All Theater Is Local: How Are Small Companies Adapting to the Post-Great Recession?

In a recent post, we called attention to the plight of large art museums in the aftermath of the Great Recession. In short, many find themselves trapped in a kind of "Feed the Beast" vortex, whereby the pressure to invest in large-scale capital projects has created an insatiable demand for cash that shows no signs of abating.

One of the takeaways is that the Great Recession, quite naturally, affected different sectors in different regions differently. So what about the state of post-Great Recession American small theater? Is the prognosis an optimistic one?

Let's start with one way that many small theater troupes are very much unlike their mega-organizational brethren. That would be money. Or more specifically, a lack of it. While Alliance for Resident Theaters in New York, for example, is in the midst of a $22.5 million capital campaign, L.A.-based actors in Actors Equity, the stage performers union, get paid as little as $7 to $15 per performance (and nothing for rehearsal) for shows that can run as long as 80 performances.

This juxtaposition sounds stark, so let's contextualize it. The Los Angeles small theater scene is currently doing a bit of soul searching. Actors Equity argues that its actors should get a raise. Opponents counter that there simply isn't enough money to go around, and that a boost in pay will stifle creativity and force many vibrant and innovative theaters to close their doors. (Click here for a more thorough analysis of this West Coast tempest).

Now, a thinking person can ruminate on the current drama in L.A. and say, "Wait a minute. Small theater actors in a place like, say, Chicago, probably get paid more than $7 to $15 a performance. Why is L.A. so different?" One answer is the city's small theater production agreement. Agreements, naturally, can vary by city. They have their benefits and drawbacks. And an analysis of these agreements, generously provided by the smart folks over at American Theatre, reveals that structural changes are needed in order to generate positive outcomes, like increased cash flow.

Take the agreement that guides New York's small theater scene, known as the Showcase Code. It stipulates that a run of shows may not exceed 16. There are also strict limits on the ability to extend or remount, and rights to record performances. Of course, these limitations protect actors. Yet they can also restrict a troupe's ability to generate additional income. And yet, as we've seen repeatedly, segments of the small theater scene in New York are doing just fine.

Of course, no two organizations in New York's small theater scene are identical, either. As American Theatre notes, some don't pay rent. Others pay above and beyond what the Showcase Code's minimum calls for. Some rely on state grants (which tend to be more generous then those in California). And all spend their remaining waking hours fundraising. But even then, the Showcase Code rears its head. It stipulates that troupes can't shoot video, which cuts off a valuable fundraising tool.

Then there's Chicago. Despite being situated in the cradle of the American labor movement, the city's storefront scene is mainly non-union. Rent and overhead is cheaper. Funding models, as in other U.S. cities, are a blend of donations, grants, and ticket sales.

Which brings us back to L.A. Cognizant that the city's existing agreement may be impeding growth, the city's stakeholders are discussing new models. One stipulates that small theaters pay every union actor a minimum wage for each hour of performance and rehearsal, a mandate that isn't required in New York's Showcase Code.

We'll see how it all plays out, but until then, we'll leave you with a few parting words, none of which are particularly earth-shattering or revelatory. As we've seen, each small theater scene is guided by various elements, including the respective mandates of their cities' agreements, unionization, level of federal and state financial support, and so on. What works in L.A. may not necessarily work in Chicago, however. Therefore, given these structural differences, stakeholders need to identify and work to change impediments to growth. In the absence of such changes, they'll need to remain vigilant, creative, and innovative in their efforts to operate within existing frameworks.

Fortunately, the work can be done. As a unionized theater in Chicago, the Gift Theatre is a Windy City anomaly. Two-thirds of its show budget is for actor pay, forcing its brain trust to think outside the box. However, thanks to a move into its own 40-seat space, success in reaching new donors, and strong financial transparency, artistic director Michael Patrick Thornton thinks they cracked the code.

"When we started, we knew what we wanted the company to feel like, but we had no idea how much it would cost," he said. "Now we do. Now we have the model."