Bay Area theater companies battle the recession and try to stay afloat
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. "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."