NORTH CENTER — The Bughouse Theater had already been operating on razor-thin margins when a busted air conditioner forced them to cancel three weeks of shows during a late June heat wave.
Now, the theater at 1910 W. Irving Park Rd. is asking neighbors to help them survive.
“We’re trying to secure funding for, essentially for the rest of the year,” said Joe Burton, the theater’s executive director. “For our rent just to kind of secure ourselves and work through this financial trouble. Just to give ourselves a little breathing room after that heatwave at the end of June.”
“It took about three weeks to get the air conditioner fixed and so we had to cancel three weeks of shows,” Burton said. “We’ve kind of been operating on shoestring budget with a skeleton crew for pretty much our whole existence so, that really set us back a ton.”
A GoFundMe campaign launched on Tuesday and has raised $2,900 of its $10,000 goal as of Monday morning.
“For more than eight years Bughouse has been providing a space for performers to do what inspires them. We have been bringing the arts to schools and community organizations,” the fundraiser’s description reads. ”We have created a place that artists, performers and comedians of all stripes can call home. Now we find ourselves in a position where we may have to close our doors.”
Bughouse’s programing includes interactive improve shows for elementary school students and afterschool programs.
“Those are the shows that we produce. But for the most part we also open ourselves up for independent artists to produce their own performances here,” Burton said.
Chicago’s improv community is very talented and has a lot of young performers who are looking for opportunities to get on stage, he said. For these up and coming performers Bughouse let’s them earn half of the revenue from their show, which can then allow them to fund future productions.
“In order to drop everything, move to Chicago and do improv you have to be really dedicated to the art form and be in love with it. Because there’s often not a lot of financial gain,” Burton said. “But once you make it in improv, you’re probably moving to Los Angeles or New York. So we feel like we want to give back to the improv community and provide and affordable space for people to produce their own shows while they also earn a little bit of money.”
Megan Sauter is an improviser, and when she moved back to Chicago from San Francisco she started taking classes at the Chicago Improv Studio, which partnered with Bughouse for some performances.
“I remember going to the theater when it was still at an old Radio Shack. They had old church pews for the seats for the audience and still had the store’s pegboards up behind the stage,” she said.
Over the past few years Sauter says she’s seen Bughouse move to its current location and develop it into a proper theater with a warm vibrant feel.
“They have real theater lighting now. They built a stage with a cozy backstage space and have beautiful velvet curtains in the window,” Sauter said. “You just walk in and it’s like our clubhouse.”
If the theater was to close, Sauter said the city’s improv community would lose a space that’s incredibly open to people and their performances.
“The theater lets us take a lot of chances. Some of my friends have put on incredibly experimental comedy shows there. I even had a friend who booked the Bughouse to host his Karaoke birthday party,” she said. “And a few friends ended up going from opening a show for the Chicago Improv Studio there to doing their own monthly or weekly shows at the Bughouse.”
The theater’s namesake comes from the nickname for Washington Square Park from the first half of the 20th Century. A “bughouse” was once slang for a mental health facility and it was called “Bughouse Square” because of the “boisterous and radical free-speech” of the people standing on soapboxes in the park.
“Bohemians, socialists, atheists, and religionists of all persuasions mounted soapboxes, spoke to responsive, vocal crowds, and competed informally for attention and donations,” according to the Newberry Library. “…In the park’s heyday during the 1920s and 1930s, as busloads of tourists ogled the scene, thousands of people gathered on summer evenings.”
Burton said taking the name from Bug House Square, where “all the crazies met,” is the theater’s way keeping that spirit of free expression alive.
“We wanted to be a place where people can express wild ideas but also a place where everyone is welcome,” he said. “A place of free speech and open to ideas and debate.”
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