Karen Skinner remembers scrounging through alleys for broken chairs and pieces of wood to help set the stage for Circle Theatre’s earliest performances in the mid 1980s. Police were sent by a former mayor to arrest performers for crimes of obscenity. There was the fire in which they lost everything, shoestring budgets that barely made the rent and a local culture that was generally “suspicious of the arts” that made performing an uphill battle.
“Everybody thought we were the weirdo types, and we were,” Skinner said of the theater’s founding members.
But live theater survived a vagabond childhood in Forest Park, complete with Dumpster diving and run-ins with the law, to ultimately play a parenting role in the village’s re-birth. As the only performance troupe in town, Circle Theatre has been credited by many with anchoring both the cultural and economic growth in the community since its founding in 1985.
Skinner, the only surviving parent that helped breathe life into Circle Theatre, sees a much different village than the one in which she struggled to put on performances. Now she sees a community in which live theater is supplemented with art galleries, dance studios, cooking classes and a growing number of residents who work and perform in various genres. And perhaps most important, said Skinner, is their presence as entrepreneurs and consumers.
“It is what I always envisioned for Forest Park,” Skinner said.
After 18 years in the Hain Building at 7300 Madison St. and some 23 years in the village altogether, financial circumstances and opportunities may force the non-profit Circle Theatre to relocate. A front-runner in the bid to lure the acclaimed group is the neighboring village of Oak Park, which has offered to put up as much as $212,000 to relocate the theater. Board members are also looking for a space with fewer maintenance issues than the aging Hain Building.
No deals have been made, but Circle Theatre sent a letter last month to its landlord asking to be freed of a lease agreement two years early.
Kevin Bellie, a member of the theater’s board of directors, agreed that Forest Park and Madison Street in particular have undergone substantial changes in the last 10 to 15 years. Amidst an explosion of retail shops and restaurants, Circle Theatre stands out as a relatively dormant storefront, said Bellie, and is no longer the solitary draw for non-residents.
“We’ve sort of outgrown Forest Park and in a way, Forest Park has outgrown us,” Bellie said.
The presence of a performing arts venue-and now a host of other creative outlets-in Forest Park has had an undeniable economic and cultural influence, according to Camille Wilson White, executive director for the Oak Park Area Arts Council. Aside from filling storefronts and creating foot traffic, she said, there’s a quality of life aspect that artists bring to their neighborhoods.
“It just makes it a better place to live,” Wilson White said. “I truly believe that. You’re a better person for all those things you’re exposed to-and your kids are exposed to it.”
Circle Theatre is a beneficiary of the arts council, which issues grants and other support within the tri-village area. Forest Park joined the arts council in 1986, according to Wilson White, but did not begin donating to support its causes until 1999 when Anthony Calderone was elected mayor.
Melissa Hawkins is a 28-year-old thespian who moved to Forest Park four years ago, largely because it was affordable. Over the last 18 months she has enjoyed a successful run on a Hungarian drama to which she has exclusive rights for the English translation, but she hasn’t always been able to draw a stable income from her trade and to this day says she isn’t exactly flush.
Socially, Hawkins spends her time with a number of other artists including painters, writers, actors and musicians. Often they’ll gather in someone’s living room, but when they do spend money their wallets are tied directly to the neighborhoods that showcase artistic expression. Aside from the occasional cup of coffee, Hawkins said she rarely spends her free time in Forest Park, because she doesn’t see the community as a “cultural outlet.”
David Manola, however, sees things differently.
Manola recently relocated his art gallery, Boulevard Fine Art, from Oak Park to Madison Street where he could afford to own the property. He also saw an art-friendly community that would likely help him draw a demographic with disposable income. In the fall of 2007, Manola was a primary sponsor of a weekend-long outdoor arts festival on Madison Street, a first-of-its-kind event for the village.
Rula Gardenier is the managing director for Circle Theatre and estimated that during weekend performances her business draws some 300 people. Most of those, she said, come from outside Forest Park and patronize other shops in town. Roughly 30 percent of the theater’s season ticket holders live in Oak Park, said Gardenier, while only 12 to 15 percent live in Forest Park.
“When I’m in a show and my friends come to see me, we’ll go out for a drink at O’Sullivan’s afterward,” Gardenier said.
Last summer, an ice cream shop on Madison Street extended its hours to coincide with performances at Circle Theatre.
Village Administrator Mike Sturino agrees that artistic cultures can play a great role in the community and would argue that Forest Park is seeing a surge in that arena. Local government has been supportive to the extent that it can, he said, but there are a variety of factors that contribute. A lower cost of living helps to attract artists on a tight budget and public transportation gets them where they need to be, said Sturino.
Displays of “public art” in parks and along main streets can further encourage the notion that a given neighborhood is a nice place to live.
Those ideas are part of what inspired longtime resident and community leader Art Jones to support Circle Theatre and Skinner’s vision in the early days. Jones, now a resident of South Carolina, was the superintendent of District 91 in 1985 when Circle Theatre held its first play at Grant-White Elementary. Along with Skinner, Wayne Buidens and Joe Bass led the charge, but it was Jones who helped open doors.
After opening up the schools to the upstart theater, Jones would later use his sway as a local bank officer to sponsor productions on an annual basis. He joined the mayor in helping the theater negotiate a favorable lease agreement for space in the Hain Building.
Jones, who has since learned of Circle Theatre’s uncertain future, said that in 1985 the group was “a little too avant-garde” for the community and not a great fit. But it was a start.
“Even though it stood alone as an arts or cultural institution … it was clear to me that if we wanted to change the attitude, the tone and the feel of Madison Street, they could do that,” Jones said.
Editor’s note: Karen Skinner is employed by the parent company of the Forest Park Review, Wednesday Journal Inc.