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By Devin Rose
The building's nondescript windows were covered by a tarp. The buzz of tools could be heard throughout the 73-seat theater. Workers were still finishing the staining and polishing of the wood on the stage. And the seats sat waiting to be cleaned.
But after a long odyssey of displacement and building – and a whole lot of digging -- in just one week, the Open Door Repertory Company will start previews of its first show in its first permanent home.
Open Door began its life well over a decade ago producing a handful of well received shows each year and staging them in the auditorium of Oak Park's Hatch School on North Ridgeland Avenue. Among the challenges of producing plays in a school, Artistic Director Mary Pat Sieck knew was that come Monday morning, no matter how complex or successful the weekend performances had been, the auditorium had to be ready for all manner of school functions. And, said Sieck, more school functions were being regularly added in the 200-seat auditorium.
So Sieck, a one-time District 97 school board member, and her board, led by local theater veteran Lynn Kirsch, decided it was past time to find a home where they wouldn't have to strike the sets after every weekend, where they could broaden their definitions of performance. So they left Hatch over a year and a half ago.
What has happened since been interesting and challenging.
It took six months to find a new location, Sieck said. Altogether 15 possible sites were considered. The clear choice was the long vacant convenience store at the corner of Ridgeland and Harrison Street.
"When we found this space, it met all of our critical criteria," Sieck said. It was within walking distance of two stops on the Blue Line, the shape was right, it was in the Oak Park Arts District and the rent was within their budget.
The company raised almost $120,000 between November 2009 and April 2010, and the renovations began. Until they were stopped cold
The project hit a snag when soil at the site, for decades a gas station, was found to be contaminated. Nearly 11 feet of soil below the concrete floor was excavated and carted off to toxic waste dumps. The likely culprit in contaminating the soil was a leaky pipe connecting gas tanks and pumps.
"Driving down the street, you could smell it," said Kirsch.
The work, coupled with extended delays in permits and approvals by state environmental agencies, was delayed for many months. After approval from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency in February, construction of the new theater began again in the spring. Kirsch, whose husband, Errol, is the architect, said she's used to him getting things done at the last minute and is excited for the theater to officially open. The project really is a family affair, Kirsch said.
And so, after all this time, Sieck and Kirsch are beyond ready for the curtain to rise.
In addition to its own slate of performances, Open Door plans to host other performances in its new space. There will be summer programs for children, improvisation groups, space for music groups to rent and poetry slams in the future, Kirsch and Sieck said.
Tickets are on sale now for the first show, Smokey Joe's Café: The Songs of Leiber and Stoller. The show previews this coming Wednesday and Thursday at 8 p.m. Tickets are $15. For more showtimes and ticket prices, visit www.opendoorrep.org or call 708-342-0810.