American theater never recovered after COVID – now change is a must : NPR
Katie Weisberger / Control Group Productions
Many of the problems currently facing the nonprofit theater industry in the United States — from limited resources to a lack of diversity — have been around for ages.
But before the pandemic, performing arts groups were so focused on raising the curtain each night that it was easier to ignore longstanding issues than to address them.
Now, thanks to a combination of lackluster ticket sales and the end of government aid, they have no choice but to try new things to secure a future.
“The key question is what are the things that are being done to get out of the pandemic in a sustainable way?” said Teresa Eyring, executive director and CEO of Theater Communications Group, a support organization for the nation’s performing arts sector.
Nobody has the answer. But organizations across the country are at least trying to come up with new, creative solutions.
Systems review at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival
At the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, securing a future means focusing on what most audiences don’t see, let alone think about: overhauling systems behind the scenes.
At a recent company meeting, acting executive artistic director Nataki Garrett explained how Oregon Shakespeare, founded in 1935, plans to correct years of deficits and declining revenues.
“I have to change the way we develop, the way we market, the way we finance, the way computing works, instead of plugging the holes and filling in the gaps, which we did,” Garrett said during an interview. an all-staff meeting recently. “We didn’t want to disrupt the art. We have to disrupt the art now.”
The company recently cut expenses. It laid off and fired about 10% of its staff and cut two productions from the upcoming season. But the kind of ambitious reset that Garrett imagines actually takes more money.
The company hopes to launch an $80 million fundraising campaign and has reached its endowment of $4 million to cover emergency operating costs. Garrett told NPR that she now wants millions more unlocked.
But endowment council chairman Eric Johnson said for legal reasons his hands are tied at this time.
“This endowment has already done a lot to help meet the challenge of this crisis,” Johnson said. “Right now, additional distributions of a substantial scale are becoming extraordinarily difficult – if they are even possible.”
Garrett said that while additional funds did not come from the endowment, she planned to do whatever she could to save her institution.
Towards diversity at Control Group Productions
For many performing arts groups, the future means diversity. That’s true at Denver-based Control Group Productions; that’s why the theater troupe recently acquired an old school bus.
“It’s a 2006 Thomas HDX 32-foot freighter,” said art director Patrick Mueller. “We actually bought it on Craigslist from a guy in Ontario, California. We flew out and took it home.”
Mueller said his nomadic company performed in places like warehouses, theaters and even an old slaughterhouse. But the social justice calculus of recent years has driven Control Group to try to have more impact – and that means reaching new, more diverse audiences.
“We are a small grassroots organization,” he said. “It’s hard to get beyond our friends of friends of friends.”
Staging plays on buses, trains or horse-drawn carts is nothing new. But the company’s associate director, Caroline Sharkey, said for the company the bus is not just a novelty. It is fully integrated into the action.
“We take people to places they know,” Sharkey said. “And we’re changing their expectations for those places. So every time they go back, the memory of the art is still there.”
A lot of The end, Control Group’s immersive production on climate change, takes place on the bus. He visits some of Denver’s most toxic hotspots, like the SunCor oil refinery and a polluted section of the Platte River, en route to a fictional safe harbor known as “The Refuge”.
Art director Mueller said for the Denver series last summer (he’s planning a version for San Diego audiences later this year), Control Group wanted to hire people who live in places like Commerce City, where the oil refinery. The company recruited local environmental activists to help raise awareness.
But one such activist, Harmony Cummings, the founder of the Green House Connection Center, said people who live in the shadow of the refinery often don’t have the bandwidth to think about attending a theater performance. experimental physics on a bus.
“The issues in these communities – where am I going to live? Do I have enough food? – are so big that it’s hard to even talk to people about environmental injustices,” Cummings said.
Muller understands this. He said Control Group is currently developing partnerships with theater creators in underrepresented communities aimed at supporting those companies’ production efforts. But diversifying audiences will take time.
Resource Sharing at West Village Rehearsal Co-Op
In dear New York City, small performing arts organizations are putting their energy into sharing their resources.
“As we’ve seen during the pandemic, arts organizations that were working alone were struggling on their own,” said Randi Berry, executive director of IndieSpace, a nonprofit that supports New York’s vast independent theater community. . “When we have an amazing resource for the community, the more people who can get their hands on it, the better.”
IndieSpace is one of the main forces behind the West Village Rehearsal Co-Op, a rehearsal studio located in the Meatpacking District, one of Manhattan’s poshest neighborhoods. (Louis Vuitton is another tenant.)
IndieSpace, in conjunction with several downtown theater companies – Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre, HERE and New Ohio Theater – worked with the local community council, politicians and landowners to secure a 99-year lease on the basement of the building, exclusively for the use of small, local performing arts organizations.
“We like a good basement – it’s quiet, dark and cool,” Berry said. “And those spaces aren’t generating a huge amount of revenue for landlords anyway.”
In a town where it’s not uncommon to pay $50 or $60 an hour for rehearsal space, the co-op only costs $10 an hour. Some Black and Indigenous theater makers have free access.
“Not a penny! Which is good, because we don’t have a penny right now!” said Nedra Marie Taylor, co-founder of Grove Theatre, a new venture using the co-op for community events, with the goal of eventually building a complex for black theater artists in Midtown Manhattan.
Taylor said the West Village Rehearsal Co-Op is vital to her group’s larger effort.
“Having a physical space where people can share a story, just say hello casually, is going to lift their spirits,” Taylor said. “Especially for the independent theater community, which has been hit so hard in recent years.”
IndieSpace’s Berry said negotiating the real estate deal for the West Village Co-Op took years and there is already a waiting list of theaters willing to use it. She wants to see the model replicated throughout New York City.
“We have to commit to doing it again and again,” Berry said. “That’s when the real impact is felt.”
To look forward
Eyring, of Theater Communications Group, said it’s this kind of long-term thinking that will secure the future of the nonprofit theater industry, although it’s not the way short-term arts organizations of money are accustomed to operate.
“I would advise any business to have a three to five year plan to rebalance their organizations, to move away from the urgency of the moment, even if it’s there,” Eyring said.
Still, she added, “When we get there, our theatrical ecology, it will be in a vibrant place, where people will be excited to work there.”
Audio and digital stories edited by Jennifer Vanasco. Sound produced by Isabelle Gomez-Sarmiento.