"Everybody's like, 'What happened?'"
That's Chris Jansen, artistic director of New Ground Theatre, recalling a common comment received in the months after June's New Ground production of Living Here at Davenport's Nighswander Theatre.
It turns out that something rather monumental has happened with New Ground, as Jansen and her organization have rented the Village of East Davenport's Turner Hall, and are in the process of having a number of local theatrical groups join them there. But you can certainly understand the concern of Jansen's audiences, as one of New Ground's most recent pieces appeared to be almost frighteningly prophetic.
A quintet of one-act plays, Living Here featured a work written by Jansen herself - a comedy titled Fudge! - which concerned a cheery, ambitious woman who opens a specialty fudge shop, only to watch as her customers' initial patronage turns into mere lip service: Of course we love fudge, they tell her, but we don't want any fudge right now. Maybe next week?
Jansen's play was a bitterly funny parable about the difficulties inherent in running a small business (specifically, a small theatrical company) in a community not unlike the Quad Cities - with a protagonist not unlike Jansen herself - and climaxed, tragicomically, with Fudge's heroine going out of business.
And after two years in the venue, Living Here would be the last New Ground production performed at the Nighswander. It's hard to miss the irony.
"I was sobbing," says Jansen, describing audience reaction to Living Here performances, "because people were coming in during the matinées - through the whole run of that show, actually - and they were like, 'This is my first time over here at the Nighswander, but I'll be back!'
"And I'm like, 'Well, we won't ... .'"
She says that "in February or March" of 2007, Davenport Parks & Recreation - which previously allowed New Ground to perform in the Nighswander free of charge - presented Jansen and her company's board with a new contract.
"We were dedicating some of our equipment and expertise to them, and in return we got the space," she says, "but they decided they wanted us to pay rent, and quite a lot of rent. I mean, pretty much we'd be handing over all the profits we made to them. And we thought, we can't do that. We'd end up going under."
(Kathy Lafrenz, whose Junior Theatre organization currently works out of the Nighswander, says that Davenport Parks & Recreation "needed to start covering costs" for the space, adding that "the rent wasn't all that extreme" - $250 a week for rehearsals and performances.)
Jansen and her board of directors opted not to renew their agreement with Davenport Parks & Recreation, yet unlike Jansen's fudge-shop proprietor, New Ground Theatre itself hasn't gone out of business.
The organization is currently performing a monthly series of play readings at the River Music Experience's Mojo's Coffee House; a trio of debuting one-acts, one of which was written by Jansen, will be read there on December 13. (Of her offering, Jansen laughs and says, 'Those who know Fudge! will recognize the style. I've decided smart, snarky humor is my calling.")
And New Ground has also begun the process of establishing a permanent residence in the Village of East Davenport's Turner Hall - not just for New Ground, but for several local theatre companies, among them the Prenzie Players, My Verona Productions, and the debuting Riverbend Theatre Collective.
The hope is that Turner Hall - which New Ground is currently renting - might become a collective venue for fellow groups currently without a permanent space to call their own. "And we want to keep it loose," Jansen says, "so people aren't locked into something; we want to be able to take on new partners or let others out if they want."
Even during New Ground's residence at the Nighswander - preceded by one at Rivermont Collegiate from 2002 to 2005 - Jansen says she never stopped engaging in literal window-shopping.
"I have been looking in the windows of storefronts, calling up realtors, asking for tours, for six or seven years now," she says. "I looked around and I said, 'Okay, there are arts organizations that have been around here for decades and decades, and there are ones that pop up and disappear, and what's the difference?' And one of the differences that I could see was a home base."
The idea for making Turner Hall that home base, says Jansen, came with a newspaper article she read about the Village of East Davenport this past summer. "There was this renegade blackbird - this territorial blackbird - that was dive-bombing people in a big parking lot there, and I said, 'Oh, that's right by the Turner Hall.'
"Then I went, 'Hmm ... the Turner Hall ... !'"
She was certainly familiar with the venue ("Me and everybody I know took gymnastics there when we were four," she says), and with plans for turning the space into a nightclub falling through earlier this year, Jansen called the building's owner to arrange for a tour.
"It said, 'For Rent for Offices,'" she says of Turner Hall's listing, "but when we went in, by gosh, there's a stage at one end, and it's a big open space, and there's a little mezzanine ... . So I was like, 'Wow. You know, I've been looking in these windows all of these years and this is the closest thing to a theatre that I've found.'"
Jansen and New Ground's board of directors rented the space. "It's so cool to be there," says the artistic director. "Everybody's really gung ho about making it the premier historic shopping district. It's an exciting place - there's growth as well as history.
"But then," Jansen adds, "we started thinking, 'Okay, what exactly are we offering the Village? We've got four shows a year, we've got a few classes and stuff, but that's not really enough for a great big building.' So I started talking to some of the other small theatres."
Recalling those "I'll be back!" responses from audience members at Living Here, Jansen suggests, "Maybe it takes a few years for people to figure out where you are," adding, "That's the kind of thing we don't want to have to worry about. Or have any theatre have to worry about."
The notion of several groups of artisans sharing one sizable venue in an established locale - creating a sort of Bucktown Center for the Arts for theatre - makes sense, says Jansen. "Not only does it give everybody a home so nobody's scrambling for spaces, but it also lets the audience know that if you want to see any of these small, emerging theatres, this is where they are."
It also makes a degree of artistic sense, as New Ground, the Prenzie Players, and My Verona share a taste for small-scale, challenging works that aren't frequently produced in the area. It's a situation, Jansen concedes, that occasionally makes it difficult to reach audiences unfamiliar with - or intimidated by - the titles they produce.
"People need to know that the theatre is really for the masses," she says. "We're not doing anything that's hard to understand. I mean, our material might make you think - it's not just a lot of people losing their underwear - but that's not to say that everyone can't enjoy it."
After meeting individually with My Verona's Tristan Tapscott and Riverbend's Allison Collins-Elfine, among others, Jansen says that she and several group leaders "sat down and kind of crunched the numbers about how many shows we wanted to do, and how many performances we wanted to do. And it looks like, if we all call it our main home base, the place would be busy half the weekends" of the year.
The rest of the time, Turner Hall would be (and presently is) available for rental through New Ground, and has already housed the organization's autumn theatre classes, with winter sessions beginning the week of January 4. Although financial arrangements between New Ground and Turner Hall's other, expected theatrical tenants have yet to be determined, Jansen is hopeful that actual staged productions will begin taking place there in the fall of 2008, even though she is hesitant to announce performance titles or dates. "It's not ready for prime time yet," Jansen says with a laugh. "I mean, we need to do some electrical stuff, and we've got some work to do on the acoustics ... ."
Jansen is optimistic, though, about the project's long-term prospects. "The people in the Village have been great. I walked into a store during the Christmas Walk and a woman almost hugged me. 'We're so glad you're here!' And I'm like, 'What are you talking about? Nobody's ever glad I'm here. I'm always asking people for money!' So I think that's kind of a sign, you know, that maybe we're where we should be.
"It's really weird how all the pieces are fitting together," Jansen adds. "It just seems like win-win for everybody, and I'm hoping the Quad Cities agrees, because it's the closest thing to perfect I've seen. If people want the fudge."
For information on upcoming New Ground Theatre productions and classes, call Chris Jansen at (563) 326-7529 or visit (http://www.newgroundtheatre.org).