The Worst of Times

Local theater companies are cutting costs to make do with less.

Many East Bay theater organizations are feeling the chill of the economic downturn, but their responses have varied greatly, ranging from barely controlled panic, to surprising optimism, to something in between.

How companies are weathering the downturn seems to be determined in large part by their size and sources of funding. Larger theater companies are having the hardest time of it, much to the dismay of employees who thought their company’s size and apparent stability might protect them. “For the first time in modern history, all five revenue streams are down — corporate funding, government funding, foundation grants, earned income, and individual giving, monies that are collected on capital campaigns from individual arts groups,” says Adam Gottlieb, Communications Director of the California Arts Council. According to America Theatre magazine, nationwide corporate and foundation funding has dropped by as much as 55 percent, a loss echoed here by companies such as Transparent Theater, which just watched half of its major donors cut their gifts by half. And just last week, California Governor Gray Davis unveiled a proposed 2003-2004 budget that would effectively cut state arts spending by $8 million. According to Gottlieb, cuts of that size would bring per-capita arts spending to 34 cents, or less than the price of a single first-class postage stamp.

The Berkeley Rep, the largest theater company in the East Bay, saw the handwriting on the wall in 2001 and quietly began restructuring, but folks were still stunned last week when management eliminated four positions, consolidated jobs, and cut staff hours. “We’re doing the same thing that a lot of arts groups and a lot of commercial businesses are doing,” says managing director Susan Medak. “None of us are immune. The opera’s been laying people off like crazy, the ballet has, all the museums have been. My feeling is that we have to be concerned about how the theater survives over the long haul, and so we’re trying to make choices now that will help ensure our well-being.”

The California Arts Council concurs. “These cuts are going to be devastating,” Gottlieb says of the governor’s proposed budget. “It’s going to result in theaters closing their doors, shortened performance runs; exhibitions may not be mounted. There will be very tangible, visible results of how this affects the arts, and what we’re doing in the short run is talking with grantees on how to minimize the hurt.”

The California Shakespeare Festival also has taken drastic measures to stay afloat. While CalShakes doesn’t own the Bruns Amphitheater in Orinda, its overhead is still high and growing. “It’s forced us to look at our infrastructure, at the current ways in which we do business, and galvanize the community to help us,” says managing director Debbie Chinn. CalShakes went to its vendors and asked for help forgiving portions of its debt, arranging payment plans, and waiving interest charges. “We just pushed all pride aside and just simply had to ask, and we got some very nice support from the community; they’ve rallied to our cause and helped us.”

Chinn has resorted to creative problem-solving. “We wanted to get through this with as little impact on personnel as possible,” she says. “It’s very important because we’re living close to the bone anyway, and we don’t have staff members who we can afford to lose. What we did was engage all of our staff in this challenge to assess how we do business and how we can do things cheaper.” Some measures included canceling the landscaping and janitorial service, with staff members taking it upon themselves to rotate custodial needs each week, switching from paper to e-mail whenever possible, keeping the heating and air-conditioning bills down, scouring the community for in-kind donations, talking to the bank, and so on.

While the big companies are battening down the hatches, midsize theaters seem to be holding steady. Willows managing director Andrew Holtz reports that his Concord company is doing well: “I don’t know what the reason is, but we seem to be bucking the trend. Donations are up, subscription numbers are up, and single-ticket sales for the first show are great.”

Meanwhile Berkeley’s 150-seat Aurora is managing, according to producing director Tom Ross, to keep its head above water. “We are real cautious about everything,” Ross says. “I’m happy to say that, even though I had budgeted that we would grow more this year in terms of ticket sales and subscriptions, we stayed basically the same or a little bit better than last year. But since the national average is 10 to 12 percent down, I feel good. I’m kind of grateful that I don’t have to sell six hundred seats in one theater and four hundred in the other. If I can sell a hundred seats a night, I’ll stick to my budget. If I had to worry about six hundred seats a night, I’d probably be in a different place also. It’s always sad when your big brother next door or your father figure is trembling. The Berkeley Rep has been so great to us. We all hope that everything goes well with Berkeley Rep.”

The best news, as Medak points out, is that smaller companies with low or no overhead and cheaper tickets are thriving. Impact Theatre’s artistic director Melissa Hillman, who reports record single-ticket sales this season, says subscriptions have been “pouring in” off the Web. Groups such as Impact and TheatreFIRST are finding that onetime challenges are now proving to be blessings. Itinerant companies that have dreamed of having their own theaters are suddenly glad to not have the overhead associated with being rooted in one spot. Groups that rely on volunteer labor have fewer people to worry about keeping employed and insured. And theater patrons who suddenly find the larger theaters’ ticket prices out of reach are finding that they can get a decent product for twenty bucks or less. “It might even be that some of the smaller companies will benefit from getting subscriptions, because we do three shows for thirty or forty dollars,” says TheatreFIRST artistic director Clive Chafer. “That’s less than one single ticket to Berkeley Rep.” Audiences are responding. They come on “pay what you can” nights, wait until the last minute, and are more likely to buy single tickets than subscriptions, but they keep coming in.

Some companies, especially those with small subscriber bases, even see the downturn as a mandate to produce the best-possible work because they have less margin for error and are more reliant than larger companies on word of mouth than companies with more subscribers and larger advertising budgets. TheatreFIRST, which ended last season without enough money to produce a season brochure for 2003, currently has about 120 subscribers and relies heavily on single-ticket sales. “If we don’t do a show that captures the imagination of those who come and see it early on, the generators of word of mouth, then we tend to miss out because we don’t have that big footprint in the community,” Chafer says. “I do think that we have no option; we have to just keep doing really good work.” Transparent’s Lally, who won’t be able to hire the staff she’d hoped to this year, concurs when she says, “We will never compromise the art.”

Aurora’s Tom Ross sums up the prevailing mood when he says, “When we look at the world we know it’s not just the theater or the arts community, it’s the whole country. People are unemployed and your donors have lost huge amounts of money in the stock market crashing and people are still getting over September 11 and we’re talking about war every day, so there’s a lot of anxiety in the country in general. It’s not just the arts, thank God. We’re not alone; it’s everybody. I don’t feel alone in it. And in the arts community, people are really nice and generous with each other, helpful, there’s always a good support system amongst the Bay Area arts community. It’s challenging, but I’m not pessimistic, because I just know that people are really kind to us and they really want us to be here, and we’re going to be here.”

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