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More Drama Offstage Than On At Theatre Building Chicago

By Julienne Bilker in Arts & Entertainment on Aug 11, 2009 9:00PM

Joan Mazzonelli, photo by Bonnie Halcomm, via

It took the entire Chicagoist Theatre Research Team to figure out what exactly happened over at Theatre Building Chicago (TBC), but we think we finally got it straight.

At the end of July, TBC announced that Joan Mazzonelli, Executive Director since 1997, would be leaving (translation: “was fired”) due to a disagreement with the company’s Board of Directors. TBC juggles the task of developing new musicals while also renting its three 150-seat venues to other Chicago arts organizations, and in Ms. Mazzonelli’s time as Exec Director, usage of its theatres has increased from 82% to 98%. TBC produces about 25 staged readings of new musicals each season, but the Board would like to see the company do full seasons of fully-developed new musicals. The Board felt that Ms. Mazzonelli was not acting swiftly enough to procure the funds necessary to accomplish this goal, despite bringing in a $25,000 grant from the NEA right before she was let go.

Here’s where it gets really messy. In response to Ms. Mazzonelli’s dismissal, TBC Artistic Director John Sparks resigned and TBC co-founder Ruth E. Higgins sent an open letter to the Board which questioned its decision to leave the company without proper leadership and ability to navigate the current economic situation relative to its goals, accused one member of being influenced by conflicts of interest, and ultimately called for the entire board to resign immediately. The Board responded as one might expect, after starting with this dig: “We are happy to see [Ms. Ruth Higgins’] renewed interest in the organization from which she has been absent for 10 years.” (She currently lives in Amsterdam.)

Still with us? [Ed. note: Seriously, I've made a chart for myself just to keep things straight thus far!] Well, ready or not -- Last week, TBC announced that the Artistic Director position left vacant by John Spark’s resignation would be filled by current Associate Artistic Director Allan Chambers. However, one day later, Board President Craig Wilson offered to step down if John Sparks agreed to stay on. There is no indication that Mr. Sparks will agree to this condition - as of now he will remain Artistic Director until after the company’s Stages 2009 festival of new musicals in progress, which will take place August 21-23. Ms. Mazzonelli’s last day was July 31.

Our heads are spinning - after this and the ensemble mass exodus at American Theatre Company earlier this year, we don’t know how much more backstage shenanigans we can take.