The paint isn’t yet dry on the walls of Rivendell Theatre Ensemble’s new home when artistic director Tara Mallen gives me the nickel tour on a recent Friday evening. “When we first gutted the building, we were all, [Gasps] ‘We have the most magnificent lobby!’ ” Mallen says as she shows me the sizable, ADA-compliant bathrooms. “Then they put [the bathrooms] in, and I was like, ‘There’s no lobby!’ ”
Alas, home ownership comes with such headaches. But Mallen will take a small lobby over no lobby: When the new 50-seat theater opens this week at [node:15134301 link=5779 North Ridge Avenue;] in Edgewater, it’ll be the first permanent home for the 17-year-old company that focuses on the female experience. And thanks to an unusual arrangement with the building’s owner, Rivendell will get the benefits of venue ownership minus some of the pains.
Mallen and Rivendell partnered with Steve Misetic, an actor whose family has owned the multiunit apartment building at Ridge and Glenwood Avenues since 1976. The building’s storefronts facing Ridge sat empty for much of that time; the space soon to be occupied by Rivendell was once a bar that Misetic says lost its liquor license in the early ’80s due to its proximity to Senn High School.
“That was right when the neighborhood was kind of going downhill, in the urban blight of the ’70s and ’80s,” Misetic says. “Nobody was opening up businesses in Edgewater and Rogers Park. I didn’t even realize they were storefronts. Ever since I was a kid, they’d been boarded up and we just used them as storage rooms and workshops, and we always came in from the back. It wasn’t until I was, like, 30 years old that I’m like, wait a minute,” he says, comically widening his eyes.
Misetic’s interest in turning one of the storefront spaces into a performing arts venue led him to Mallen, who’d been recommended by the Gift Theatre’s Michael Patrick Thornton. It was six or seven years ago that they began talking, the two say, when the city was still in [node:15114875 link=post-E2;] crackdown-on-licensing mode. That ensured nothing would happen quickly. Other forces have stretched out the time line as well, including Misetic, a National Guard member, being called to active duty.
Mallen earned the support of former 48th Ward Ald. Mary Ann Smith and eventually secured $40,000 in grants from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s PAV Fund, which is administered by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation, a longtime Rivendell supporter. Elvia Moreno, a Rivendell ensemble member who’s also an architect, drew up the plans pro bono; the company also gets an office and rehearsal room in another storefront two doors down.
Misetic’s invested some of his own funds into the renovation. He’ll operate the venue with Rivendell as the resident company and namesake, booking other tenants around Mallen’s programming. “Our deal ends up being the same cost to us to be here all the time that it would cost us to rent for two shows someplace else,” says Mallen, whose theater is unusual in that it has operated under Equity contracts from its inception.
“Eighty percent of our operating costs go to artistic salaries,” she says. “For us to take on a building would be so challenging. Steve has made it manageable for us.”
Rivendell Theatre Ensemble’s first show in its new space, [node:15135561 link=Falling: A Wake;], previews Thursday 8 and opens Sunday 11.