Theater cuts red tape, launches ‘free theater movement’


Courtesy Red Tape Theatre

Theater cuts red tape, launches ‘free theater movement’

By Miranda Manier

Theatrical director Max Truax was grateful for The Art Institute of Chicago’s donation-based pay-what-you-can entry fee when he moved to the city in 2007. Now the art director at Red Tape Theatre in Ravenswood, Truax will implement a similar model for the theater’s 2018 season with what he calls the “free theater movement.” 

According to Red Tape Theatre’s website, the movement is built on the concept that “access to the arts is essential.” 

While tickets to shows will now be free, allowing anyone to attend a production, the theater will be sustained by monthly member donations. 

Carolyn Hoerdemann, who plays Sleev in “I Saw Myself,” Red Tape Theatre’s first production of the 2018 season and first foray into the free theater movement, said the membership program is exciting. 

“You feel like you’re a part of it,” Hoerdemann said. “[The movement] enables you to feel like you’re a part of the community in a different way than just buying one ticket.” 

Truax helped implement a similar model called “Public Access Theatre” at Oracle Productions, 1802 W. Berenice Ave., from 2010–2016, until the theater company dissolved due to internal changes, according to a statement on Oracle Productions’ website. 

During his time at Oracle, Truax said he saw how donation-based access to the arts can inspire visible change. 

“With our very first production, we saw an overnight change in the nature, size and enthusiasm of our audience,” Truax said. He noted that Oracle documented with various in-person surveys of its audience an increase in first-time theater goers as well an expansion of the audience’s age range and diversity. 

When Truax came to Red Tape Theatre, 4546 N. Western Ave., nearly three years ago, he immediately began the conversation about continuing to supply unfettered access to the arts. Though difficult in the short term when first building a donor base, Truax has found the model to be sustainable in the long term. 

Jennifer Markowitz, director of “I Saw Myself,” agreed that unconditional access to the arts is essential for everyone. 

“Art gives us context to what’s happening in the world around us,” she said, “especially when we’re getting so much of our information from social media and … curated media. We choose what we want to read, we choose what we want to hear. Being exposed to art gives us a perspective that the media doesn’t necessarily give us.” 

 While Truax would like anyone with physical access to the theater to attend a show, he said he thinks the incentive will attract previous one-time customers for a second try. The theater may not seem like someone’s “cup of tea” on first impression, but there is a show for everyone, he added. 

“The idea of what theater is and what it can be, in terms of an artistic experience, is far more diverse than most people realize,” Truax said. “Red Tape offers a different fare. We offer a more avant-garde experience. When somebody comes in with that history of having been to one theater before, and they’re taking a chance on us, I hope that there’s that payoff.”