Sunday, October 10, 2010

Reported Feature: Theater Companies in Tough Times

For the Kalamazoo Gazette, 08-22-10
In uneasy economy, the mix is the thing
Theater managers plan a blend of light, dark to lure audiences

This season, Kalamazoo-area theater companies will present a carrot-topped tyke (“Annie”) and cash-strapped New Yorkers (“Rent”) as well as 18th century tricksters (“She Stoops to Conquer”) and a blind housewife tormented by vicious con men (“Wait Until Dark”). It will be a mix, if all goes well, of smiles and tears.
That’s because theater managers and artistic directors believe they’ll need more than just a catchy song to lure the crowds in this hard-knocks economic climate.

How tough is it? For one thing, “social-service needs have become so profound, corporations and foundations have redirected much of their funding away from the arts” and to community-needs organizations, points out Joan Herrington, Western Michigan University’s Department of Theatre chairwoman.
Couple that with a decline in audiences.
“We didn’t lose our regulars last year. We lost everyone else,” recalls Brendan Ragotzy, co-owner of family-owned and run Barn Theatre in Augusta.
“We know not every show will make money. But last season we did seven shows. All seven lost money.”
How much did that hurt? Enough that the Barn cancelled its 2010 summer season and instead turned to fund raisers that have included a juggler, a music concert and a one-man show by actor and Chelsea native Jeff Daniels.
“It’s a scary time,” Ragotzy says. “But we’re going to circle the wagons.” After all, he notes, “This is what we do.”
Will there be a 2011 Barn season?
“I want to say yes,” Ragotzy replies.
Another company, Whole Art Theatre, closed its curtains for good last January, citing financial challenges.
That’s why, with those recent examples as cautionary tales, theater companies here and nationwide have had to scrutinize every facet of their operations, starting off with how many shows to put on.
Adam Weiner, executive director of Farmers Alley Theatre, which debuted downtown in October 2008 — “a precarious time,” he admits — recalls the presentation at the Radisson Plaza last summer by Michael Kaiser, president of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and author of “The Art of the Turnaround: Creating and Maintaining Healthy Arts Organizations.” When asked about cutting back on the number of productions, Kaiser said, simply, don’t.
“If you’re giving people less chances to come (by offering fewer choices), you’ll make less money,” Weiner says.
Other considerations given closer looks these days include the cost for the number of sets each production would require to have built, how many wigs and costume changes, how many performers and technicians. What would be the bill for royalty fees for the legal rights to perform those plays? Should they adjust ticket prices? (Most said no, or if they did raise prices, not by much.)
“Certainly, as with all theaters in town, we’ve had plays we’ve put on the back burner — the royalties were too expensive or the sets too costly,” says Jennifer Furney, general manager of the New Vic Theatre, which in June sent out an e-mail to previous financial supporters asking for help to erase a $150,000 debt.
So theater managers, less like free-spirited artistes and more like air traffic controllers, have looked at scheduling. To put on more-expensive productions, such as “Annie” or “The Drowsy Chaperone,” which the Kalamazoo Civic Theatre will stage as part of its upcoming season, “we need to plan around them,” manager Kristen Chesak explains. “We do a couple of (less costly) shows up front to pay for it.”
“It’s a jigsaw puzzle,” WMU’s Herrington agrees. Consider a production such as “My One and Only,” a musical featuring songs by George and Ira Gershwin that was discussed for the 2009-2010 season and now will be performed by the theater department this November.
“It has rain, it has period costumes,” Herrington notes, contemplating some of its higher-than-average costs to stage. “So you hold it over to next season and figure what can accompany it.”
In other words, a period show — with potentially lavish sets to be built and period wigs and costumes to be contracted and/or made — could be buttressed by contemporary pieces that require easily obtainable clothes and furniture used today.
WMU has the additional challenge that its sets and costumes are constructed by its students. “How many hours does it take to build a (play by Russian playwright Anton) Chekhov? if you’re going to do a Chekhov in the fall, the next play has to be contemporary.”
Herrington adds audiences for WMU shows “are creeping back,” after “a very bad” 2008-2009 season.
“We’re all having to consider, will people come to this? Will it sell?,” Furney says. And one thing that managers and directors are counting on is more comedies. Just as movie goers flocked to screwball comedies during the Great Depression, laughter may bring more audiences to the theater.
 “We’re certainly choosing more comedies than five years ago,” the Civic’s Chesak admits. Its 2010-2011 season will include Moliere’s 17th century “Tartuffe,” along with other upbeat productions such as “Annie,” “You Can’t Take It With You,” “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and the slapstick “Leading Ladies.”
Jennifer Furney quotes her husband and New Vic artistic director, James Furney, as contending that “People want entertainment right now. They don’t need to be taught a lesson. … They want humor.”
In that light, the New Vic, whose season runs the calendar year, will continue with Alan Ayckbourn’s fast-pace “The Norman Conquests” comedic trilogy — first performed there in 1982. It also will present “A Christmas Carol” and a revue, “Wish List …,” which harkens back to the company’s start in the 1960s as a coffee house, The Side Door.
“All across the country,” Weiner notes, “theater companies are looking toward the familiar and the funny.” Farmers Alley will do its bit to lighten audience’s moods with “The Marvelous Wonderettes” — billed as a female “Forever Plaid” — “Urinetown” and Jeff Daniels’s “Escanaba in da Moonlight.” A musical version of Paddy Chayefsky’s wedding-planning teleplay, “A Catered Affair,” now with a book by “Torch Song Trilogy’s” Harvey Fierstein, is “filled with hope,” Weiner promises.
But he also insists that theater companies need “to mix (those) shows with the unfamiliar. You’ve got to further your artistic mission.” Which is why Farmers Alley, which projects this season will eclipse last season’s 81% capacity, also will stage more serious fare, too, such as “Blood Brothers,” about social-class conflict within a family.
The Kalamazoo Civic will leaven its laughs with the edge-of-your-seat thriller “Wait Until Dark” and Thorton Wilder’s wistful “Our Town.”
“You can’t do a full season of screwball comedies,” Herrington agrees. In addition to feel-good shows such as “My One and Only” and “Rent,” WMU will tackle “In the Blood,” a retelling of “The Scarlet Letter,” and “So Far From God,” focusing on brothers in the aftermath of the 1846 Mexican War.
She adds WMU’s theater department, along with its pedagogical mission to give students a “sophisticated experience,” has to sell tickets “just as the Civic does, just as Steppenwolf (in Chicago) does.” Otherwise, “we can’t afford to do another season,” as the department is “very largely self-supported.”
“Is it valuable to do a pop-rock musical before (theater students) move to New York? Yes, it is. Will it sell tickets? Yes, it will.”
But whether light or darker fare, mostly theater companies will rely on “what we can do well,” Chesak at the Civic says.
“If you do good work, people will come,” Weiner concurs.
Adds Furney: “Kalamazoo has always been such a cool town, for its size. We don’t want to see that go away. I have faith in our community.”

Waiting in the wings
Here’s where to go for complete schedules of shows on tap for some of the area’s theaters:
• Center Stage Theatre, Comstock,, 388-9381
• Farmers Alley,, 343-2727
• Kalamazoo Civic Theatre,, 343-2280
• Kalamazoo College Department of Theatre,, 337-7000
• New Vic Theatre,, 381-3328
• Portage Players, Hayloft Theatre, 873-0242
• Red Barn, Saugatuck,, 857-5300
• The Barn,, 7731-4121
• Western Michigan University Department of Theatre,, 387-3220

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