Chicago’s performance scene offers an embarrassment of riches: cabaret, theater, dance, stand-up comedy, magic, storytelling, opera and plenty of other stuff we’ve either forgotten about or never heard of. You could wear out your CTA card rushing from venue to venue in an effort to keep up with such a variety of programming. Or you could just head to Stage 773 (1225 W. Belmont Ave.).
Stage 773, a multi-theater complex, is the brainchild of artistic director Brian Posen, a longtime theater veteran who also produces the Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival. His vision: To provide an affordable home to itinerant theater companies and create an incubator for fresh ideas and the cross-pollination of art forms. The goal: “To keep Chicago on the map as being the capital of theater, comedy and new works.”
“I love Chicago theater and everything it stands for,” Posen told RVJ. “You can find any kind of theater here, you have a theater company for everything.”
Part of Belmont’s thriving restaurant/theater district, which also includes Theater Wit, Stage 773 was designed specifically to accommodate this diversity. Its four stages range from the intimate 69-seat Cabaret to the 148-seat Thrust, with dance companies showing a preference for the 147-seat Proscenium. A quick look at the slate of October bookings shows as many as seven different productions on a single Saturday, from the Tony-award winner Avenue Q to the improv hybrid Hobo Camp.
“I don’t sleep much,” said Posen, who exhibits the manic energy of the overly-caffeinated. “When your dreams come true, you work more and make less money.”
The idea for Stage 773 began germinating in 2005 but didn’t take hold until 2010, when a member of the Theater Building’s board approached Posen about taking over the Belmont space. Posen jumped at the offer. Though the building had suffered from years of benign neglect, he saw potential in the fixer-upper.
Initially Stage 773 simply gave the rundown space a good scrubbing and threw open its doors. “Then we started again” with a complete renovation, said Posen. Most notable to patrons, the once cramped and dingy lobby was transformed into a bright, airy and whimsical space featuring the work of Alex Morales, who specializes in found art, some of which was salvaged from the garage of Posen’s father. The makeover was revealed in September 2011 and months later, Posen had just reached the point where he could catch his breath.
“We’re just starting to learn who we are, what our vibe is,” he said. Ensembles like the highly regarded Shattered Globe, which established residency at Stage 773, have set the bar high. “These awesome groups have come here,” he said. Though Posen clearly needs to fill out his calendar to make Stage 773 a viable operation, he noted, “We want to make sure the quality here is good. The patron will associate the art here as part of the building.”
Those standards apply to Posen himself. In addition to serving as artistic director, Posen, who holds an MFA in acting and studied at Second City, is director of the Cupid Players, an all musical sketch comedy troupe that performs Saturdays at Stage 773. “I haven’t had a Saturday night off in nine years,” he said. As if that weren’t enough hats to wear, Posen is also Stage 773′s fundraiser-in-chief.
“[People] have no idea what’s behind the curtain here. We have to generate a lot of money,” he said. “We’ve just started building our grant foundation and are slowly building our donor base. The toughest thing for me is asking people for money.”
How does he keep all these balls in the air? “You surround yourself with creative types and people who are alive.”
It also helps that he’s pursuing his passion and maintains a deep faith in the power of art. “In a world that needs beauty, we’re supplying it,” said Posen. “We need artists to create, to move an audience to thought and action.”