Theatre managers discuss the recession and prospects for the year ahead
Drowning isn’t a sport. A drowning man isn’t concerned with his form; his only thought is staying alive. He flails and gasps and kicks like mad. This may keep him afloat, but very few would mistake his plight for “swimming.”
There are a lot of former swimmers in danger of drowning today–major corporations, once the stalwarts of industry, have foundered and local, state and federal governments seem ready to go down for the third time, threatening to take Joe and Joan Q. Taxpayer with them. It’s not at all surprising, then, to hear that theatres across the country find themselves in an analogous situation.
It’s the nature of a vital art form that it will endure, even prevail; but the art of hardship is different (and only to hopeless romantics necessarily better) than that produced in times of relative bounty by artists at liberty to confront issues and ideas of their choosing. The theatre of the-wolf-at-the-door may be exciting and passionate, but it is still limited.
One of the earliest effects of the emaciation that characterizes this theatre of lack is the phrase “a one-man/woman show” following a play’s title in the season brochure, or “a conversation/evening with” preceding a famous name in the title of a play in the same brochure. Such ventures represent an often reluctant compromise struck by allies: the artistic director of the theatre and its managing director. It falls to the managing director, by some combination of discipline and alchemy or as Victoria Nolan, managing director of the Indiana Repertory Theatre in Indianapolis put it, by “magic and thumbscrews” to convince the wolf to try another door.
Early in January, Barbara Janowitz, Theatre Communication Group’s director of management and government programs, looked back over 1992 and offered a preview of the recently completed survey that will be the basis of the special “Theatre Facts” report in the upcoming April issue of American Theatre.
According to Janowitz, this year’s findings are the bleakest in the 20-year history of the TCG survey, as expenses outpaced income and contributions failed to compensate for inflation. “Sadly, the kind of control over expenses theatres were forced to exercise included serious losses in artistic and human resources theatres produced fewer plays throughout the season and suffered staff cut-backs.”
The survey reveals the first erosion in what was always a consistently growing subscription base. Cutbacks in programming designed to minimize deficits seriously affected such key areas as developmental workshops, readings and touring. Staff downsizing and salary freezes resulted in a below-inflation increase in total salaries. And, increased contributions from individuals and foundations were offset by a decline in corporate support and plummeting government grants, Janowitz said.
As the grim year drew to a close, managers of five very different theatres spoke frankly about their institutions’ financial situations and conjectured about the year to come, as a new U.S. President was about to take the helm and the economic outlook showed signs of change. Not all of them were experiencing the disastrous effects of the recession. But, despite considerable differences in mission, geographical location and budget size of their respective institutions, their messages had definite points of intersection. Plotting these on a prescriptive graph may help shape the art and the policies that affect it in the year ahead.
Margot Harley, executive producer, The Acting Company, New York
We are the last professional touring repertory company in the country, and a unique problem of our kind of theatre is that we have no individual constituency, which is normally a huge portion of the fund-raising pie. Consequently, we are more at the mercy of the National Endowment for the Arts, and we’ve been hit worse than most by the recession. We made a decision to stop touring for the year and take a hard look at whether or not touring is possible. We’ve received an Arts Forward Fund grant for long-range planning, which will enable us to decide whether or not we should change what we were doing–do it better, more efficiently or change the thrust.
I would hope that funders would see the importance of underwriting general support for the arts. Having funding only for specific projects forces people to do things they may not be as interested in doing. I don’t see how we can continue without general operating support. In our company we have extremely low overhead; most of our budget goes into the touring. We’re not supporting a building, we’re supporting our programs, but without that support for general operating expenses, there are no programs.
I would also hope that the government would take a leadership role, have a positive policy instead of a negative policy.
Dean Gladden, managing director, Cleveland Play House
The recession hit most of the country in the late ’80s, but it seemed to be late in coming to Cleveland. Now it has taken its toll. Although we didn’t balance the budget last year, it’s certainly our intention to balance it this year. The problem last year was that foundation donations were down. Foundations have had to pick up the slack because of cutbacks in government funding, and the arts just aren’t as high on the priority list as they had been. Corporate sources that had been supporting us at a high level are cutting back this year. That’s the most distressing news.
When funders are looking at projects to support, they need to make sure the institutions that have traditionally served the community have got adequate support. There’s a tendency to jump ship to new, more high-profile projects.
We’ve been aggressive in soliciting donations, looking to individuals as the most important source of new income. Traditionally, they’ve been the largest category of our support, but we’re looking for even more from them. After all, they are the primary users of the art form.
This year, state monies have shrunk in the greatest proportion since the ’70s, and we’re very concerned about future government support. It doesn’t necessarily take a lot of money from the government; there’s a certain national attitude–if the government plays a role and makes a statement that arts are important by funding them, even with small support, the leadership filters down to the corporate and foundation level. The giving attitude towards the arts has been hurt by the controversy in government. I do have more hope for this Administration. I don’t know how much funding might increase based on the deficit problem, but I’m hopeful that a change in priority given to the arts will make a difference.
Victoria Nolan, managing director, Indiana Repertory Theatre
After we received some grant money to retire a $2.4-million debt six years ago, we had to prove our fiscal responsibility, so we reduced the cast size of the shows we did. We used to average 12-13 actors; now the average show has more like 8 actors, which is still fair-sized, but we “pay” for it with occasional two-, three-, or four-handers. Although historically we had done a lot of classical work, our programming shifted to more contemporary drama. It was the work that interested us, but it also fit the economic constraints we found ourselves working under.
