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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The problem, though, is that as smallness becomes endemic on both a local and national scale, it tends to stifle creativity. For Jackson, the pattern is profoundly distressing. "Playwrights habitually write small-cast plays, and the result is this smaller-scope material," he said. "Then there's the complaint that there aren't enough plays of scope, buy why complain if you're not going to produce them?"

And since smallness begets smallness, it manifests in all parts of the theater ecosystem. Actors complain they can't find enough ensemble work. Writers whittle their cast sizes. Artistic directors privilege small-scale shows that won't drain their coffers. Audience members are trained to like sparse material, even if it sacrifices ambition for thrift. Aurora Theatre Artistic Director Tom Ross said that quirky, ninety-minute, one-act shows have become the lingua franca of contemporary American theater, which signals a major paradigm shift. "Theater" used to be synonymous with extravagance, but now it seems to be painting itself into a corner.

"I wish it wasn't true, and if we were more heavily funded it wouldn't be true, and our seasons would look quite different," Medak explained. "But we all struggle balancing a budget with the size of our ambitions."

In truth, finance has always driven art. And with the problem of an ever-aging audience compounded by an ever-diminishing pool of underwriters, there was never a time when theater companies weren't bean-counting. But many of them really started to feel the pinch after the economic collapse of 2008. At that point, the Bay Area's vast theater ecology — three hundred companies registered within the nine-county region, according to the organization Theatre Bay Area — saw precipitous losses in corporate underwriting and arts patronage overall. A medium that was right on the verge of becoming edgy and cool — and hopefully attracting a younger demographic — suddenly found itself fighting to survive.

One of the near-casualties was Willows Theatre, which has a main stage in Concord and a cabaret in Martinez. As the Express has previously reported, the Martinez-based company lost thousands of dollars in local business sponsorships, and that was compounded by plummeting ticket sales, a decline in donor largesse, and a substantial loss of subscribers. By the fall of 2009, revenue from single tickets accounted for just 38 percent of the theater's overall budget, far less than the 55 percent norm for Bay Area companies. Willows was so far in the red that it had to shutter its 210-seat principal venue at Willows Shopping Center. It eventually revived last year, albeit with a substantially reduced payroll — Managing Director David Faustina cut the staff down from seven full-time positions to two.

But other companies suffered severe losses, too. California Shakespeare Theater reported a 3-percent decline in ticket sales and reduced corporate funding in 2009 compared to the year prior, and Shotgun Players saw a loss of sponsorships as well as decreased subscription sales. "There was more of a feeling that people wanted to wait and see the press or word of mouth on a show before committing," Managing Director Liz Lisle wrote in an email, in which she also acknowledged that with the shift came a slight uptick in single ticket sales.

The hardest hit were the companies belonging to the League of Resident Theatres (LORT), the largest professional theater association in the United States. They're reputed for putting on ambitious productions, which means they also hire a greater percentage of Actors' Equity Association (or union) actors than their smaller counterparts. And that translates into higher labor costs.

Every professional theater company eventually has to contend with the Actors' Equity Association, the national labor union representing actors and stage managers. Most top-tier professional actors are unionized, and some grants require a certain number of union personnel. Actor union contracts are organized in tiers, largely based on theater size and budget. The type of contract that a theater company obtains plays a huge part in its annual labor budget: Equity contracts determine how many union members a company has to hire per production, how much it has to pay each of them, and what types of statutory benefits it has to provide.

That means the bigger the company, the higher the labor costs, and the greater its incentive to whittle down its payroll — i.e., cut its cast size. Union contracts not only have greater salary requirements, they also stipulate that the actors get overtime pay, and that the theater company pay into health insurance and pension funds. The rule of thumb, said Shotgun Players Artistic Director Patrick Dooley, is that an Equity actor makes about three times what a non-union actor makes per week. At a Shotgun production, that means more than $500 for the former (when you factor in health benefits) and $150 for the latter. LORT companies have the most stringent union contracts — 80 to 95 percent of their actors and stage managers have to belong to the Equity Association — but they also pay the most. Working at the Bay Area's highest-tier LORT theaters, an actor is guaranteed $882 a week.

Berkeley Rep and Cal Shakes are the only such companies in the East Bay, and the former suffered catastrophic losses when the recession hit. Not only did its donors and foundations start dropping off, the company also saw a dramatic plunge in potential income. Traditionally, LORT companies and their smaller peers have depended, to a rather surprising degree, on people who are just entering a place in their lives when they can think about being philanthropic. They're the first-time subscription buyers, the ones who give $25 gifts, and the ones who might help sustain theater in the future — if they get in the habit of supporting it. In 2008, that population really pulled back, Medak said. She also noticed a concomitant change in donor psychology: The new trend was "impulse philanthropy," fueled by crowd-funding sites like Kickstarter, where people can drop a few dollars at a moment's notice in response to something "urgent." Such things are actually antithetical to arts funding, and theater in particular, she said.

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