The deal is not done but the declaration has effectively been made: Circle Theatre is leaving Forest Park.
This is not a surprise, as this has been a drama unfolding over several years. We are just now reaching the climactic final scene. This is also not anyone’s fault. While we wish there had been a way for the key players – the theater company, the landlord and the village – to find a way clear for Circle to have remained on Madison Street, we don’t doubt the effort.
As we report today, Circle is negotiating to move its operations just down the street and across Harlem into Oak Park. If the final hurdles are surpassed, Circle will enter a short-term agreement to reside in the former Village Players space. That venerable theater company has run into financial woes and is eager to find a tenant to pay its mortgage while it regroups. Circle would use the year ahead to push forward with plans for a permanent location.
The Circle/Village Players alliance makes sense, in this moment, for both theater companies. The same cannot be said for the partnership of Circle and its current landlord, Art Sundry. In 2007, Sundry, already the owner of a restaurant and other commercial properties in Forest Park, bought the mixed-use building which has housed Circle for most of its quarter century. From the start, Sundry has been upfront about his plans for a total rehab of this nearly derelict property. Who can argue with a successful developer who wants to upgrade a prime parcel and bring it back to its potential as both a commercial and residential property? We don’t.
Truth is, Circle Theatre has only been able to exist in its cheap rent space because the building was allowed to deteriorate around it. Spend money to fix the building and you need to charge more rent than Circle, or any theater company can likely afford. That is life in the arts.
Mayor Anthony Calderone says today that he is “highly disappointed” about Circle’s likely departure. He acknowledges that Circle turned to the village for help but said, “Unfortunately, we don’t have the resources to save the day.” He’s right. In a moment when towns and villages are working to keep cops on the streets and the lanterns lit, subsidizing a local theater is not workable.
That said, Forest Park should not underestimate the loss if Circle makes this move. There will be fewer tables turned at local restaurants, less foot traffic for local shops, and far fewer mentions of Forest Park in media reviews of the much-admired Circle Theatre. That notoriety has helped put Forest Park on the map in past years. It is hard to measure but it is real.
In tough economic times for the arts, we are encouraged to see Circle make a proactive move to assure its future. We wish that move had been within the borders of Forest Park but we understand why that has not happened.