There’s a massive disconnect between theatre intelligentsia– bloggers like me– and what’s actually happening on the ground.
Theatre writers have been doing an excellent job drawing attention to issues of inclusion and diversity, issues of copyright and contract law and copyright/contract violation, issues of audience demographics, issues of access to arts education, issues of season selection, issues of censorship, especially in schools. Those are crucial, vital, important issues about which we need to continue to write. I have no plans to stop writing about any of those, nor do I expect (or want) anyone else to stop.
But we’re all avoiding the elephant in the room, probably because it’s simple, and boring, and all too painfully obvious.
THEATRES ARE CLOSING.
Nonprofit theatres all over the country are in trouble. While larger theatres are doing better than they were during the recession, a jaw-dropping amount of small, indie theatres and even midsize theatres are in trouble. Small theatres like mine actually did pretty well during the recession. People who wanted to get their theatre on in an economic fashion were packing our houses. But the past few seasons have been rough all over for us.
Sure, when a theatre closes, we can pretend it was mismanagement once or twice, but when it’s over and over and over and over? We have a problem. Over the past few weeks, I’ve had conversations with key people in several companies across the country who have all told me that their small theatres are in immediate danger of going under. While not LORTs, these theatres are still important contributers to the national theatre landscape. Small companies create the playwrights, directors, actors, designers, tech, and adminstrators who populate large companies. Their contributions are important. They are the research and development wing of American theatre. And they are in trouble.
It was always difficult to be a theatre company, especially a small one. Most grants for “small companies” require a minimum of $100K annual budget, for example. But now there are fewer grants for the arts, both foundation and corporate, and those that exist are often giving lower amounts. Additionally, almost all grants support specific projects, or specific initiatives (like “audience engagement”), not a company’s general operating costs. The amount of work involved in applying for grants is enormous. Not every small theatre has the resources to meet those enormous demands routinely– grants all ask for different types of documentation and writing, all of which require many hours of work. After devoting many hours of work PER GRANT, most grant applications are declined. Musician Meeranai Shim calculates that the odds of winning a grant are the same as winning at roulette. The conventional wisdom in smaller theatres is that the development person is the first person a company puts on payroll. Everything else, including the artistic director, is negotiable.
While larger companies have the option of laying off staff (and overworking the few who remain), in most small and midsize companies, upper level admin are the last to get paid and the first to take a pay cut when times are tough. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry about all those facebook memes that say: “I’m an artist. I don’t work for free.” No, you don’t, because many of us in small theatre admin stopped paying ourselves so we can pay you. I’ve heard it over and over in the past couple of seasons– “I’ve stopped taking a salary.” “I’m taking a 30% pay cut.” “We gave ourselves a 50% pay cut.” “We reduced our admin to just two people, and we both took a 25% pay cut.”
What I’m hearing from small companies all over is that individual donations are down, and the people who give are giving lower amounts. I’m hearing that subscriptions and ticket sales are down. I have to say “what I’m hearing” because the evidence is all anecdotal. Any data you reach for to “prove” me wrong (or right, for that matter) will automatically be inaccurate because small and indie companies are routinely shut out of studies. There are no comprehensive studies of small and/or indie theatre, and no studies of theatre in general that include small or indie companies in any meaningful way. We just have no data about this. So the anecdotal evidence I’m hearing over and over will have to do. Sure, there are small, indie companies who are doing great. And there are small, indie companies who *appear* to be doing great. But the stories I’m hearing– even before I started looking for them– paint a different picture. I have to believe what I hear and see.
Even if you sell out, you can’t make budget with ticket sales in most cases, certainly not if you’re paying all your show personnel a competitive stipend. You can only charge so much for a theatre ticket before people start expecting lavish production values. Commercial theatre, that can’t get grants or donations, charges a scrotillion dollars a ticket and sells tons of merch in order to make a profit. This is why commercial theatre tends to be either fluffy, splashy musicals with impressive tech or small cast plays driven by Hollywood stars. Spectacle sells. People will pay $250 a seat to gawk at Hugh Jackman’s biceps or Daniel Radcliffe’s no-no square. People willl pay $250 a seat to see a gigantic Disney spectacle with amazing tech and 50 people in sparkly costumes dancing in unison onstage. And I’m not criticizing that. I like sparkly things and biceps as much as the next human. But it’s just different than what we do in the world of small theatre. We can’t charge enough for tickets to meet our expenses if we’re going to pay people, rent, and other production costs. People won’t pay $250– or even $50– for small, indie theatre. Not to mention that it’s impossible to predict which shows will sell out and which will tank, so ticket income is just unpredictable. I’ve seen beautiful shows with glowing reviews that the theatre couldn’t sell.
