AVONDALE — Experimental theater company Prop Thtr is closing its storefront due to the coronavirus pandemic after 15 years in Avondale.
Prop, which announced the news July 18, will move out of 3502 N. Elston Ave. at the end of September but will continue to produce new work, host festivals and workshops and collaborate with other theaters and community spaces to keep its mission of creating radically political, diverse and inclusive devised work and reimagined play adaptations.
Artistic Director Olivia Lilley said the company’s board was trying to start a capital fundraising campaign to buy the building from the landlord, but the lengthy process and human power to organize it did not come to fruition in time. The pandemic also affected the campaign process.
“Maybe if we had started earlier or had more time, things would be different. But at the same time, this is COVID and it’s not wise to have a building anyway because you cannot do anything with it except put people in danger,” Lilley said.
Since the theater canceled all of its in-person shows and rentals for the year due to coronavirus, the building’s owner lost needed revenue to pay the mortgage. Lilley said the owner was able to get six months of mortgage relief that ends Oct. 1, but with the current financial situation, the owner told the board the outcome was inevitable, she said.
Unable to buy the building, Prop decided to move on and let go of its longtime home.
Lilley, who has been involved with Prop since 2015 and became artistic director in 2017, said the building used to be a booming place for theater. Purchased in 2005, Prop held many shows and was able to make enough money for the whole year.
“They had a big hit called ‘Hizzoner’ about Mayor Daley,” she said. “But after the recession in 2008, Prop continuously had a hard time keeping itself full year-round.”
Prop is known in the Chicago theater world as one of the longest-surviving experimental theater storefronts. The company was founded in 1981 by Stefan Brün and Scott Vehill and has lived in at least 27 venues — on all North Side diagonal streets, Lilley said.
The company also cofounded Rhinofest, Chicago’s longest-running fringe theater festival, which just passed its 31st year. In the mid-2000s, Prop began hosting the variety show in its Elston location.
Lilley said the details on the next Rhinofest, which takes place in January and February, are now up in the air.
Similar to other storefront theaters, Prop has operated on a tight budget that’s taken a big hit during the pandemic. Although the decision to leave the building was not particularly surprising, Lilley is sad to say goodbye to the space that has been like a second home.
“We are very sad to leave Avondale, and our alderman is so great, we were about to do really cool things with her,” said Lilley, who lives in the neighborhood. “We were about to get more involved in Avondale” before the pandemic.
Prop board member Keith Fort, an actor, musician and event producer, said he will miss having a space to rehearse or practice new work, which is a comfort not all theater companies have.
“The luxury of having that space without having to do any rentals is really a great boon to creativity, not only for the Prop Thtr but everyone related to it, and that’s a very large circle,” Fort said.
Fort, who has been involved with Prop for about eight years but only recently joined the board, took it upon himself to create a Prop Thtr archive database to document the history of the company. Slowly, he has been tracking down technicians, actors and producers who were part of Prop’s early work and has interviewed them for the database, which now has about 1,700 entrees.
“Every time I talk to one of those folks, I learn about five or six new shows that I didn’t know Prop had ever done,” he said.
Although Fort is sad about parting ways with the building, the closure is not a new experience for the company. With help from the team’s large creative network, the board and staff are involved in planning to move forward in a way that can still fuel Prop’s creative works. Fort hopes the company finds its way back to a building in the future but first wants to make sure there is money to pay the dedicated staff.
“I hope that America cares enough about its theater, concert, festival, movie and TV industries to wear a mask, so that we can get back to the business of spreading joy,” Fort said. “We could not hold onto the building, but the people will never be gone.”
Lilley said she wants to partner with other theaters, community spaces and social justice organizations to “make action happen” and have generative exchanges, rather than transactional exchanges. Creating experiences that can influence positive change has always been a goal of Lilley’s and Prop’s, and now she hopes to tap more into community groups doing impactful work.
“Prop is a very political theater, so [we’re] trying to figure out how to get away from being elitist and move more into, ‘What can you do? What is this show calling on you to do?’” she said.
For now, Prop will continue with its Zoom rehearsals for its musical adaptation of “Faust” — which will be set and performed on stage in Logan Square when it’s safe to do so — and keep up its monthly online monodrama festival Small Hours in August.
The theater’s show, “Diary of an Erotic Life,” is postponed until further notice.
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