On a recent afternoon, I trek out to Portage Park, a Northwest Side neighborhood not known for live theater. That’s something five-year-old Filament Theatre Ensemble hopes to change, with the help of 45th Ward Ald. John Arena’s office.
Julie Ritchey, Filament’s artistic director, and company members Omen Sade and Peter Oyloe greet me at a hulking storefront at 4041 North Milwaukee Avenue, across the street from the Portage Theater movie house. Filament recently signed a lease on the 4,500-square-foot ground level of the four-story building, with plans to make it a multi-use performance space.
Also joining us are the building’s owner, Marc Sussman, and Cyd Smillie of Arts Alive 45, an initiative spearheaded by Arena, following his election last year, to facilitate arts development in the Six Corners area. Smillie, the 45th Ward art liaison, connected Filament with its new landlord. “I don’t think we can overstate how much Arts Alive 45 affected our decision to move here,” Sade says.
Sussman says he saw the potential for arts in the 1940 structure, built as a furniture warehouse, upon purchasing it about eight years ago. The storefront is 50 feet wide with 16-foot ceilings, but it’s remarkably free of support columns; each floor is wide open. “The goal [was] to use it for the thing that it could be: dancing, theater, whatever,” he says. “I didn’t know what generation we would get to it—would we have to do something cheap and useful for the first 10 or 15 years, and then when the neighborhood gentrified, maybe somebody would appreciate the space for performance.”
Smillie was introduced to Filament by Tim McDonald of online marketplace startup Zaarly, which partnered with the theater to crowd-fund supplies for its 36-hour play project Vacant City/Glow last summer. McDonald secured Smillie’s help in temporarily setting up the theater in an empty storefront nearby. That project was well received enough by the neighborhood that Smillie and the company began talking about finding a permanent Portage Park home.
“There are so many areas of Chicago that I’d say are almost oversaturated with performance and theaters,” Sade notes. “So to come here and have such a warm reception, we were completely blown away.”
“This [space] exceeded anything that we would have thought possible,” Ritchey says. “Like, let’s dream up our dreamiest dream space that we could possibly ever want; this is better.” Sussman was happy to scrap his near-term plans to divide 4041 into office spaces. He’s in talks with other arts organizations about taking up residence in the upper floors of what he’s calling the Portage Lofts.
The group walks me through its plans for the ground floor, including a street-facing café (with an eventual liquor license), an enclosed studio with a sprung floor for dance or circus-arts uses and a flexible black-box theater. Behind the theater will be dressing rooms, a green room and administrative space. Filament hopes to open its doors this fall.
“It’s a perfect storm for our neighborhood, to have Marc who was perfectly willing to say, ‘Yes, I would love to not have to turn this beautiful building into an office space,’ ” Smillie says. Sussman deflects praise for making the numbers work: “It was really satisfying to have somebody who could exploit the space.”
Filament’s final show as an itinerant company, Hank Williams: Lost Highway, is now playing at the Athenaeum.