Theatres aim to strike the delicate balance between downsizing & creative risk-taking.
More and more these days, art imitates business. The grimmest financial picture in memory has sent America’s nonprofit professional theatres scurrying to the profit-seeking community for means of survival. Mounting deficits and dwindling resources force theatres to cut costs in every conceivable way. Productions are fewer, smaller and safer. Budget gaps drive theatre professionals to other lines of work. While well-heeled theatre companies dig into their pockets, smaller companies scrape by, hoping that an economic upturn will improve their prospects. Just like hundreds of strapped companies in every industry, theatres have embraced downsizing.
Clearly, downsizing has merit. When income shrinks, budgets have to shrink also or the venture eventually will fail, whether it produces widgets or new plays. But theatres that succumb to the profit sector’s passion for downsizing should be wary of pitfalls. In the for-profit world, downsizing is supposed to eliminate ventures where the outcome cannot be predicted with a high degree of certainty. Research and development often go first. Marginal units and projects go next. Businesses routinely survive crunches by becoming low-cost suppliers of goods and services. Cost savings go to investors, who measure success by return on investment.
Return on investment cannot be measured, however, when the payback is aesthetic. A theatre that slashes its equivalent of research and development in the name of tighter management sacrifices its soul, not to mention future audiences. Vibrant theatres court uncertainty. They do not banish it because times are tough.
“When you downsize so much, the biology of the institution gets compromised,” warns Zelda Fichandler, who has been at the vanguard of nonprofit theatre since she launched Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage in 1950 on $800 per week. The budget today exceeds $9 million per year. “I don’t think theatre will improve because you strip it down to its core.” Fichandler fears a loss of experimentation and creative dialogue in a downsized climate. “Theatre must be some kind of journey where every village does not have a perfect dinner,” she declares. The toll is already profound. No one today could dream of producing a show like Arena’s 1967 smash, The Great White Hope, a production that required 60 actors, 232 costumes and 11 sets.
The trend poses a risk that nonprofit theatres will lose touch with writers whose plays fill wide tableaus. So far, however, the appetite for these plays has not vanished. In Chicago, the Steppenwolf Theatre Company recently restaged last season’s hit, The Song of Jacob Zulu, by Tug Yourgrau, with 25 actors in the cast, then transferred the production to Broadway last month. The Lamb’s Theatre in New York City has agreed to produce Arthur Giron’s new play about the young Wright brothers, which will require more than 10 actors and some very imaginative staging to recreate man’s first powered flight. Robert Schenkkan’s Kentucky Cycle, an epic drama that runs six hours and calls for 19 performers, received its world premiere at the Intiman Theatre in Seattle, a subsequent run at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles and the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The acclaim dramatizes the argument for taking risks that are inconsonant with downsizing. “The Intiman took an enormous gamble on the Kentucky Cycle,” Schenkkan says. “|Artistic director~ Liz Huddle did the rest of the season on a unit set. But the recognition that it brought the Intiman cannot be bought. It put them on the map in a significant way.” Large and small nonprofit theatres have approached Schenkkan for the rights to mount new productions, but thus far the show’s scale has kept it on their back burners. The chance of being first to produce next year’s Pulitzer Prize winner does not alter the fact that strained finances clamp down on options.
Sadly, theatres must impose restraints just when they have matured as institutions. “We probably have the most thoughtful and experienced group of people who set artistic policy than at any time,” says Jon Jory, producing director at Actors Theatre of Louisville. “It is ironic that at the very time when we have finally prepared this cadre of experienced artistic directors, financial restraints are most severe. When people are expansive aesthetically, they have to be conservative financially.”
Even Actors Theatre, with a recent $9.5-million capital fund drive under its belt and no deficit, is downsizing. “Name an aspect of the budget and we’ve taken 10 to 15 percent out of it,” says Jory, who sees no turnaround on the horizon. “We are saying no for the first time since the early days,” Jory concedes. “It used to be a resident set designer was $1,700 over budget and we didn’t discuss it. Now it requires a full-fledged meeting.” Jory no longer casts shows in New York or Los Angeles. Rather than conduct expensive searches on either coast, he relies on several hundred actors he has worked with before–even if that pool does not include the perfect actor for a particular role. Meantime, the theatre has scaled back advertising and marketing activity. But these were easy cuts. If subscriptions continue to erode at the same pace, one thousand or so a year, the next round may go much deeper. “We are flat-out going to have to think about popularizing our seasons,” he declares. Shows with track records may suit audiences comfortable with realism and naturalism, but Jory frets that they are out of sync with the best young directors, who tend to share an inbred disdain for realism and naturalism.
