All work and no pay: theater on a shoestring

TERRY McCabe's name is listed on the program four times -- director, artistic director, contributor, and member of the board of trustees. Not only is Mr. McCabe the founder of the Stormfield Theatre Company, one of Chicago's up-and-coming storefront companies; he literally is the theater. Working at the artistic helm of this tiny, three-year-old nonprofit theater, McCabe has gone through artistic and financial struggles that illustrate the up-by-your-own-bootstraps operation that still characterizes Chicago's Off Loop theater scene.

``In Chicago it is not that difficult to start a theater,'' says the bearded and slightly bleary-eyed director over a bowl of chicken soup late one night after a performance. ``Three years ago there was this big wave of start-up companies all over the city.''

A Midwesterner by birth and education, McCabe joined that wave of nascent theaters when he channeled a master's degree from Northwestern University, together with $3,000 in hard-earned savings (he was the literary manager of another Off Loop theater) and a desire to be his own boss, into a rented, 83-seat theater space above a florist's shop on Chicago's near North Side. ``I wanted to have my own theater,'' he says simply. ``Besides, every company in town except the Goodman started out as a storef ront with folding chairs.''

Buffered by a $500 grant from the Chicago Office of Fine Arts -- ``the local Good Housekeeping seal of approval,'' as he puts it -- McCabe launched his theater's risky first season with an even riskier plan of attack -- the production of original work. But his direction of ``Sixty Feet, Six Inches,'' a comedy about the Chicago Cubs, earned unexpectedly glowing reviews and a steady box office. As a result, the director mounted Stormfield's second show, the Chicago premi`ere of Wendy Kesselman's murder my stery, ``My Sister in This House.''

``Being the scheduling whiz that I am, I thought this play would do really well at Christmas,'' McCabe says with a wry smile. ``We did business [only] in the hundreds of dollars'' until a sudden boost in attendance pushed the show's run into February and saved the theater.

Since then, McCabe and his managing director, Rebecca Leff (together they constitute the theater's entire staff), have staged six additional productions, nearly all of them new works performed with nonunion actors. All of it has been well received by the critics.

Now in its third year, the theater has received additional outside funding and extended its season. Its productions continue to break house attendance records. McCabe is also contemplating a small 250-member subscription series as a prelude to eventual professional status.

This last step, the most coveted among Chicago's Off Loop theaters, would allow McCabe to hire and pay professional actors -- with the salary amounting to $130 a week instead of the current $9. ``That's still pretty rotten, but right now it's more than we can afford,'' he says. ``Still, we've paid everyone who's ever worked for us, except me.''

To keep his theater financially afloat, McCabe has drawn no salary to date. His managing director is paid $10,000 a year. ``We've budgeted a part-time position for me next year,'' he says. So far, McCabe has made ends meet by doing odd theater jobs around town and simply ``by being married.''

For the time being, the jack-of-all-trades director continues to pore over the 200 to 300 unsolicited plays the theater receives each year, carefully auditions his nonunion actors, directs plays, writes grant proposals, hangs lights, answers the phone, and types his own letters. At present he is working with local playwrights on producing more new plays, including the Stormfield's current show, a musical version of the O. Henry short story ``The Gift of the Magi.''

``This is the job I want for the next 40 years,'' McCabe says with a tired but satisfied smile. ``I don't always want to be 83 seats, and I want to pay my actors a living wage and myself one as well. But I can't ask for anything more.'' --

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