The Shrinking Stage 

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

Page 5 of 5

The paradox of theater, as in other industries, is that the bigger a company's budget, the higher its costs. That means, ironically, that smaller theaters are sometimes in a better position to do bigger and more experimental plays. They're the place where the creativity might thrive.

Shotgun Players has a fairly interesting position in the market, as relatively small company that's enjoying a huge growth spurt. It's one of the only local companies with the gall and the wherewithal to produce mammoth productions like Coast of Utopia or God's Plot. Artistic Director Patrick Dooley said if he had his druthers, he'd keep it that way.

"Ultimately, if I get excited about a play, we just figure out a way to make it happen," Dooley said, sitting at a table outside Berkeley's Sweet Adeline bakery on a recent Wednesday afternoon. He'd allocated exactly an hour to talk between tech rehearsals for Coast of Utopia, and every minute mattered. Wearing a beanie and a windbreaker to ward off the winter cold, Dooley placed two legal pads and a stack of typed notes on the table in front of him.

Since launching Shotgun Players as an itinerant company in 1992, Dooley has allowed virtually his entire life to revolve around the company. For years he worked part-time at a North Berkeley cafe and directed shows at night; only in the past decade did Shotgun start generating enough income from ticket sales for its core staff members to have a salary. In the meantime, Dooley got married and started raising a family. He was still working sixteen-hour days, sleeping five hours a night, and cutting corners so he could sneak away to play hide-and-seek with his kids. He no longer had the patience for work he didn't love unequivocally.

"I thought, 'If I'm going to get five hours of sleep a night doing this, and it's gonna demand all this energy and focus, I have to always be inspired." He vowed to only produce plays that ignited passion, even if they turned out to be more expensive. He would work with local writers to develop the idea that had been gnawing at them for years — nine times out of ten, it was that irrational, thirty-person epic about the Trojan War, rather than the more pragmatic, five-character thing with a unit set, Dooley said. So he took chances, which ultimately paid off.

In truth, though, Dooley is in a unique position to do such things. His budget is significantly lower than that of Berkeley Rep or even Aurora; he has the wherewithal to produce seven plays and hire 131 artists this year — only 5 of who belong to the Actors' Equity Association. And he can offset some of the overhead and labor costs with grants; last year's production of Beardo had 41 cast members and a hugely expensive set, but it was furnished, in part, by money from National Endowment for the Arts — a grant that, he said, is extremely hard to obtain. Other smaller companies employ similar strategies to finance large ensemble productions that serve the directors' creative whims.

Impact Theatre, the tiny company that stages productions at La Val's Pizza on the north side of the UC Berkeley campus, has a special waiver that exempts it from Equity contracts, which puts it below the lowest tier of the Equity system (occupied by companies like TheatreFIRST, Central Works, Shotgun, and Crowded Fire). According to a pie chart on its web site that details its annual projected budget, the company pays several thousand dollars more for rent than its labor costs.

Granted, there's a huge tradeoff for artistic freedom: Many actors complain that, although productions at such small companies are often fun and spiritually rewarding, they also pay about half what you'd make with a union contract at a bigger theater company — and that's if you're lucky. Dooley acknowledged that as Shotgun continues growing, he'll eventually have to advance to the next level of the Equity contract food chain; in the Bay Area, that's called BAT, or Bay Area Theatre status, and it's one step below LORT — Center REP is a BAT company. Dooley hopes that shift will coincide with other upgrades — namely, an increase in audience subscriptions, and a larger venue. He's eying real estate adjacent to the Ashby BART station, which, he hopes, will eventually be developed into a Fruitvale-style transit village.

The only way to ensure that, he says, is to sustain a reputation for big, messy, risky theater. "Stepping off the precipice, that's what my job is," Dooley said, glancing over his shoulder toward The Ashby Stage, which sits just a couple blocks away from Sweet Adeline. The walls of the building were already painted in garish reds and yellows to advertise Coast of Utopia; the name "Tom Stoppard" hovered electrifyingly over two character silhouettes. Dooley smiled mischievously, as though savoring the idea of stepping off a precipice — as though theater-directing required a certain quality of derring-do. Indeed it does, he decided. "Otherwise, I'm just not making enough money."

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Marin Theatre Company's Sasha Hnatkovich is a woman. He is in fact a man.

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