Open Door, no stranger to adversity, is officially closing at the end of March after a 23-year run as a repertory company and 12 years as a brick-and-mortar theater space at 902 S. Ridgeland Ave. in the Oak Park Arts District.
The troupe began in 1999 when theater-loving parent volunteers who had students in Percy Julian Middle School’s CAST program came together to create something for themselves. They opened with “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Open Door Repertory put shows on at various District 97 stages — the former Julian building, Beye, Lincoln — eventually landing at Hatch Elementary where they held regular engagements for nine years. They performed as many as six shows annually, some for families (headed up by Gigi Hudson, current owner of The Actors Garden in the Oak Park Arts District), some geared toward adults, always school appropriate.
By the mid-2000s, Open Door was a professional non-equity company, meaning talent was getting paid. As Hatch’s auditorium got busier with its own school functions, Open Door had another growth moment. The company decided it was time to acquire a place of its own.
Mary Pat Sieck, Open Door’s artistic/managing director and a founding member, called having their own space, “the biggest gift.” Sets and costumes could be left in place for the next show, something they could not do at schools. And, she said, “We just loved the size of it, which allowed the actors or musicians to connect with their audiences. We felt we could really get to know our audiences.” The theater seats 70.
They found the site, formerly Convenient Food Mart, and raised nearly $100,000 through donations and loans to transform the building. But, in May 2010, when contractors broke ground to install support posts, soil contamination was discovered below. It turns out a Standard Oil gas station had previously occupied the location from the 1920s into the 1960s. The building owner, Jerry Bloom, covered the cost to complete the soil remediation. Nearly a year went by, and because Open Door’s assets were tied up in the building, productions were on hold.
When the time came for the theater to open, Open Door was ready. “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” rehearsals were taking place in Sieck’s living room, furniture removed. And when the cast got into the theater about a week before opening, rehearsals continued with sawdust on the stage, Sieck said, laughing about it now, as construction was completed.
Having their own space, however, became a balancing act of selling enough tickets to offset the cost of each production, a different ledger than when they had free use of school auditoriums and no overhead. Open Door Repertory continued to produce plays and musical revues, but could easily lose money. Over time, fewer plays were produced to account for this and the company sought other performing arts solutions.
“It started as a financial decision — we cannot afford to do this many plays over the course of a year and still feel certain that we’d be able to pay our bills,” Sieck said. “As it turned out, it allowed us to expand who our audience was.”
Open Door began partnering with comedy acts and musicians. Some in recent years included The Therapy Players, The Real Housewives of Oak Park and the creation of a Women of Jazz series which featured Margaret Murphy-Webb and Bobbi Wilsyn.
“It made it interesting for us, too,” Sieck said. “We started out as theater, and storytelling was our primary art. … It gave us a chance to appreciate other arts. It was a very happy gift.”
When COVID shut everything down in March 2020, like all performing arts venues, Open Door Theater went dark. Shows that were scheduled that month, including a jazz series and some other musical acts, were canceled. Beginning in April, a new project was to kick off — partnering with another theater company that would use the space to stage its productions. That company was also planning to do shows in the summer and fall of 2020. It would relieve Open Door’s financial burden and keep the theater and “good art” going, according to Sieck. But that was not to be.
Open Door tried new things during COVID. In Sept. 2021, they teamed with Brookfield’s Habakkuk Theatre for “Coastal Disturbances” held outside in Ehlert Park, Brookfield, on a sand volleyball court turned beach-scene stage. And, Open Door created The Backstory Project, featuring interviews with local journalists and editors (including our own Growing Community Media’s Dan Haley, Bob Uphues and Michael Romain) and Greek restaurant owners to tell the stories of those that help make their communities tick. That project, released last fall, was made possible with a grant from the Oak Park Area Arts Council (OPAAC) and is free to viewers, with donations accepted. (View here: opendoortheater.net/backstory-project)
During the pandemic, Open Door received a grant from the Rapid Response and Recovery Fund, managed by the Oak Park-River Forest Community Foundation and distributed by OPAAC. Other funding, such as the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant, did not come to pass.
Sieck describes their building owner as “the best landlord” for his support while the theater was closed for nearly two years. Bloom, an equity actor and voice over performer himself, prompted a decision from his tenants. Sieck, along with Steve Saliny, another Open Door founding member who is also technical director and facility manager, knew the time had come.
“It was probably inevitable once this [pandemic] went on for more than one year, but you keep hanging on, and our landlord was fine to do that. But you get to a point where you can’t do this,” Sieck said. “We are grateful for all that we were able to do, all the people we got to work with, all the memories we had created. … It took so many people to make this happen.”
In all, Open Door had its hands in more than 70 productions and brought nearly 50 comedy and musical acts to the community. Its end is not just the loss of an Oak Park theater but closing the book on a piece of local performing arts history.