The economy here has been pretty steady. There hasn’t been a decrease in support over time; actually, just the reverse. I think the economy has been blamed when, in fact, people have just shifted their priorities. The nature of subscription has been changing for a while. It’s difficult to ask people to make commitments a year in advance; that’s just not the way people are operating today, and in election years, we’ve seen that people sit on the fence a lot longer. Now we’re 1,500 subscribers down, but I can’t say that’s because of the recession; people were waiting to see what our new artistic director |Libby Appel~ would do. Single-ticket sales, on the other hand, are up. In fact, we’re $20,000 over in that category on one show.
But using ticket money to balance the budget is a dangerous game. When we discovered the shortfall in subscriptions, we instituted a seven percent expense cut across the board. We have not reduced staff yet, but going into ’93 will be very tough.
Our fund-raising is ahead of last year, but I am seeing a trend that is worrisome: It’s harder and harder to get corporations to give money for general operating support. More and more theatres are jumping through hoops for specific project monies, and that can profoundly affect the art. From the theatre’s point of fiew, it’s easier to raise program-specific money, but we have to guard against too much of that. We must continue the much more arduous process of educating donors to give in support of the things we do already core programming.
Ron Himes, producing director, St. Louis Black Repertory Company
Surprisingly, things are going quite well for us. We just moved into a new theatre from a 200-seat house into a 470-seat house–and the building was developed by another nonprofit, Grand Center, Inc., so we didn’t have to absorb the expense. Here in St. Louis, we are developing a new arts and entertainment district, and Grandel Square Theatre (our new home) is the first fruit of the project. As a result, our visibility has been heightened; we have doubled the number of subscribers, and the subscription campaign will continue for another month. We’ve projected and will realize a tremendous increase in single-ticket sales.
Our support went up from all the public funding agencies, mainly because they knew we were making the move to the new space with increased expenses and wanted to show their support for our growth. With the higher visibility the move has given us, we have acquired more corporate underwriting for productions, and if we continue the path we’re on, there will be a lot more sponsors jumping on the corporate bandwagon.
We’re going through a transition after having done a lot of big shows now we’re dealing with budget constraints, so we’re doing small shows. But there’s still a balance. The March show, Black Eagles, has a cast of 13; Jar the Floor has 5, and the last show will have a cast of 20.
I’m optimistic about an upswing in the economy in the coming year. Now the task becomes finding out what will interest the corporate sponsor. In the current climate, that has become much more important for us than just going in and asking for a gift. When we’ve found projects that have interested them and will give them visibility, they’ve come up big.
I’m hoping that we will finally, truly, have a kinder, gentler Administration. I expect that there will be a lot of stimulation of business, of the private sector, and that rejuvenation should begin to spill over. I hope to see the Endowment begin to assert itself as a leader in advocacy and support for the arts establishing an environment that will encourage and stimulate growth.
John Sullivan, managing director, American Conservatory Theater
It’s been a tough market to sell tickets in, but we’ve also got a fairly complex situation here in that we’re in the midst of an artistic transition. So I’m not sure how much of a factor the economy’s been. I don’t think the economy can be blamed for all of the current difficulties; something more fundamental is at work that I don’t pretend to understand: I think it has something to do with the hyperactivity of life these days and how people think of culture in the midst of that hyperactivity or don’t think of it. That’s a fairly subtle and complex circumstance we have to address; it comes down to more than the economy or just the price of tickets.
We’ve had the highest renewal rate that we’ve ever had coming into this year, almost 84 percent; our subscribers have really stuck with us, but new subscribers were difficult to get, and single tickets are quite soft. We’re looking at restructuring, but we’d be doing that regardless of the economic situation. Carey Perloff’s now on board as artistic director, and we’ve had a chance to see how she and the institution mesh.
We’re a theatre doing a lot of new work: We did the new Dario Fo piece, we’re in the midst of the new adaptation of Duchess of Malfi, and we’re working on a project with AT&T and the New York Shakespeare Festival, a production of Elizabeth Egloff’s The Devils. But when projected income is off, the difficult part is to try to structure some sort of vaguely authentic dialogue between the board and the artistic staff. In times of difficult ticket sales, the normal board prescription not specific to our board, but any board comes out something like, “We need some happy plays, plays that will make us feel good, plays that will sell.” Of course, we hope every play we do will sell and make people feel good. But the work has to grow out of our singular artistic expression. That’s why I’ve felt it’s important to try to create a dialogue that engages people, it’s important to focus on the fact that something far greater and more general than just an economic recession is happening. We’re just one small segment of a world in enormous change. I don’t care if you sell cars or commodities or theatre tickets; no matter what business you’re in, the market is changing in ways we just don’t understand. That’s what makes the dialogue interesting, that equal footing.
While it’s much more difficult to get corporate sponsorship, I think until the arts community redefines why we’re important, why what we do is important, we can’t expect the private sector to offer general support. Ronald Reagan really redefined things, in effect, he completely marginalized the arts. The collectivity of our minds and souls was essential to his ideal of building a consumer culture and the arts are about creating an environment where individuals can flourish. In that marginalizing process, we lost the language that enabled us to characterize what we are doing and its worth to our society. So all I really ask of the new Administration is the opportunity to find the words and the meaning to express why what we do is important.