Fundraising begins for Howard Street theater


Keshia Johnson/Daily Senior Staffer

The city has a new tenant, group Theo Ubique, for the proposed Howard Street Theater. It is the city’s third attempt to build the theater.

David Fishman, Assistant City Editor

Ald. Ann Rainey (8th) has yearned to build a theater in her ward for more than seven years — a project she sees as the “jewel and crown” of her efforts to redevelop Howard Street. But for years she has been unable to find the right candidate.

Finally, after two failed deals, it looks like the city has settled on a tenant.

“Attracting local theaters — and finding one that is a good fit — is not an easy job,” Rainey said. “While we’ve had some false starts … we learned from our mistakes and have become very educated.”

In November, City Council passed a memorandum of understanding with theater group Theo Ubique, formally kicking off its third attempt to convert an existing building in the 700 block of Howard Street into a theater. The city also committed $1.4 million in TIF money to the project, contingent on the group’s ability to raise about $200,000 on its own. A final approval from City Council on the project has yet to come.

And that will be no small task.

“We have not (before) had any need to raise a significant amount of money,” said Lorraine Dostal, Theo Ubique’s board secretary. “We do not have a large donor base; we have not raised a large amount of money. It’s going to be a challenge.”

The theater operates under a “very tight” budget, Dostal said, of which the vast majority comes from ticket sales. Those patrons who do donate do so in small amounts, she said.

Nevertheless, Dostal said it’s “feasible” to meet the goal, especially over the roughly two-year time table set by the city. She said the group has set aside some money for its expansion, but would not say how much.

Fred Anzevino, the group’s artistic director and a co-founder, struck a more optimistic tone. He said the group has consistently sold out performances. The new Howard Street space will have about 35 additional seats, which Anzevino hopes will lead to more revenue. In addition, he said, the group will now earn income from food and drinks sold inside the new location.

“The arts brought in a safety net to (the Glenwood Avenue) area,” he said, referring to the group’s current location in Rogers Park. “We believe strongly that bringing the arts and theater to the Howard Street area will … change the temperament and face.”

Anzevino said he wasn’t concerned about the city’s two failed attempts to revitalize Howard Street with a theater since his venture was much more “conservative” and had the “critical reputation” to succeed.

“We have a lot of friends, patrons and contributors from the Evanston area,” he said.

After efforts to bring Strawdog Theater — a $5.5 million project — to Evanston fell through in June, city officials reached out to Theo Ubique. The cabaret-style group, currently run out of a 60-person café in Rogers Park, operates on a $250,000 annual budget and performs shows like “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Rent.”

If all goes smoothly, and the theater’s construction is approved by council, the group will move into its new home next summer.

But not everyone backs the plan. Ald. Brian Miller (9th) — who questions the company’s financial stability and has voted against its expansion — pointed out that in its 20-year history, Theo Ubique has never raised more than $45,000 in one fundraising campaign. He also criticized his city colleagues for rushing the vetting process and footing “the whole bill.”

“We’re gonna lose a ton of money,” he said. “I don’t have faith in the company to deliver on their promises and not hurt taxpayers.”

Rainey, responding to Miller’s concerns, said the theater group’s reputation is “unsurpassed” and added that she expects it to rise to the occasion. She said the city learned from its past mistakes and devised a group of theater “titans” to advise in the process.

“If I worried about every naysayer along the line there would be no Peckish Pig, there would be no Ward Eight,” she said, referring to two businesses on Howard Street that received assistance from the city in opening. “We’re full steam ahead, and everybody’s very excited.”

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