The show must go on! - Page 2

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

"Our audience is much younger, so we damn well better be on those sites. If anyone is supposed to be hitting that shit, we are!"

As much as things are changing backstage, there are also changes onstage. At Z Studio Space, a San Francisco company that develops new theater work, executive director Lisa Steindler admits she passes up on scripts with a cast of 12 or more. She simply can't afford it. These days, she said, even playwrights realize they must write scripts with two or three actors if they want a play produced. "It's interesting how the economy is shaping the canon of work that being made," she said. "Ten years from, now we'll look back and see how artists tailored their work [to the financial situation of this time]."

As theater companies streamline their businesses, some cuts run deeper than others. Many have accepted pay freezes, cut back work hours, and foregone bonuses. At the end of 2008, Tiffany Cothran, managing director of San Francisco's Crowded Fire Theater, did something she had never done: she and the artistic director decided to give up their salaries for three months to avoid ending the year with a deficit.

"We had to do it for the health of the company," Cothran said. "It was hard emotionally, though, because everyone likes to get paid for their work."

Though some say the worst is over, others like Cothran say that they've entered a period of uncertainty. Many brace themselves to receive fewer grants in the next year, especially from institutions like Grants for the Arts, which help cover operation costs for many theaters.

On June 3, a letter from the Grants for the Arts told recipients to expect a 20 percent reduction in award money. Although final awards won't be announced until mid-August, the letter advised companies to be prudent while planning their 2009-10 budget. "Everyone is on pins and needles waiting for the news," Cothran said. "It's likely that awards will be reduced or that we won't get anything at all."

At Z Studio Space, Steindler isn't taking anything for granted. The three white boards that hang by her desk are nearly full with the names of different grants she'll be applying for in the next few months. "I write grants all year long. The difference this year is that I am just writing a lot more now than I ever did."

She admits this has been a trying time for the industry, though she is not surprised that many of her colleagues are still expecting surpluses at the end of their fiscal year. "We're artists — we're a smart group of people," she said. "We've just tightened, tightened, tightened. And who knows? Maybe we just caught it in time."

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