Economics affect repertoire whether or not artistic directors make conscious decisions to limit seasons to proven plays with fewer than three characters. But in theatres whose managers keep sight of essential differences between ventures that seek profits and ventures that try to shape an aesthetic vision, downsizing has not foreclosed on artistic development. Amid devastation, new life springs eternal.
At Actors Theatre, reduced circumstances did not slice funds earmarked for a company of actors that will develop plays from scratch. Under director Tina Landau, the company is exploring ways to dramatize aspects of Sigmund Freud’s life and work, but in the end something altogether different might emerge. The venture will cost somewhere between $150,000 and $200,000, Jory estimates. Foundations will provide about half of the tab, and the theatre’s operating budget will foot the rest.
San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre slashed $250,000 in 1992 to ensure a balanced budget of around $8.2 million. Six staff positions have been eliminated, including the person in charge of play development. That will cut in half the number of plays that the Old Globe will look at. Unsolicited manuscripts will not be considered at all. Staff salaries have not increased in more than two years, and managing director Tom Hall says that micromanagement of costs has become a way of life–especially in the wake of California’s $18-billion budget deficit, which has meant cutbacks in state arts support. Meantime, ticket sales are down and corporate giving is off by more than 12 percent. Individual contributions have remained steady, but only by doubling solicitations.
Nevertheless, the Old Globe has eked out larger paychecks for performers and other artists. “We have made a conscious choice not to alter the growth of the artistic program,” Hall declares. “We froze all except what was happening on stage.” In fact, the 1992-1993 season was the largest in four years, in terms of production size. The theatre has kept a lid on artistic costs, in part, by sharing productions like Lanford Wilson’s Redwood Curtain, which started at the Seattle Rep and traveled to the Philadelphia Drama Guild before coming to San Diego. “That is a good example of how theatres are combining resources so that audiences get the best possible work on stage,” Hall says, noting a tangible benefit for writers and performers who get extended exposure.
Last fall, the Empty Space Theatre in Seattle almost shut down after 22 seasons. “We were prepared to accept a ruling of the community that the Empty Space had served its time,” says Melissa Hines, the theatre’s managing director. Then a foundation stepped in and offered to close one-third of the expected $90,000 operating gap if the Empty Space could raise the rest from other sources. Another challenge grant has helped extinguish $130,000 of debt. Actors Equity chipped in $500, a largely symbolic contribution that emboldened Hines and artistic director Kurt Beattie to renew the theatre’s commitment to new plays, especially ones by writers in the northwestern U.S. In March, the theatre opened the first production in a new space, Lanie Robertson’s Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, a play that Hines concedes has a distinct advantage in that it requires only limited technical preparation.
Apart from a pragmatic choice for the first show in a new space, Hines insists that the Empty Space will not compromise its determination to deliver theatre on par with the 1991 production of Virtus by Greg Lockridge. The Empty Space spent several seasons nurturing Virtus, which explored a plethora of male issues in a nontraditional performance format. In the same creative vein, The Empty Space is continuing to support an ensemble project that entails longer commitments to artists and puts creative control in their hands. It is impossible to plan in advance for rehearsal room epiphanies that boost costs along with production values. “You can’t say a discovery is too expensive because of plans made months ago,” Hines says. “You have to let the process rule. It is the enemy of efficiency but not the enemy of art.”
A nettlesome economic climate did not prevent the New York Theatre Workshop from taking a bold step in 1992 by acquiring a space of its own. “The choice to get smaller was unacceptable,” says artistic director Jim Nicola, even in the face of sharp budget cuts. “We could have made the choice to strip down,” agrees managing director Nancy Kassak Diekmann, “but it would not have been the kind of theatre we want to be running.” The decision to plunk down $750,000 for a new space was made with due diligence and encouragement from board chairman Stephen Graham. The purpose was clear. “We did not want real estate to dictate artistic choices,” Diekmann explains. After spending $90,000 for renovations, NYTW is rededicating the former Truck and Warehouse Theatre this month with two plays by Caryl Churchill in repertory, Owners and Trap. The productions call for a company of eight actors, too many for the former space to accommodate. “We couldn’t have done this at Perry Street,” Diekmann says. “The size of the stage would have prohibited it.” The former lease also imposed calendar restrictions that would have made it impossible to perform the plays in repertory.
