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The state of our houses — theater renovations that worked, are under way and those desperately needed

The lobby Greenhouse Theater Center will be renovated near future more modern user-friendly space.

The lobby of the Greenhouse Theater Center will be renovated in the near future to a more modern, user-friendly space.

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Updated: August 9, 2013 9:09AM

Chicago has more than its fair share of grandly beautiful theaters, with the Auditorium, the Oriental, the Cadillac Palace, Chicago Shakespeare and the Lookingglass Water Tower Water Works all alluring in their particular ways. It has a slew of relatively modern utilitarian spaces, too: Steppenwolf, the Goodman, Court, Northlight, the Royal George and the expertly retrofitted Victory Gardens Biograph, to name a few. And of course there are scores of spaces that are loosely, if too generically dubbed “storefronts” — theaters that can range from the sublime to the downright shabby — from the magically adaptable TimeLine Theatre, to the gloomy yet surprisingly pitch-perfect Mary-Arrchie.

And then there are a variety of multiplexes, several of which are either state-of-the-art or partially upgraded (Theater Wit, Stage 773, and The Athenaeum), and others that are in need of significant improvement (the Greenhouse Theater Center, and The Second City’s main stage and e.t.c. venues). The totally rundown Theater on the Lake, operated by the Park District, is a whole different can of worms.

As it happens, the Greenhouse Theater Center has already begun a significant cosmetic upgrade — one that also will bring enhanced programming to the venerable building at 2257 N. Lincoln.

“More than just making the place look nicer, I’m really interested in re-defining what it means to be a theater center in Chicago,” said Jason Epperson, executive director of the non-profit Greenhouse, which is owned by developer Bill Spatz and his wife, Wendy, and houses two main stages and two small studios.

“Converting a space into a part time cinema [with movies that play off the theater offerings on “dark nights”] is the first step in opening the building up seven days a week, with new play readings, meetings, lectures, classes and more also added,” said Epperson.

“I want this to be a public arts hub that fosters collaborations of all kinds. We’re working on ways to integrate the development process with our resident companies [Remy Bumppo, MPAACT, American Blues, Organic, Polarity and Waltzing Mechanics]. I’d love for playwrights to be able to come here, have a coffee, use our wireless Internet, and write. I want students to be able to come and buy new and used theater books and scripts. Poetry slams, open mike nights, and stand-up comedy are all avenues being considered. I also feel there is a real need for more musical theatre development opportunities in Chicago. We’re hoping to provide space for composers and lyricists to collaborate and record music, and I want to create a first class musical theater festival for Chicago.”

As for the infrastructure projects already completed at the Greenhouse, they include: All new HVAC equipment throughout the building and a new HD cinema projector and surround-sound in the downstairs main stage. New lighting consoles are planned for both the downstairs and upstairs main stages. And over the next months more upgrades are planned: The painting and carpeting of the entire facility (the stairway will be bare cement rather than re-carpeted since it also serves as a loading dock for sets, and is subjected to major wear and tear); the addition of furniture that fosters mingling; a new concessions/bar area on both the first and second floors; new signage and resident company displays; facade repairs and the installation of additional theatrical lighting equipment.

At The Second City, one much-needed improvement was made this summer, with the enlargement of the bathrooms for the main stage, including six stalls and additional sinks for the ladies’ room alone.

“Over the past 18 months we’ve spent about $2.5 million creating the UP Comedy Club space, expanding our Training Center and office spaces, and putting in a new kitchen for the main stage,” said Andrew Alexander, who said no plans were underway for replacing sticky railings and uncomfortable seats. “We paint and re-carpet as needed, but we want to maintain the essential spare nature of our environment.”

Jeremy Wechsler, artistic director of Theater Wit, the three-stage complex at 1229 W. Belmont, whose resident companies include Stage Left, Shattered Globe, Griffin (until its new home is completed) and the new Haven Theatre, said that he credits the overall high level of the environment he created with its quickly earned recognition.

“We projected it would take about five years to achieve name recognition and a place on the grid, but it actually took only about 18 months,” said Wechsler. “Our ticket sales have grown a consistent 15 percent each year since our April 2009 opening. And our neighbor, Stage 773, also upgraded, increased its focus on improv, comedy and cabaret as well as theater, so we’ve created a real Belmont Theater District synergy.”

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