Everyone who doesn’t run a theatre thinks they have the answer. “I did a fringe play that sold out, and it had cats in it, so I know plays about cats sell.” I was literally told this once, and many things like it. The real answer is: we don’t know what will sell. It’s easy to say “sex sells,” but that’s not always the case. Shows with glowing reviews don’t always sell. Shows with naked people don’t always sell. Shakespeare doesn’t always sell. New, exciting plays with diverse casts don’t always sell. New, exciting plays by women with gender-balanced casts don’t always sell. New plays in general are an extremely tough sell to audiences. And while I truly believe moving in more diverse and gender-balanced directions is crucial for the health of the theatre community in the long term and overall, and are goals we should work towards for their own sakes, we need to look at the acute financial problems we’re having as such– small, diverse theatres are in as much trouble as anyone else. We need to keep pushing for diversity WHILE looking at theatre’s financial problems from more comprehensive angles.
You never know what’s going to hit and what’s going to fail to find its audience. Some of the best plays I’ve ever seen were at small and midsize theatres who lost money because the show never found its audience. My guess is that the work was too quirky or unusual or complex to wrap up in a simple description, buzz was low, and audiences stayed away. But I don’t know, and neither do you. No one can accurately predict what will sell and what won’t. And almost no one in the nonprofit world, regardless of strength of sales, is making budget on ticket sales alone unless they’re not paying rent or personnel.
While income lowers, expenses continue to rise.
AEA contracts are non-negotiable for individual companies, and demand higher and higher salaries as a company ages. I’ve spoken with several companies who are going nonunion next season because they can no longer afford AEA salaries, and I know a bunch who have stayed nonunion for years because they can’t afford the contract they’d have to use with their seat count or budget, or because of that contract’s quotas. Rents in many markets continue to rise. Insurance continues to rise. The cost of almost everything continues to rise– lumber, hardware, costumes, props, paint, equipment.
So. Income is down. Expenses are up. And we’re not discussing that in any real way. We’re always complaining about the lack of support for theatre, we talk about how to create “public value,” we invite representatives from granting orgs to our meetings and conventions to try to shake out of them what, exactly, they want from us, and how we can be one of the few lucky recipients of the money they have to give, and make it to the next season. The theatre next door closes and we comfort ourselves by claiming “mismanagement,” either financial or programming, while we know– everyone running a theatre knows– one bad season and that could be us. We’re not having the real, hard discussions we need to be having as a community about this.
We all need to be realistic about the fact that there just is not enough money to go around. Small and midsize theatres in particular are struggling, and are dramatically under-supported in every single way. Everyone talks about how they should be paid more, how there should be more money for their production budget, how paying more for AEA actors is justified. Well, there is no more. Despite the fact that all those are true– we SHOULD be paying more for all our personnel, not just the AEA actors, and we SHOULD be able to give our designers more workable budgets, and we SHOULD be able to pay our admin people even half what they’d get in the professional world, or, in some cases, at ALL. But THERE IS NO MORE MONEY. There is no more money. There is. No. More. Money.
So now what?
We need to support our small and midsize theatres– support them ourselves and create support for them– if we want small and midsize theatres to survive. I’m not even saying “flourish.” Just survive. We’ll talk about “flourish” later.
That small theatre that gave you your first break. That midsize theatre that gave you your first big design gig. The new theatre dedicated to diverse work. These theatres are in jeopardy if we do not put some serious work into supporting them.
I’ve been teased for the amount of support I give other companies on social media. I’ve been called a “cheerleader.” Hell yes, I’m a cheerleader for theatre! For one thing, there’s no competition in theatre. I often say: a person who sees a show at the theatre down the street is MORE likely to see one at mine, not less. For another, this is no time to be precious about our work. Theatres are closing. We need to get our asses in gear.
The first few steps are easy:
Go see a show. Pay for your ticket. If you ask for a comp, be cognizant of what you’re asking for, and offer to come on an off night while making it clear that you’re fine with being told no. Talk about that show on social media. Check in at the theatre. Tell your friends. BRING your friends.
Find a small or midsize theatre near you. I don’t care which one. Go to their website. Make a donation. I don’t care how small. Do it today.
Yes, we all already contribute to the theatre community through our underpaid work as artists (and I include tech and bloggers and everyone in that). But if you want the theatres you love to be there next season, now is the time to do a little bit more. Because it’s not “mismanagement.” It’s the reality of making small nonprofit theatre in this economy.
If your theatre is doing well: Congratulations. Not sarcastic. Totally genuine. Now look to your left and look to your right. Help those guys, because chances are they are not doing as well as you are. Look to your left and look to your right. Those are the people you want to be there for you when YOU reach out for help.
The next step is harder: Rethinking how theatre is made, what a “theatre” is, and how we can reinvent ourselves to face a changing economy. There are more nonprofit theatres than there is money to support them. Period. What do we do about that? Can we do anything about that? Should we? These are the hard questions. These are discussions we need to be having.
Until then: Send your favorite theatre company a few bucks today. Or one you hate; I don’t care. Any small, indie theatre would see your $25 as the best news they’ve had all day. Buy a ticket, see a show, and talk about it on social media. Let’s all pull on the rope together and see how many small companies we can pull out of the ditch. And then let’s sit down together and talk. Maybe together we can solve these problems. Let’s stop putting on our Brave Faces and tell the truth to each other, instead of whispering it in hallways or in “EAT THIS EMAIL” communications. Theatre, that beautiful bitch goddess, is hurting. And we need to figure out what to do about it.