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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.

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