theatre will honor the subscriptions purchased for its now-canceled season. With no refunds being offered in the meantime, Bailey expressed hope that those who bought subscriptions would agree to write off the cost as a tax-deductible donation instead.

An earlier, better-financed entity, the National Jewish Theatre, had been in residence at the Mayer Kaplan center, but that group folded in 1996. At its peak, it had over 3,000 subscribers.

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