The Shrinking Stage 

The economy is forcing local theater companies to book smaller, leaner productions to save money. Is financial prudence inhibiting art?

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Jackson is a vociferous advocate for plays of scope, meaning they're "about a subject larger than someone's living room," and aren't limited in terms of the timeframe they cover, or the number of actors involved. He also likes having the freedom to try left-field, experimental stuff — of the five plays he produced last year, two were narrative (God's Plot and Kafka's Metamorphoses) and three were devised, meaning improvised on the spot. But other playwrights have more perfunctory ways of responding to the market, and the result is a huge rash of plays that seem underwritten.

Moreover, the industry tends to privilege plays with a cast of four characters or less — works like Proof by David Auburn, Yasmina Reza's God of Carnage, and Patrick Barlow's The 39 Steps, all of which are getting a lot of mileage nationally. John Logan's Red, which is currently playing at Berkeley Rep, has also become hugely popular, said Falk. That's a testament to its artistic merit, but also to the fact that it has only two actors.

The other unfortunate consequence of a universally scaled-back system is that it limits the amount of work available for actors, particularly those who belong to the Equity Association. It's the conventional wisdom that hardware costs less than labor, so the best way for a theater to save money is to book shows that require fewer personnel. The mechanics of that may vary, Medak said — sometimes a small-cast production can be very expensive because it requires a projectionist, special choreographers, or extra stagehands. But generally, and especially at large theaters with stringent union contracts, more people onstage means a costlier production.

As a result, it's gotten harder and harder for union actors to find work in the Bay Area. That's especially true for actors who aren't household names, but who could easily make a living doing bit parts or ensemble work, if such roles were available.

Local actress Valerie Weak says she hasn't been hired onto a full production since getting her Equity card a year and a half ago. She's done a few stage readings, impersonated a crime victim at police trainings, and pretended to be a patient for medical students — but no plays. "There's not as much ensemble work at the union level," Weak said, despairingly. "If you think about musicals from the Thirties, Forties, Fifties, and Sixties with those giant choruses — musicals that are being written and created now don't have those." She continued: "Contemporary plays with a broad scope and 20 million characters don't exist anymore."

Even artistic directors will admit they're wary of epics and classics, with their huge casts, messy changes of scenery, and high licensing fees. It can cost between $10,000 and $15,000 to buy the rights to a canonical musical, said Dooley, who almost never stages such productions — he described Shotgun's 2009 version of Threepenny Opera as "drunkenly expensive," and said the company barely broke even at the end.

Smaller plays mean fewer jobs overall, but they also mean proportionally fewer union jobs. And in light of the sterile job market, some local professionals have made the conscious choice not to go union. Beth Wilmurt, for instance, is frequently cast in large roles at Aurora and Shotgun theater companies, which puts her in a good position to complete the fifty weeks of work required for Equity membership (all of which have to be done at a theater of a certain caliber, which Shotgun and Aurora both are). But Wilmurt thinks that joining the association would put her at a distinct disadvantage — and judging from the number of union roles available at Shotgun, a medium-size company with a fairly loose Equity agreement, she's probably right. Of the 25 people cast in Shotgun's current production of the Tom Stoppard classic, The Coast of Utopia: Voyage, only one was a union member.

"A couple times there's been a contract offered to me which I've turned down," she said, explaining that once you accept such a contract you become a card-carrying Equity member for the whole year, which hinders your chances of getting other jobs. Wilmurt added that she gets more work by being non-union, and that she doesn't rely on acting for health insurance, or as a sole source of income. "I just got this sense of, 'Why would I go Equity if I didn't get onstage regularly?'" she asked.

The problem, though, is that there tends to be a tangible wage gap between Equity and non-Equity actors — the latter are significantly cheaper, so they get more work. But they also make a lot less money. Aurora pays both groups equally, and Shotgun offers a fairly "generous stipend" for non-union personnel, Wilmurt said. But most theaters can't afford to be as generous, and Wilmurt said she was once part of a production in which someone with a smaller role who was an Equity member earned three times as much as her. It's a huge systemic problem when an industry squeezes out so many workers who are just trying to earn a fair wage.

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