Behind the Scenes at Open Door Theatre by Laurel Wolff

There is something almost cloak and dagger about being in a silent theater that allows you to see and to explore how the inner workings do work when the lights go on, when the music begins, when the artists arrive and the space’s function and meaning are revealed to those who have gathered for the performance. The curtain pulls back on the wizard and hey, that’s so cool that the dressing room is bare bones and make up is done in the bathroom, that the music “pit” stage left doubles as costume storage, that there are techy tricks used so actors don’t miss their cues, that there is a secret hallway leading…. What goes on behind the scenes is often just as interesting as what happens on the stage.

Recently, I had the privilege of roaming around The Open Door Theater with artistic director Mary Pat Sieck while absolutely nothing was going on except the air conditioning. A few weeks earlier, I’d attended an Arts District meeting in the space. Struck by its small size I was counting the seats when I should have been taking notes. Sixty-eight fixed seats- plus two folding ones I later learned. Not a bad one in the house. This is a place where you can see the faces of the performers without binoculars, opera glasses or a Jumbotron screen. No microphones needed either.

 

According to Mary Pat, “Open Door was begun by a group of 17 former CAST parents in the summer of 1998.  The first production, To Kill a Mockingbird, was a co-production with CAST using adults from Open Door and students. The show opened in January of 1999 at Julian Junior High. From January of 1999 until January of 2000, Open Door produced its shows on three District 97 stages: Julian, Beye, and Lincoln, before finding its long-term home on the stage at Hatch School.”

Roughly ten years later, the company began looking for its own space and in August of 2009 signed the lease on an abandoned convenience store on Ridgeland Avenue. Fundraising began to begin the conversion. Use your imagination to picture turning something akin to a 7-11 into a theater. Hard to get past row after row of metal shelving, peeling beige linoleum and Slurpee machines to Glengary Glen Ross or Guys and Dolls?

The plan was to dig down from what is now the top level of seating and carve out the other rows and stage. Right off the bat, there was an issue with concrete support posts where the stage was to be. But that was a minor engineering hurdle compared to the you can’t make this up drama that happened next. Mary Pat says, “Construction was begun and stopped on the same day in early May when it was discovered the soil underneath the space was completely contaminated with gasoline from its previous life as a gas station nearly 50 years earlier.” While the tanks storing the gasoline had been removed, the lines had not. Building owner and actor Jerry Bloom supported the massive clean-up operation and construction resumed in the Spring of 2011.

 

Smokey Joe’s Cafe was the first production on the EPA approved Open Door stage that fall. The stage. Mary Pat estimates it is 34’ wide with a depth of 15’. It has a 12 actors at a time limit, four to seven if there is dancing. There is no catwalk. There are two door frames, one on either side of the stage plus one more with removeable panels. The door frames are standard door size. Anyone who has ever tried to move cumbersome furniture or a boxspring around a small Oak Park house can picture the logistics of set building, prop planning, more than one person moving quickly out of a room…

I asked Mary Pat about the advantages and disadvantages of working within the confines.

 

“The intimacy the space offers is its great gift – it is a place for audience and artists to connect – to establish the wonderful bond only live performance offers.  Each performance is accessible, it is a time to be part of what is happening on the stage.  We hear about that experience from our audiences as well as from the many artists who have performed on the stage – across the arts.” (Accessible indeed, Mary Pat offered up the story of how before one performance an audience member went up on stage and helped himself to some candy in a bowl on a prop table.)

 

“The challenge is to find what works in the space – what draws the audience into the performance, but also to avoid what may push an audience away because it overwhelms the space.  All of our plays are limited not only by the size of their casts, but also in the technical demands the space can meet.  Multiple sets for one show are not possible.  That limitation places real challenges on designers to find a design that fits the show, but does not require multiple scenic changes.  We have been extremely fortunate to have designers who’ve accomplished that over this past six years.” Well known past productions include Clybourne Park, The Laramie Project, Fences, Steel Magnolias and Go, Dog, Go! (yes, there are shows for children).

The theater employs a technical director and facilities manager as well as several artistic associates. As artistic director, Mary Pat recommends “plays, and more recently, the musicians and comedic artists who perform at the theater to Open Door’s board for its approval.” She says, “People will have seen a play, heard a musician, laughed at a comedy troupe – and realize that particular work/artist (s) would be great in Open Door’s space. I read 30 – 40 scripts per year, which I love doing, and that certainly gives me ideas of what might work in our space, as well as support our mission. But the contribution of others is hugely significant because their suggestions/recommendations reflect an ownership of and support for Open Door and broadens the range of works being considered.” The mission of Open Door has from the beginning been, “To provide audiences of all cultural backgrounds and ages with thought-provoking productions. Open Door is a professional non-equity company committed to artistic excellence, community engagement and to the production of work that reflects the cultural diversity of Oak Park and its surrounding communities.”

 

Good things come in small theaters.

Ready to see for yourself? Here’s September’s line up:

The Therapy Players. Yes, real life therapists treating your funny bone. Saturday, 9/9, 8 pm.

Ella and Louis Together Again: A Celebration. Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong made beautiful music together. Robin Watson and Will, aka Billy, Washington channel their extraordinary musical relationship. With Dave Turner, Ted Brewer and George Aparo accompanying. Saturday, 9/16 at 8 pm and Sunday, 9/17 at 3 pm.

The Church of Beethoven. Classical music, cookies and Camilletti (Val, that is, hosting) on the Third Sunday of the month. South African duo Jacques Pierre Malan on cello and Francois Henkins on violin perform works by Beethoven, Kodaly, Gliere and more. Learn the history of the Church at www.churchofbeethoven-oakpark.com/. Sunday, 9/17, 10:30 am. Bring the whole family!

Chicago a capella. For one night only, enjoy an evening of cabaret music then mix and mingle with the singers. Saturday, 9/23, 7:30 pm. Purchase tickets at www.chicagoacappella.org/.

Open Door Theater is located at 902 S. Ridgeland Ave. Visit its website at www.opendoortheater.net to learn more about this neighborhood gem. Box office: 708.386.5510. And yes, Mary Pat says theater people do say, “Break a leg.”