.The Shrinking Stage

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

Local playwright Lauren Gunderson takes it as an article of faith that theater is, by definition, big, strange, extravagant, and epic. That’s the line she preaches to students at the Playwrights Foundation in San Francisco, where she teaches a writing class called “PlayMath.” “When I talk to writers, I tell them, ‘Your concern is to write the big, and the beautiful, and the true,'” Gunderson said, explaining her pedagogical credo. It’s a reflection of her roots: Gunderson said that in her MFA program at New York University, professors advocated pretty fiercely for big and strange plays.

But lately, Gunderson has been balancing that line of quixotic idealism with a more pragmatic argument: If you want your plays produced, you have to write small. Gunderson knows this firsthand. Last year, Marin Theatre Company had planned to mount a production of her play Silent Sky, which was originally commissioned by the Los Angeles company South Coast Repertory. A historical work about 19th-century astronomer Henrietta Leavitt, it called for six actors, a few period costumes, and a “dreamy landscape” with optional video. To Gunderson, that didn’t seem too complicated.

But Marin Theatre Company pulled out of the planning process, even after announcing the play to its subscribers. The official line from Marin spokesman Sasha Hnatkovich was that this version of Silent Sky had a different script than the South Coast production. But Gunderson said that Marin gave her a different explanation: Silent Sky was just too expensive.

What Gunderson and many of her peers have come to realize is that, in a bad economy, local theater companies are under the gun to cut costs and optimize revenue in whatever ways they can. In order to survive, companies are favoring lean productions that have small casts and require few stagehands and simple set pieces.

The Great Recession crippled theaters both regionally and nationwide. Foundations looked at their portfolios and decided they could no longer throw money at the performing arts. Philanthropy and corporate underwriting dried up. Theater companies slashed their budgets, revamped their calendars, laid off their casting directors, and found ways to keep fewer people on the payroll. They also tried to generate more money on the front end, said Susan Medak, managing director of Berkeley Repertory Theatre. “The decline in philanthropy has placed much more pressure on us to generate ticket sales,” she explained. “It does mean that we’re so much more conscious in selecting a season that some of those plays really have to sell well.”

The fact that Berkeley Rep packed its 2010-2011 season with solo performances, like Rita Moreno’s spare and frugal Life Without Makeup, may have been no accident. And it wasn’t the only one. TheatreWorks, a comparably large theater company in the Silicon Valley, also scaled back by balancing its larger productions with small shows like Time Stands Still, which required a single set and only three actors. Like a lot of companies, TheatreWorks also saves money by having actors do double-duty in a single production; the company used that strategy to pare down its 2011 production of The Secret Garden from 21 roles to 14. Of the seven productions that Marin Theatre Company will stage this year, three have four actors or fewer. California Shakespeare Theater alternates its actor-heavy Shakespeare plays with other works that require fewer personnel. That was originally an artistic decision, said Managing Director Susie Falk, but it has also helped balance the budget. In the current economy, Cal Shakes couldn’t afford to mount an all-Shakespeare season; it would simply cost too much.

From an artist’s perspective, going lean can be fairly constricting. San Francisco playwright Mark Jackson laments that the new ethos has come full circle: Playwrights won’t write large ensemble plays anymore because nobody wants to stage them.

Monologist Mike Daisey, who is based in New York but presented two monologues at Berkeley Rep last year (including The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, the veracity of which has recently landed him in hot water), said the trend is national: “I keep seeing new plays that have been underwritten,” he wrote in an email. “They clearly need more characters, and they wrote them to have three or four to ensure they get produced.” He concluded: “Self-selection is the most insidious form of censorship.”

Jackson echoed that sentiment. He pointed to Caryl Churchill’s 2002 play, A Number, which ran at Center REP in Walnut Creek and A.C.T. in San Francisco. “That one could have gone longer,” he said. Gunderson said that a couple theater companies offered to stage her show with five actors, instead of the original six, to make it more cost-effective. She conceded.

While smaller doesn’t always mean cheaper — Mike Daisey, for instance, is known for charging far more than the union rate — it’s generally the rule. Theater companies have long struggled with limited budgets, and that pot is steadily diminishing. The only way for them to support a full season is to balance the exigencies of cost with audience demand, and smaller plays are, by definition, less costly. Medak said that after the financial crisis of 2008, she and other staff members became particularly aware of the line items in each of their productions, from scene changes to costume requirements to personnel. “I think it would be disingenuous to suggest that budget doesn’t play a role in all our decision-making,” she said.

