WTIP file photo

Community expresses concern about future of Grand Marais Playhouse

The lease agreement between the Grand Marais Playhouse and School District 166 for use of the Arrowhead Center for the Arts has not been on a school board meeting agenda for quite some time. However, school officials say the discussions of the lease have been on going. Apparently, according to social media posts from June 19, negotiations have become contentious.
Negotiations were started in the midst of reconstruction and roof repair at the ACA in 2018. Listen to a related WTIP report here.

On Friday, June 19, a letter sent out from Grand Marais Playhouse Director Sue Hennessy, announced that Cook County Schools is “evicting” the Grand Marais Playhouse.

Hennessy’s letter called this action a “death sentence looming over our head” and said the Playhouse has hired a lawyer to defend its contract. Her letter was shared by many supporters—students, and parents of School District 166, actors and stage workers, theater goers and other supporters—who were distressed to see the possible end of the community theater that is celebrating its 49th year of service in 2020.

In the face of the mounting concerns, School District 166 School Board Chair Dan Shirley and Superintendent Bill Crandall issued the following statement:

Cook County Community:
There is NO pending eviction of the Grand Marais Playhouse from the ACA. The Cook County School District values the partnership with the Playhouse and has no intention of severing our ties. The Playhouse is an asset to our community and our students. The School has never contemplated an eviction of the Playhouse.
The District has been in discussions with the Playhouse for over a year on updating our lease, which has not been done for over a decade. Part of this discussion has centered around the location of the Playhouse’s office space within the ACA facility. Due to the changing demands on the School, the District has been working with the Playhouse to move office spaces, down the hall, and still within the facility. The shuffling of rooms and offices is a regular occurrence at the School in order to best accommodate the needs of our students as they change over time.
The District’s commitment to our lease with the Playhouse and the commitment to our partnership is not in jeopardy.

After the School District issued its statement, Grand Marais Playhouse Board Member Jane Gellner sent out another message on the matter, stating:

On June 18 we were required to vacate the office. The office is integral to our survival and we cannot conduct business without the space.
We have a lease that prohibits the school from doing exactly what they are doing, which is to move us without negotiating a new lease agreement.
We want to continue our relationship with the school and we are, with the Playhouse conducting partnership teaching with teachers from ISD166 this fall.

According to Hennessy, the relocation is to the office at the back side of the Arrowhead Center for the Arts, to the space used by WTIP Community Radio when it began in 1998.

In a personal Facebook post, Hennessy notes, “The loss of the office space is not just moving my desk into a small room. The WTIP studios are not adequate for the business of this organization.”

In subsequent communications, Playhouse Board Member Jane Gellner and Hennessy explain that the office space currently used by the Grand Marais Playhouse is vital to its continued operations.

Hennessy reiterated on her Facebook page that the office is much more than just an office. As access to other areas of the ACA have been reduced–the elementary art room, the Jane Mianowski Conference Center, and storage space due to mechanical equipment for an air exchanger–the front office has accomodated those needs. It is used currently used for storage of Playhouse archives, for meetings and sometimes for rehearsals. The space also serves as the box office for ticket sales and pickup during productions.

In addition to their contract violation allegations, the Playhouse representatives wrote about the importance of the Playhouse for the school and the community overall. Hennessy notes that the Playhouse pays rent of $10,000 each year, contributing to the school’s financial wellbeing.

But Hennessy says more important is the Playhouse’s work with Cook County students in two productions a year. Hennessy said these productions train students in viable trades. The Playhouse provides summer work for student interns. And finally, Hennessy stressed that the Playhouse is “a safe place for kids in our crazy world.”

The North Shore Music Association, an organization formed in 1985, also had an office in the ACA until June 2018. At that time, NSMA Director Kate Fitzgerald was working primarily off-site, arranging performances that take place at the ACA and other venues. The music association was allowed to lease some storage site in the ACA facility.

The arts center was completed in 1998 and three arts organizations were housed there, the Playhouse, the music association and the Grand Marais Art Colony. Shortly after the ACA opened, WTIP Community Radio began operating out of the small offices at the back of the facilty.