Editorial: Resolution needed for New Year

As each of us reflects on what we’d like to change or improve about ourselves, some appropriate reflecting on such an opportunity in our community seems timely. Here’s one top item for those lists we all make. Good luck to us all in bringing our best intentions into the land of successful endeavors. This top item that should be on all of our lists is the survival of the New American Theater.

New American Theater sits empty, closed. The most stunning element of that sad state is—besides a courtesy call to notify him the day of the closing—not a single NAT board member or city official has called the Founding Director Jim Sullivan.

I called him.

He said four things are necessary.

1. The City of Rockford must become involved.

2. The vitality and energy of the community must become involved. The right people are key.

3. Those people must have artistic stewardship for the future if NAT is to survive as a stand-alone theater venue.

4. Strong leadership must occur.

“I said that five years ago, and it didn’t happen,” Sullivan said. “It’s just tragic that this [the closing] is exactly what I didn’t want to happen, and it did happen.”

Most importantly, Sullivan said he would not be able to come back as a resident, but he would come back to help if all the above occurred and if NAT were to become a theater again.

I still can’t believe no one called him and asked him for his ideas, or under what circumstances he would be willing to come back and help NAT.

During our conversation, Sullivan spoke of the pride, faith and commitment of everyone involved in the beginning of the theater from Charlotte’s Web to the Old Limestone Building to obtaining the Kreske Building and the burning of the $240,000 mortgage five years ago.

Four years ago, things began to go wrong. Much of it had to do with the NAT board, which gave even Sullivan a struggle. Politics, egos and political correctness were a concern of people who really had little theater experience. The control of the purse strings was slack, and money headed out the door.

Richard Raether was fired as the director. The key actors and supporters left because NAT was no longer NAT in spirit. That’s the “New” “American” “Theater”!

Instead, it was the same old-world, tired drama of self-interests and the sacrifice of ideals for supposed practicality. The purity of the esthetics, the artistry had been sullied—the opposite of Sullivan’s diplomacy and consensus building, which mounted “cutting-edge” playwrights’ work. Truly good and great art flies by taking risks.

Rather than wallowing in the shallows of rejection and the “safeness” of the “accepted,” the core of NAT, Richard Raether, Margaret Raether, Barry B. Nyquist, Jan Bacino, Ken Staaf, Rod MacDonald, Linda Abronski and Stephen F. Vrtol III—real “artists”—gathered together to keep their vision alive. They took the “risk” and successfully founded Artists’ Ensemble, performing at Clark Arts Center on the campus of Rockford College.

As told on their Web site, www.artistsensemble.org: “It started via e-mail… A group of old friends who had worked together in the theater for many years were exchanging e-mail about the chances of working together again. The outcome of all that mail? Artists’ Ensemble.

“AE’s first season opened Sept. 10, 2004 before a sellout crowd. The critically acclaimed and completely sold-out run of Dinner with Friends was followed by wildly popular productions of our holiday show, Inspecting Carol, and Over the River and Through the Woods.

“Performing under an agreement with Actors’ Equity, AE remains committed to producing ensemble-driven theater that challenges both actors and audiences,” stands as their statement.

Yes! The key word is “challenges”—I know this group of people can handle the challenges of NAT’s problems—but they must have complete artistic control. That includes the control of the board. They should appoint the board, and any member of that board should serve at their pleasure. In other words, the artists should be able to remove a board member who fails to meet their expectations and vision.

The existing board should resign, and Artist Ensemble should have the power to retain any board member, if they and that board member are in agreement. For all their good work, and for many, for all their years of service and contributions, unlike Artists’ Ensemble, the existing board has given up, with very poor notice to the public. They have also abandoned their fiduciary duties by not refunding tickets already sold to their subscribers and to Miles Nielsen’s H.M.S. New Year’s Eve concert.

That’s pretty shabby. Here’s another artist being kicked in the pants. H.M.S. has sold out their two previous shows, and it took them a while to get their money. Now, after selling 80 tickets at $20 each for the NAT venue, they’re out on the sidewalk and out of the dough. You try being an artist and taking a $1,600 loss! Luckily, they have been taken in by Paragon on State, which will be the venue for their show. Go. That’s Paragon on State, 205 W. State St., Dec. 31. HMS is honoring all tickets sold.

The Mendelsohn Performing Arts Center is also honoring tickets sold by NAT, continuing their fine tradition as stewards of the arts.

No one would make better stewards of NAT than Artists’ Ensemble. They are not aware of any of the content of this editorial, which is being written the day after Christmas.

I did speak to Richard Raether the day NAT closed, Dec. 15.

I asked him whether Artists’ Ensemble would be willing to come back home and take over the theater. He said he could not speak for the group. However, he did say that if they were to come home, they could not handle NAT’s debt. He was unclear about the overhead. None of what is appearing here is in any part influenced by, proposed by or accepted by Artist’s Ensemble or Jim Sullivan. These are my ideas.

Reportedly, NAT owes AMCORE bank $419,000. Other payables are also outstanding. The boiler is in need of repair, and the roof leaks. Those costs were estimated at $125,000. All in all, it will probably take around $600,000 to clear the books at NAT, and give Artists’ Ensemble a clean start.

The idea proposed in our last issue by Chris Wachowiak, owner of Krypto Music Lounge, should also be considered: “I hope we see some other things in there besides plays. If they ever think of reopening, they should put someone with an entrepreneurial mindset as the head of it—someone outside the theater realm.”

However, again, that person should serve under the direction of the artists. That person should also try to fill the theater, its basement space and its lobby during downtime—that is, when rehearsals or performances are not occurring. A competent person, with the appropriate résumé, should be able to be retained for $50,000 per year. Therefore, the total needed is $650,000.

Some ideas for the space are: musical or other companies’ productions such as Miles Nielsen’s H.M.S., poetry readings, business meetings and conferences, the Mayor’s or any City of Rockford or Winnebago County press conference and weddings and receptions of all kinds.

Krypto Music Lounge, Paragon on State, Octane Interlounge, Serrano’s Mexican Kitchen, King’s Table and Swilligan’s are all within one block of NAT for catering any type of event. The new facilities manager should bring them in and let them assist in booking and share in the proceeds for any event that is too large for their establishments.

If we can toss $20 million at the MetroCentre, with equally poor management, we can certainly commit our resources to NAT—an institution that was part of the birth of the new soul of downtown Rockford, and stands as an institution that will cost us more if it remains vacant and its heritage is lost.

I challenge the good efforts and resources of Mary Ann Smith, former mayors John MacNamara and Charles Box, Paul Logli, Sheriff Dick Meyers, and Kristine Cohn to be expended in the same kind of effort they exerted to save the Corona

do and to pass the Winnebago County Public Safety Tax. Winnebago County Board Chairman Scott Christiansen and Rockford Mayor Larry Morrissey are the natural leaders for this challenge.

NAT is an equal treasure to the Coronado and equal to the public safety of any long-standing institution in this county and city. One individual has given me his word that he will contribute $100,000, if the City of Rockford obtains NAT and the artists run it. The challenge stands for our New Year. Do we have the resolution for the resolution of NAT’s plight?

From the Dec. 27 2006-Jan. 2, 2007, issue

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