Risks pay off for Uptown's Profiles Theatre

Just as its name suggests, Profiles Theatre's most valued asset is its collection of characters.

The 50-seat storefront theater, located in Uptown's former Red Bones Theatre space, has gained a reputation for staging plays about complex, flawed people. Over the past decade, Profiles' lineup has consisted almost entirely of Midwest and U.S. premieres. The theater's taut staging of Vern Thiessen's sexual thriller, "Apple," runs through June 3.

"We always look for stories that are very human," said Joe Jahraus, co-founder and artistic director of Profiles. "We won't usually do shows about issues, or making statements."

Coming off a successful production of "Fat Pig" by Neil LaBute, a Detroit-born playwright active in New York, Profiles has carved out a niche as Chicago's risk-taker. A dark romance about a hotshot executive guy who falls for an overweight girl, "Fat Pig'' garnered critical acclaim and ran for almost seven sold-out months before closing in April.

Profiles will soon announce details of its 2007-2008 lineup, composed entirely of LaBute plays: clearly, the playwright is on the fast track to becoming the August Wilson to Profiles' Congo Square Theatre Company. (Wilson, who died in 2005, was something of a muse to Chicago's 8-year-old Congo Square.) It's hard to believe that Profiles has cemented its solid reputation on a mere $100,000 shoestring of a budget for 2006, a number that is up from previous years.

Profiles has taken a slow-and-steady approach to the business of theater, if not the art itself, since debuting in 1988.

After a brief stint working in the now-defunct Chicago Actors Ensemble, Jahraus called four fellow graduates from Eastern Illinois University and pitched the idea of starting a theater company. He had a clear vision of his ideal group: a small, close-knit ensemble of people who would be as willing to man the box office as to play the lead onstage.

"Being with the Chicago Actors Ensemble, I got a feel for what it was like to run an ensemble theater," Jahraus said. "There are no stars."

The resulting group was dubbed Profiles Performance Ensemble, and the group performed at Chicago's Wilbur Wright College on the Far Northwest Side until 1990, when they moved to their current home.

That year also saw a change of the guard, as Jahraus' old friends departed the ensemble and current associate artistic director Darrell W. Cox arrived. The pair met when Cox auditioned for a role in Profiles' 1990 production of "Sexual Perversity in Chicago."  Ironically, he didn't get the part.

"I didn't cast him," Jahraus said with a laugh. "Darrell loves it when I tell that story. I knew he had great talent, though."

Cox joined Profiles for its 1991 production of "True West," and has often played Profiles' juiciest roles since then. He stars in "Apple" as convincing sad-sack Andy.     

In 1995, Profiles Performance Ensemble morphed again, shedding its old moniker in favor of Profiles Theatre. Profiles' artistic priorities also shifted as the company began concentrating on producing Midwest or national premieres.

"People come to plays that have already been done with pre-conceptions, and they'll say, 'Well, in Steppenwolf's version, this happened,'" Jahraus said. "It's much more interesting to watch people experience a story for the first time. Is someone going to get killed? Is one of the characters going to slap another character?"

Jahraus said Profiles puts on plays for people "who are not afraid to be challenged."

"Ten years ago, if we had staged 'Apple,' it would not have gotten the same response," Jahraus said. "Now we've got a base audience, and we've established a reputation."

And what a reputation it is. Poverty, incontinence, obesity. all the big themes are there in Profiles' audacious work. One particularly brave move was the theater's 2004 Midwest premiere of Adam Rapp's "Blackbird," a disconcerting story even by Profiles' standards. "Blackbird" depicts a desperate romance between a heroin-addicted former stripper and her disabled roommate in their bleak apartment on Christmas Eve.

"We said, 'I don't know if five people will come see this,'" Jahraus remembered, "and people surprised us. We realized that if you're passionate about the story you want to tell, then tell it."

That passion also worked for "Popcorn," which ran for an unprecedented 22 months at the theater from 1999 to 2001. "Popcorn" told the story of two serial killers who invade the home of a bigwig Hollywood director with a penchant for directing violent movies.

The production sold so well and ran for so long that Jahraus and Cox spoke, half-jokingly, about renaming the theater "Popcorn Theatre."

The production also raised issues about financial versus artistic success for Jahraus.

He thinks "Fat Pig" could have run successfully for just as long. But he decided that keeping an old play onstage would diminish the company's overall artistic impact.

"Every once in a while, the idea of a 'Popcorn' revival comes up," Jahraus said. "But we always say no. It would be all about the money.. Rarely do we say when considering what show to stage, 'Will this sell tickets?'"

That may be the idealistic credo of many small regional theaters, but Profiles actually manages to practice what they preach. That cavalier attitude about money also accounts for Profiles' baby steps toward profitability.

The theater's $100,000 budget has risen from a meager $50,000 a few years ago, and Profiles has prided itself on earning 90 percent of its income from  ticket sales. Current ticket prices top out at $25.

None of Profiles' ensemble members draws a salary, so balancing day jobs and theater can be challenging. Jahraus runs an online video rental store, and Cox teaches acting classes full-time.

The company's cautious attitude towards its bottom line has paid off.  

"We're in the black, completely in the black," said Jahraus, "although there were certainly years where we weren't."

As for Profiles' future goals, Jahraus remains remarkably clear-eyed. He has had ongoing conversations with LaBute and Thiessen about continuing their relationships with the theater.

"A good playwright is the key, since you don't have anything if you don't have a good script," he said.

Profiles will continue to grow in other ways as well.

"We need to renovate the lobby restroom," he said. "The city has given us several years to complete the project, so it's time."

 For more information on Profiles Theatre, please visit www.profilestheatre.org.