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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"So much of philanthropy in the past has been people genuinely committed to our larger purpose," Medak explained. "And those are people who give with the sense that we're linked in some way." She continued: "We don't want to be operating in a state of crisis. We want to be operating with consistency, a sense of fiscal responsibility, and a sense of the long-term."

Berkeley Rep's analogues in the greater Bay Area took a hit, too, and responded in various ways. Hnatkovich said that one particularly generous donor helped ensure Marin Theatre Company's financial stability by creating an operational reserve fund, which functions like a trust. (According to the company's annual financial report, it accepts "artistic opportunities that we would not normally be able to afford, while creating an internal line of credit and generating investment income.") That allowed Marin to avoid disaster, as did the company's size — it's relatively small for a LORT company, and it tends to emphasize contemporary playwrights, which means the cast sizes are smaller.

TheatreWorks saw its subscription sales dry up the day the economy started to tank, said Artistic Director Robert Kelley. "We cut back in terms of how many sets, how many costumes, and to a certain extent how many actors we employed," he said, explaining that one way to produce big shows on a budget was to have actors play multiple roles. A.C.T., which is Berkeley Rep's larger, grander analogue in San Francisco, also saw steep subscription losses in 2008, but Artistic Director Carey Perloff says it found ways to economize that didn't involve cutting cast sizes. "We have a very lean staff at A.C.T., and nobody's making a lot of money," Perloff explained. She's hoping that, with Twitter moving its headquarters to Market Square, A.C.T. might be able to attract a younger, affluent audience.

In fact, if you look at what happened in Bay Area theater during the economic downturn — with American Musical Theatre of San Jose shuttering, and both Magic Theatre and Shakespeare Santa Cruz narrowly escaping death — it's impressive that other companies managed to forge ahead with their calendars at all. But all of them have run up against limitations, and that's meant cutting across the board. Medak acknowledged that "smaller" doesn't always manifest in terms of cast size. Sometimes it's a matter of cutting hidden costs, like dialect coaches, projectionists, musical directors, or scenery that moves and therefore requires extra stagehands. Martin McDonagh's Lieutenant of Inishmore was hugely expensive, she said, but not only because it had a big cast. It also required fight choreographers, special fabric treatments to cleanse the twelve gallons of fake blood that were spilled at each performance, and hours of union overtime to clean the stage every night.

New plays can be costly to mount, too, unless they come with a lot of grant money attached. The reasons are pretty straightforward, according to Medak: There's more rehearsal time involved, more uncertainty, and perhaps more advertising budget in order to really bait an audience. Unfortunately, that also means the Rep can't take a gamble on an epic production by an unknown playwright. Medak says there was an instance this year in which the Rep had to veto a work that it helped develop because the piece was too costly and the playwright didn't have enough name recognition.

"We felt we could not afford it," she said, regretfully. "We're working with the writer right now, and everything about it is big. We actually love the idea of work that has scale and big ideas. It's very frustrating that it requires such a huge effort."

Perhaps the most insidious consequence of the overall thrust to economize in theater is that it circles right back to the playwrights. Many complain they can't write big-cast plays anymore because no one will produce them. That's a nationwide problem, said Jackson, who's been writing and directing in San Francisco for nearly two decades. To him, the problem is self-perpetuating: As playwrights get habituated to write shorter, leaner plays for fewer actors, they begin to think of smallness as an aesthetic trend, rather than a response to certain market exigencies. Thus, it becomes institutionalized. "Playwrights have been conditioned now to write for smaller casts," Jackson said. "Producers do say things to you, like, 'Please keep the cast size down, we can't pay people.' The whole system is starting to feed that mentality."

Such concerns may have precluded Jackson, who is widely regarded as one of the best writer-directors in the Bay Area, from advancing to larger stages. He and actress Beth Wilmurt ran their own company, Art Street Theatre, for nine years and staged pretty much any work that piqued their interest. The nice thing about being a small company, Jackson said, is that, ironically, finance isn't as much of an issue, since no one's really getting paid. In 2003, though, he teamed up with Shotgun Players to produce a rather ambitious work called The Death of Meyerhold, which covered a forty-year timespan and included 88 roles for a cast of 12 actors. Dooley was one of the only local theater producers who would try such an undertaking. He's since launched a whole slew of Mark Jackson plays — the most recent, God's Plot, featured twelve actors and musicians. Jackson has also directed and written several plays for Aurora, which have been notably smaller.

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