Everything has a shelf life, a wise friend often reminds me, whether it’s a Twinkie, a nectarine, or a relationship. Circle Theatre has been opening hundreds of shows in Forest Park since the mid-1980s. But that period is now suddenly, rather abruptly, over.
Local theater lovers on both sides of Harlem Avenue are buzzing about Circle moving over to rent the former Village Players performance space in Oak Park. Those for the move point out that Circle’s new home will allow for larger audiences and heftier box-office receipts. So what’s the big deal?
Many say that, symbolically, it’s a very big deal. The home-grown, hometown theater was founded in the ’80s by Wayne Buidens, who taught art at Field-Stevenson Elementary and at Forest Park Middle School, and two of his good friends, Joe Bass and Karen Skinner. Their mission was to bring exciting, innovative theater to the community. So though this move is hardly the end of Circle Theatre, it definitely constitutes the end of an era for Forest Park.
Over the past decade, Oak Parkers have watched dozens of their favorite stores and eateries jump to nice new digs in Forest Park, where rents and taxes are cheaper. It’s so familiar a trend, no one questions it any more. Oak Parkers are just happy to no longer have to stuff a parking meter full of quarters in order to eat a salad. But we’ve not witnessed such a headline-making reversal of the pattern – Oak Park attracting an established Forest Park business, especially a successful, acclaimed arts organization.
I’ve probably seen more Circle Theatre productions than anyone except Circle’s artistic director, Kevin Bellie, who basically grew up in the troupe from his high school days.
Early on, the group performed in schools and churches. In 1988, when the church where they were then working out of burned down, they moved “temporarily” to an old department store space on Madison, in a building that dates to 1922. They’ve stayed for over two decades.
It was never an ideal space, even though, after a while, it may have felt like home. I remember watching a show while an overflowing bathtub in an upstairs apartment rained down through the ceiling on the struggling Circle dancers. I won’t miss the teeny old auditorium seats made for folks a century ago. I also won’t miss that unisex lavatory, although where else during intermission could you meet celebrities like Marvin Hamlisch and Marlee Matlin coming out of the toilet stall next to yours?
I remember fondly so many Circle shows down through the years, like Nighthawks, based on the Edward Hopper painting. Another beautiful work, though painful to recall, was The Journey, Karen Skinner’s memoir of comforting her friend Wayne Buidens through his last days of struggling with AIDS.
Early on, Circle was a cottage industry. Wayne and Karen often directed shows. Wayne designed the sets. Everyone pitched in on the costumes and tech. The trio’s close friends – actors Deanna Norman, Elliot Wimbush, Barbara Eulenberg, Sheldon Baren, Patti Paul, and even Karen’s daughter Alena Murguia – were basically a rep company.
Wayne mounted lively, hilarious spoofs of such cult film classics as Psycho and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Circle even produced full-scale operas like Puccini’s La Bohème and Verdi’s Rigoletto. They began a trend of producing neglected musicals that had never before played in the region.
Perhaps in those early years, Forest Park embraced Circle Theatre move intently, more fondly. They’d not quite developed such regional recognition, nor received so many Jeff awards.
Circle often did make some folks nervous with dicey, edgy subject matter. They were never afraid to tackle controversial fare. There was even a rash of Circle shows featuring nudity. I remember attending the rock musical Hair the same night as a Forest Park police officer whose assignment was to decide whether the production should be closed down. The cop loved the show, so it played to packed houses for the rest of its run.
Circle Theatre usually featured a new or original work each season. They gave playwright Rebecca Gilman her first big break.
Admittedly, there were times when a Circle effort might be uneven but their spirit and energy was always irresistible and powerful.
From the early days of Buidens, Bass and Skinner, the company developed a reputation for impressive staging and set design. Ever its champion, critic Hedy Weiss of the Sun-Times calls Circle Theatre “one of the most consistently theatrical operations in the area.” Weiss often cites Circle’s efforts as “theater at its best.”
As the Forest Park era for Circle Theatre closes, it’s hard to focus on the reality that times are tight and that businesses have to go where opportunities are stronger. The loss to the village’s arts community, even if only for 14 months, is significant. And, for Forest Park’s shopping and dining destination strip on Madison, this move – especially in these times – will leave a giant hole.
No one seems to provide any solid answers about whether this is a temporary or a permanent loss. Those who may have further details aren’t talking.
Is Circle looking to eventually purchase the Village Players property? Is it eying other space in Forest Park for a permanent home once the Oak Park lease is up? Did Forest Park drop the ball by not finding any way to help Circle face some of its challenges here?
As this drama unfolds in coming months, it shall be fascinating to watch.
Doug Deuchler is a retired teacher/school librarian who, when not reviewing local theater for Wednesday Journal’s newspapers, is a stand-up comic, tour guide/docent and author of several books about Oak Park and surrounding communities.