NAT’s next act uncertain

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-11666422772731.jpg’, ‘Photo by Stuart R. Wahlin’, ‘New American Theater, 118 N. Main St.’);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-116664257427975.jpg’, ‘Photo by Stuart R. Wahlin’, ‘New American Theater Board President Ron Clewer (lett) and NAT Artistic Director Tony Vezner announce the closing of NAT on Dec. 15.’);

“As a theater organization, we’ve had all kinds of shows on our stage,” New American Theater (NAT) Board President Ron Clewer announced Dec. 15. “What we have here today truly is a tragedy.”

With that, it was curtains for NAT, effective immediately. After nearly 35 years as a downtown cultural fixture, money troubles have taken center stage. All scheduled performances have been canceled, and refunds are not likely to be issued.

“We’ve made every effort to ensure the theater’s existence, from reorganization to seeking out alternative sources of revenue, acquisition of the building,” Clewer said. “Unfortunately, we’ve been unable to get all those stars to line up, so to speak.”

“It’s the saddest possible news for me,” NAT founder Jim Sullivan told The Rock River Times. “I’m very heavy-hearted about this.”

After years of financial struggles, the 280-seat playhouse was unable to make its Dec. 1 $3,600 mortgage payment. At one time, the theater celebrated a “Burn the Mortgage” party, but operating costs forced the venue to take out a new one. NAT defaulted on its nearly $418,000 mortgage with AMCORE Bank, which was acquired over the past four years.

NAT recorded a $35,000 profit in 2004, but suffered a loss of $21,000 in 2005. This year’s loss was 10 times that amount. Clewer estimated annual overhead cost to be $200,000, plus $75,000 to $125,000 in operating expenses.

The current two-week payroll for Oliver!, which has a cast and crew of nearly 40 people, is $40,000.

“We’re a damn good arts organization,” Clewer added. “Unfortunately, we’re not a profitable organization.” Clewer said NAT’s cash flow was simply unable to meet its financial commitments.

Former NAT Artistic Director Richard Raether was shocked by the sudden news.

“It came out of the blue,” Raether said in reaction. “NAT, for a long time, has had financial problems, but you just keep thinking, ‘Well, somehow, they’ll patch it together to keep it going because they have for so long.’”

Tony Vezner, who took over for Raether as artistic director at NAT, said the news came as no surprise to those in a position to aid the struggling theater.

“The people in this town who have the pockets to solve this,” said Vezner, “they’ve known for a while. We’ve talked to them, so this has not sprung up on us.”

So what about moving NAT’s future performances elsewhere?

“As far as I know, there have not been any talks about moving future NAT shows to our facilities,” said Mike Webb, theater director at Rock Valley College.

Cindy Hall, who was present at the news conference in Mayor Larry Morrissey’s (I) absence, said the city is looking into options for keeping the theater alive. It is possible NAT could be acquired municipally.

“I hope something like that happens,” Sullivan said. “I’d do anything I could to help make that happen.”

Asked if he’d consider returning to NAT, Sullivan responded, “I think someone should talk to me about that.”

“Certainly, it’s a loss for the city,” Octane Interlounge President Michelle Minick responded. Minick said NAT’s casts and crews have become fixtures at Octane over the years. Her husband and operator of Fuzz Salon, Dan Minick, added, “I think we will miss, more than anything else, the camaraderie and socializing we’ve had between the staff and cast members of NAT and the staff at Octane. Then, there are the patrons NAT brought to the area.”

Asked what impact NAT’s closing would have on Octane, Michelle Minick replied, “We’ll feel it to a certain degree because they do have a lot of shows going on.” But Dan noted, “They’re not the only thing we rely on for our business downtown.”

Michelle Minick is optimistic a new cultural draw will move into the place NAT once called home; Dan concurred, “From the ashes, I think we’ll see the phoenix rise.”

Einar Forsman, treasurer for the Coronado Performing Arts Center (CPAC), said Mayor Morrissey has contacted the CPAC board to explore possible uses for the venue.

The Rock River Times asked Raether if the Artists’ Ensemble would consider moving back to NAT if the city or county re-opened the facility.

“I’ve gotten to the age where I don’t like to say ‘never’ or ‘always,’” Raether explained. “But at this point, we’re very happy where we are.” The NAT veteran added, “That would be a question for the Ensemble, not for me to say one way or the other.”

Raether is the artistic director for the Artists’ Ensemble, which performs at Rockford College.

In 2003, the non-profit theater asked the community for $200,000 to avoid closing its doors as a result of declining attendance. Days later, Administrative Director Mary Beaver stepped down, leaving behind rumors of financial problems.

During the press conference, a question was raised about whether there were financial problems associated with Beaver. The Rock River Times asked whether Beaver was responsible in any way for the current financial crisis.

“Since we reorganized, the first few years, we saw a change in our organization. I cannot say it was related to her absence or not,” Clewer responded. “The issue there is truly employment, and I cannot comment on it.”

In 2004, NAT filed an objection to Beaver’s Chapter 13 bankruptcy. The objection claims NAT as a creditor, and that the theater had not been notified of the Chapter 13 filing. Beaver’s obligations to NAT were not provided for in the plan. NAT claimed the Chapter 13 case filing had not been made in good faith.

Adding to questions regarding the good faith of the filing, it was noted that Beaver intended to pay $3,033 for the retention of her swimming pool, while unsecured creditors received no part of their claims.

Beaver’s bankruptcy case was later dismissed. However, it is unclear how much was owed to NAT, or whether it was ever repaid.

Miles Nielsen, whose musical groups The Wandering Sons and Her Majesty’s Ship (HMS) were slated to perform at NAT Dec. 31, found out about the closing along with the rest of the community.

“I went down to go see exactly what was going on, and they were, sure enough, changing the locks,” said Nielsen.

“From a selfish standpoint, it puts me in a bad position,” Nielsen explained. “I think people are gonna hold me personally responsible for the hundred tickets that we’ve already sold to our show that they’re probably never gonna see the money from again.”

Just two weeks before the scheduled performances, Nielsen scrambled to secure Paragon on State as the new venue for the New Year’s Eve show. He said a special stage, lighting and PA will be brought in for the Dec. 31 show. Because AMCORE put a freeze on NAT’s account, Nielsen prays fans realize he hasn’t seen a penny from the tickets that NAT already sold. Those tickets, however, will be honored.

The Rock River Times confirmed that an anonymous donor has pledged $100,000 to NAT if the city or county were to take over.

Clewer, however, noted, “Our needs are in excess of that $100,000 and we would have to find the difference.”

Clewer said if the city steps in, he hopes that would set the stage for others to follow suit.

Competition from the Artists’ Ensemble and Rock Valley College’s Starlight Theatre have cut into NAT’s share of the theater-going market.

Several River District business owners point out Starlight Theater, the Coronado and the MetroCentre are taxpayer-supported, to the detriment of NAT.

Mary Olson, owner of Paragon on State, was also saddened by the news. “It’s upsetting to see the lack of notice and how it was done. I almost feel like Scrooge is in the air,” she said.

Olson said she’s already seen a decline in business related to NAT, as a result of the theater closing its doors in mid-season a couple years ago. Olson suggested the decline could be attributed to fewer NAT subscribers since NAT reopened the following fall.

“How many times can you shut the doors on your subscribers and expect them to return?” Olson fears a repeat performance if NAT were to reopen.”


is Wachowiak, owner of Krypto Music Lounge, said of NAT’s closing: “I think it sucks. I think it should be used as more of an incubator for the arts. 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.”

From the Dec. 20-26, 2006, issue

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