HYDE PARK — The Hyde Park Free Theater has less than two weeks to figure out how to survive paying double the rent as its founder picks up to leave for Oak Park.
Founder Laura Shaeffer is leaving to work on a gallery project in Oak Park as the informal arts space at 1448 E. 57th St. works to find new leadership and decide whether to sign a lease that raises the rent to $3,000 a month from $1,500.
Shaeffer said Monday that the theater, which started in June when the city’s oldest bookstore closed after 100 years in Hyde Park, has been scrambling since July to figure out a sustainable mission after its major benefactor pulled out.
“We had it all worked out and we were working on the infrastructure,” Shaeffer said. “Then the funding got pulled.”
Ben Shepard, a former University of Chicago student who founded the education entertainment company Top Studios and who is probably best known locally for his essay “Why Kanye West Should Be Mayor of Chicago,” had originally pledged to pay the rent for the Free Theater for three years.
Shaeffer said Shepard pulled out in July when his company reorganized and trimmed down on its investments in projects in the United States.
Shepard said the original plan was for Top Studios to fund the project.
"Basically, we originally intended it for use as a combined office and bookstore, but then it turned out that creating worker-owned media in Taipei and Chicago made less sense than it seemed, originally, and the project went into hiatus," Shepard said. "There was enough money left in the company to provide some bridge support for the space, which we provided."
Originally conceived as a gallery and studio for an artists’ cooperative, the Hyde Park Free Theater has morphed into an informal marketplace as it searched for new ways to pay rent.
The Free Theater is now having its most success, according to Shaeffer, through its weekend flea markets, where people are selling everything from rare original Woodstock posters to 1960s-era ephemera from Jimmy’s Woodlawn Tap and other treasures from neighborhood basements and beyond.
“People have come out of the woodwork,” said Shaeffer, adding that seniors in the neighborhood have turned out to be the biggest supporters.
The Free Theater had some early success with an Obama library exhibit curated by people in the neighborhood, but organizers have found it is just as often a home for a sort of piano teacher economy, people with in-demand services who have never quite fit into the formal retail landscape.
The Hyde Park Free Theater has hosted classes in book binding, breakdancing and the obscure musical tradition of shape-note singing, and it's held art day camps over the summer and during school holidays.
Shaeffer said she had negotiated a 50 percent reduction in rent from the landlord until April and mixing all of these activities together had been enough to keep the lights on. She said that the constant hustle to make money has made it difficult to plan out a sustainable future for Free Theater.
“It’s possible this would have developed into something great and sustainable, but not in 10 months,” Shaeffer said. “We needed the three years.”
Shaeffer has spent nearly eight years in Hyde Park trying to build a sustainable project and said she’s tired now and ready to move on to a new project.
“I felt like I couldn’t do what I wanted to do with this kind of overhead,” Shaeffer said. “What I want to do now is something a little more focused and calm.”
In 2009, before the University of Chicago began wooing retailers to 53rd Street, Shaeffer was running a roving gallery called the Opportunity Shop out of any vacant storefront she could persuade the owner to let her use.
In 2010, First Unitarian Church let Shaeffer take over a large home it owned close to the university, which artists like Dan Peterman, John Preus and Norman Teague turned into the South Side Hub of Production, remaking the rooms into community-focused arts installations.
Though the project inspired major works by some of the artists involved, it was forced to close in 2013 when the church sold the house at 5638 S. Woodlawn Ave. as a private residence, though it remains unoccupied.
Shaeffer said she’s now found a place in Oak Park and will attempt a more permanent project in the suburbs.
“After seven or eight years, I’m getting worn out and things are getting messier,” Shaeffer said.
She said while she’s still in Hyde Park, she’s searching for someone to take over the Hyde Park Free Theater and turn it into something sustainable for the neighborhood.
Shaeffer said she was optimistic she could find someone in the next two weeks.
The Hyde Park Free Theater started as a gallery and studio, but has transformed into a community marketplace in its efforts to stay open.
The Hyde Park Free Theater is facing closure as its negotiated half-price rent is going back up to market rates on April 1.
Laura Shaeffer is leaving Hyde Park for Oak Park after trying for nearly eight years to get a permanent community gallery open.
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