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.

“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.

Jackson is a vociferous advocate for plays of scope, meaning they’re “about a subject larger than someone’s living room,” and aren’t limited in terms of the timeframe they cover, or the number of actors involved. He also likes having the freedom to try left-field, experimental stuff — of the five plays he produced last year, two were narrative (God’s Plot and Kafka’s Metamorphoses) and three were devised, meaning improvised on the spot. But other playwrights have more perfunctory ways of responding to the market, and the result is a huge rash of plays that seem underwritten.

Moreover, the industry tends to privilege plays with a cast of four characters or less — works like Proof by David Auburn, Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage, and Patrick Barlow’s The 39 Steps, all of which are getting a lot of mileage nationally. John Logan’s Red, which is currently playing at Berkeley Rep, has also become hugely popular, said Falk. That’s a testament to its artistic merit, but also to the fact that it has only two actors.

The other unfortunate consequence of a universally scaled-back system is that it limits the amount of work available for actors, particularly those who belong to the Equity Association. It’s the conventional wisdom that hardware costs less than labor, so the best way for a theater to save money is to book shows that require fewer personnel. The mechanics of that may vary, Medak said — sometimes a small-cast production can be very expensive because it requires a projectionist, special choreographers, or extra stagehands. But generally, and especially at large theaters with stringent union contracts, more people onstage means a costlier production.

As a result, it’s gotten harder and harder for union actors to find work in the Bay Area. That’s especially true for actors who aren’t household names, but who could easily make a living doing bit parts or ensemble work, if such roles were available.

Local actress Valerie Weak says she hasn’t been hired onto a full production since getting her Equity card a year and a half ago. She’s done a few stage readings, impersonated a crime victim at police trainings, and pretended to be a patient for medical students — but no plays. “There’s not as much ensemble work at the union level,” Weak said, despairingly. “If you think about musicals from the Thirties, Forties, Fifties, and Sixties with those giant choruses — musicals that are being written and created now don’t have those.” She continued: “Contemporary plays with a broad scope and 20 million characters don’t exist anymore.”

Even artistic directors will admit they’re wary of epics and classics, with their huge casts, messy changes of scenery, and high licensing fees. It can cost between $10,000 and $15,000 to buy the rights to a canonical musical, said Dooley, who almost never stages such productions — he described Shotgun’s 2009 version of Threepenny Opera as “drunkenly expensive,” and said the company barely broke even at the end.

Smaller plays mean fewer jobs overall, but they also mean proportionally fewer union jobs. And in light of the sterile job market, some local professionals have made the conscious choice not to go union. Beth Wilmurt, for instance, is frequently cast in large roles at Aurora and Shotgun theater companies, which puts her in a good position to complete the fifty weeks of work required for Equity membership (all of which have to be done at a theater of a certain caliber, which Shotgun and Aurora both are). But Wilmurt thinks that joining the association would put her at a distinct disadvantage — and judging from the number of union roles available at Shotgun, a medium-size company with a fairly loose Equity agreement, she’s probably right. Of the 25 people cast in Shotgun’s current production of the Tom Stoppard classic, The Coast of Utopia: Voyage, only one was a union member.

“A couple times there’s been a contract offered to me which I’ve turned down,” she said, explaining that once you accept such a contract you become a card-carrying Equity member for the whole year, which hinders your chances of getting other jobs. Wilmurt added that she gets more work by being non-union, and that she doesn’t rely on acting for health insurance, or as a sole source of income. “I just got this sense of, ‘Why would I go Equity if I didn’t get onstage regularly?'” she asked.

The problem, though, is that there tends to be a tangible wage gap between Equity and non-Equity actors — the latter are significantly cheaper, so they get more work. But they also make a lot less money. Aurora pays both groups equally, and Shotgun offers a fairly “generous stipend” for non-union personnel, Wilmurt said. But most theaters can’t afford to be as generous, and Wilmurt said she was once part of a production in which someone with a smaller role who was an Equity member earned three times as much as her. It’s a huge systemic problem when an industry squeezes out so many workers who are just trying to earn a fair wage.

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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