By Ken Trainor
Sometimes everything falls together, then it falls apart, then it comes together. That's been the story of Open Door Repertory Company, whose doors are open, though it took some doing.
This story goes back a full quarter century, evolving out of the CAST program at Julian Middle School (then Jr. High), says Mary Pat Sieck, Open Door's artistic and managing director. CAST, which stands for Communications, Art, Speech & Theater, is Julian's performing arts program (the Brooks Middle School counterpart is BRAVO). To help raise funds for the program, the parents of participating students, decided to put on some benefit performances.
"They asked for help," she recalls. "Your kids had a good experience, so you helped. That's how I got into it. My son was graduating, he had just a wonderful experience, I was available at the time. It turned out I probably liked it more than he did."
Sieck had just come off a term as a District 97 school board member (1983-87). She and a number of other CAST parents decided to put on a show — To Kill a Mockingbird. They acted, sold tickets, did publicity. They enjoyed it enough to keep doing it.
Sieck liked it so much she decided to go back to school to get a degree in theater. Columbia College was welcoming, even though she was not your typical theater student.
"I was older than some of the students' parents," she recalls. "But people were wonderful. I had a great experience and learned a boatload."
She worked on 17 shows in four years, got experience as an assistant director, then directing.
"Theater is about storytelling," Sieck observes. "I loved the idea of being a storyteller, but not so much onstage. Being the director, helping the production come together, is really what I love."
After graduating in 1997, she worked with Village Players, but their vision and hers didn't quite dovetail.
"Even then," she says, "I thought we should be looking at work that would reflect the range of people in the community, the diversity."
She directed Charlotte's Web for Village Players' children's program. Some of the old CAST crew came to see it and after the show, the 17 theater veterans ended up at Shanahan's in Forest Park, where they decided to start their own company. But what to call it? Someone passed around a napkin on which was written "Open Door Repertory Company."
"We all looked at it and said, 'That's perfect.'"
It reflected their philosophy of letting everyone in: diversity.
They did their first two shows at Julian, followed by a show at Beye Elementary and another at Lincoln. They produced Rebel Without a Cause back at Julian, partnering with the CAST program again. Then they landed at Hatch, encouraged by D97, which was actively promoting community use of the schools.
"That was a wonderful space," Sieck says. Unlike other school auditoriums, which were narrow and went straight back, Hatch was wide and curved, something they kept in mind when they found their own space.
And finding their own space became more and more of a priority the busier Hatch got.
"By 2008-09, we were only able to work on one show," she recalls.
So after 38 productions in nine years, "We said, 'OK, it's time for us to grow up.'"
By now they were "professional, non-equity," which means paying the actors a stipend. In order to cover their fixed costs, they needed to do longer runs — six weeks instead of two. That was impossible in a busy school.
It also made Open Door slightly less "open" in terms of attracting a cast. Dedicated amateurs, who thrived on two-weekend performances weren't always able to make a more involved commitment.
"We now do five weeks of pretty intense rehearsals, then a six-week run. For a lot of people, that's not what they want," she says. "I totally understand."
The last show at Hatch closed in March of 2009. They started looking for spaces right away and had very specific — and limiting — requirements. They wanted to stay in Oak Park if at all possible. They also wanted to be close to one of the el lines so they could attract young actors from the city, particularly the city's colleges. They needed a space they could control — to be able to run a season and keep the space busy at other times, bringing in revenue. The space needed to be more square than rectangular in order to design a theater. And they could only pay minimal rent.
"We knew 3,000 square feet was going to be our limit," she says. "Not that we didn't want more, but that was the most we could afford. We had all these limitations and we needed it for next to nothing."
Not the easiest set of requirements to meet, but Michelle Uhler of the Oak Park Development Corporation actually found three possibilities.
In August of 2009, the planets seemed to align. The storefront at 902 S. Ridgeland Ave. fit the bill. In addition, Lynn Kirsch, the longtime community theater advocate who serves as president of the Open Door board, is married to architect Erroll Kirsch. And the owner of the building? Jerry Bloom, a professional actor.
They signed the lease in September and started raising money to pay for the construction costs.
There was just one glitch — a concrete post in the middle of the stage area, and no way to design around it. So they had to put in steel support beams on the sides, which meant digging down. That was in May of 2010.
"Thirty minutes after they started, Erroll called and said, 'You've got to get over here.' I pulled up in front, the doors were open, and I could smell the gas from the street."
They knew the site was a former gas station, but the tanks had been treated as specified by the EPA. Apparently, pipes that led from the tanks to the pumps had been leaking gas into the soil for years.
Another owner might have balked at the cleanup costs. Bloom instead simply asked, "What do we need to do?"
What they needed to do was excavate 400 cubic yards of contaminated soil. "They went down 11 feet and had to take out a third of the parking lot," Sieck says. "It was awful."
The EPA gave them clearance to resume construction in February of 2011. Kirsch donated his design time and many hours of consultation. Mary Pat's husband, Bill, a home remodeling/carpentry contractor, donated six weeks of his time, along with Paul Kerwin and Ethan Kwas, members of Open Door's technical crew and Steve Saliny, to complete the build out. They also received a Performing Arts Space Capital Improvement Grant of $15,000 from the village of Oak Park.
"We opened in October," says Sieck. "About two hours before the first preview performance, we were taking down the scaffolding out front. It was a little tight."
All's well that ends well? Or as the main character in Best Exotic Marigold Hotel likes to say, "Everything will be all right in the end. If it is not all right, it is not yet the end."
It is not the end.
After being dark for 32 months (to the day), Open Door is alive and well and open, with a 70-seat auditorium that audiences and actors alike have given favorable reviews. Yet it's a tough time for the arts in general.
"It's just amazing how far we've come," Sieck says, "but we're still trying to figure out, how do we make this work? There's still a long way to go."
They're putting on shows that have been well received, such as Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks and the current run of Superior Donuts. They're bringing in comedy improv and musical programs (e.g. an ongoing jazz series). The five-member board, which they're hoping to expand, has carried the load, along with two paid staff, Sieck and Steve Saliny, the facilities manager. They also benefit from talented actors and crew, including OPRF grad Josh Prisching, who gets rave reviews for his recycled sets.
"We feel we've gotten a lot from this community," Sieck says. "I hope we reflect the community and I hope we can give back to the community. You start out with this dream, and you've got the energy from the dream, and then you make enough of it happen that it's like, it can't not. Everybody's tired, but you look at all the people who were there when you needed them, and you can't walk away from that."
Jerry Bloom, she says, "is our big saint." That's why there's a door in the lobby with his name on a star, glazed on the glass. The door came from his father's law office. Bloom asked if it could be used in the theater, but it didn't fit the code requirements for modern doorways, so they placed it in the lobby.
"There are not enough words to describe what we owe him," Sieck says. As it happens, he's not just an actor but a talented actor and they're hoping to feature him in future plays.
From the very beginning of the company, they wanted to end up on Harrison Street, and now they have.
"I would love for this to be a place where people, when they're thinking of going out on the weekend, say, 'Well, what's at Open Door?' Is it music, comedy, a play? It's going to take a while. In a lot of ways we had to pretty much start over and rebuild the company."
One piece of good news is that they'll soon have a marquee, thanks again to the assistance of OPDC.
"It seems like every time we've come to one of those places, somebody's been there and made it happen," says Sieck, "so we kind of figure we're supposed to be here. The only question is how. We've gotten past the terror of the blank page. Now it's: OK, keep writing, finish the book."