The show must go on!

Bay Area theater companies battle the recession and try to stay afloat
Shotgun Players in Animal Farm


Furloughs. Layoffs. Cutbacks. These are the dirty words that have been added to the vocabularies of those working in Bay Area theaters ever since, as one person so eloquently phrased it, "the shit hit the fan." It's hard to pinpoint when it began, but most theater heads agree that by October of last year, the somber headlines regarding the economy began to feel frighteningly real. Theater companies of all sizes have reported reduced ticket sales, lower individual donations, and less foundation and grant giving. On stage, actors are performing to empty chairs.

As a result, individuals like San Jose's City Lights executive director Lisa Mallette have had to work overtime to keep their businesses afloat. "The economy has shaken up everyone — no one can be complacent anymore," she said. "It's making everybody think how they can run leaner and meaner."

Being creative on stage isn't enough anymore. These days the minds behind Bay Area theaters must apply their ingenuity behind the scenes. According to a study released in April by the theater organizations Theatre Bay Area and Theatre Communications Group, more than half the respondents from local nonprofit theaters say they expect cash flow problems by the end of the year.

With these kinds of expectations, many theatre managers have taken on second jobs as theater pruners, snipping extra costs wherever they can. For companies that have always survived on a shoestring, it's a matter of plucking one leaf at a time. This means staff members use the back side of used paper, drink water from the tap, and save every screw, costume, and prop that can be recycled for the next production.

"It's been a tough road, but [the theater community] is going to learn good lessons out of this," Mallette said. "The things we're learning now we will continue to use no matter what the economy is like."

According to Cheshire Isaacs, managing director of Berkeley's Impact Theatre, one of the biggest challenges has been making up the season's ticket losses. At its high point, a 1980s version of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream became the theater's biggest financial success in its 13 seasons. At its low point, a show that debuted in mid-November called Tallgrass Gothic resulted in unprecedented loss at the box office.

"My gut feeling is that the economy is making people more selective with what they see," Isaacs said. "They're going to the must-see shows, and shows that would previously have done well are not getting the audience."

Audience members have outnumbered cast members, Isaacs said, though sometimes not by much. On the lowest evening, he estimated that only a dozen people came to the show, an experience he found "depressing."

"For actors, it's difficult to play to sparse houses. It's demoralizing," he said. "It's a worse experience in a different way for the audience members themselves. It's hard to be in an audience where you're one of 15 people."

For a theater where ticket sales account for 90 percent of its income, the loss was a major hit. To offset the damages, the company tightened its belt in other areas. One solution, Isaacs said, was to stop mailing postcards. The decision to go digital saved the company $500. Impact, like most other theaters, has begun relying on free to low-cost technologies like Facebook and Twitter. For one, they are easy and cheap marketing tools. They also provide ways to reach and build a network of younger theatergoers. Even companies that are experiencing growth at this time, such as San Francisco's Boxcar Theatre and Berkeley's Shotgun Players, are making sure they keep their fingers on the pulse of the trends.

"We're constantly looking at how we can be ahead of the curve," said Patrick Dooley, Shotgun's artistic director.

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