Hope is alive at two theatre groups in Philadelphia. “We have spent very little time going ‘Woe is me,'” says Dan Schay, executive director of the Philadelphia Drama Guild. Instead, a growing deficit sounded a wake-up call to the board. Together with a board member acting as a de facto financial vice president, Schay initiated a thorough organizational assessment. Meanwhile, a discrete fund drive raised more than $100,000. “We did not want to get to the point where we had to cry wolf,” Schay explains. “We wanted to talk quietly about the existence of wolves.” Some funds have come out of artistic projects, but overall Schay says the impact is negligible. Still, the theatre postponed a production of Brecht’s Galileo that required 20 actors to portray 55 characters. “Something as complex as Galileo should not just fill a slot, it’s an event,” says Schay, who is attempting to raise support for the project. Meanwhile, the Drama Guild replaced Galileo with Nora, Ingmar Bergman’s version of A Doll’s House. Across town, the Philadelphia Festival Theatre for New Plays recently won kudos for a production of Chekhov’s The Seagull, translated by the theatre’s artistic director, Carol Rocamora. The payoff for a production with 12 characters and four sets was an extraordinary invitation to restage it for the 1994 International Chekhov Festival in Moscow. “We are lucky to have funding sources that believe in us,” Rocamora says.
In its 19th season, the Illusion Theatre in Minneapolis has been attracting larger audiences to its productions, but not enough to offset erosion to other sources of income. As a result, the theatre’s budget has shrunk slightly in each of the past two years. “We are thinking much longer and harder about when we are ready to commit to a production,” says artistic director Michael Robins. In 1993 the theatre retreated from a tradition of producing at least one epic play each season. None of the casts numbered more than three actors. But the pipeline holds at least two larger plays that are candidates for production in 1994, under the auspices of the Fresh Ink Series. One, a play by Martha Boesing, is taken from Meridel LeSeur’s stories about life in Minnesota during the Great Depression. The saga centers on The Annunciation, a story about a pregnant woman who wants to have her child although hopelessness surrounds her–a theme not entirely foreign to the nonprofit theatre itself these days. There will be nine actors and live music. “We want to go with the |original~ idea rather than make the idea for three people,” Robins says. Another play in the Fresh Ink Series, Ping Chong’s epic Deshima, originated in Holland and had a U.S. production at La Mama ETC. It tells the story of the Dutch colonization of Asia in a visual collage with lots of slides, fairly elaborate technical requirements and a large Asian-American cast.
StageWest, a Lort C theatre in Springfield, Mass., may be more typical of many nonprofit theatres. Funding sources have dried up left and right, says artistic director Eric Hill. The budget has fallen from $2.2 million to $1.3 million since 1989. “We have lived for four years with the sword of Damocles over our heads,” Hill says. To make up for funding shortfalls, the current season offered audiences Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Love Letters by A.R. Gurney, Other People’s Money by Jerry Sterner and Shirley Valentine by Willy Russell, in contrast with the 1990-1991 season that featured Visions of an Ancient Dreamer, adapted from Euripides by Eric Hill; Sweet ‘N Hot in Harlem, conceived by Robert Elliot Cohen with music by Harold Arlen; and Night Must Fall by Emlyn Williams.
The company continues to develop new projects on its 99-seat second stage. Like Visions of an Ancient Dreamer, some receive main stage productions. Last season’s Hamlet, performed by a cast of interns, traveled to the main stage and then on to Japan’s annual Toga Festival at the invitation of Tadashi Suzuki. Currently, the troupe is developing What You Will, a multimedia version of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night adapted by Hill for a cabaret format.
The adversity-builds-character school will maintain that financial restraints force an institution to focus on its true mission. Besides, as playwright A.R. Gurney notes, the theatre has always operated under limitations of some kind. In earlier eras they were cultural and religious. Our limitations are financial.
How theatres defy modern limitations will eventually inspire nostalgic recollections. The theatre has rarely been a very rich place to work, and creativity has no price tag. As long as there is willingness to take risks, brilliant ideas should not be any scarcer just because the chips are down. It just seems harder to give them shape that will attract an audience. But this is nothing new. “Heroics are part of the fabric of the theatre,” Zelda Fichandler notes. “The structure of drama itself consists of people trying to get around obstacles.”