Thursday, January 22, 2009

Is the model broken?

For folks who don't read comments, below is a post from Rick St. Peter. So, what do you think, is the model broken?

Mill Mountain Theatre in Roanoke announced it was closing to "reorganize" effective today.

You could almost change the name of the theatre to TVA and it reads like the same article. In light of what is going on across the country with theatre's dropping like flies (in the last year, we've lost: Studio Arena in Buffalo, Theatre de la Juene Lune in Minneapolis 3 years after winning the Regional theatre Tony Award, Milwaukee Shakes, San Jose Music Theatre, Seaside Music Theatre, North Shore Music Theatre, Samford Theatre Works in Connecticut, Mill Mountain now in Roanoke...

The Magic Theatre and Shakespeare Santa Cruz barely survived emergency fund raising calls, Temple Theatre where I just did Hamlet announced while we were in tech that they needed $150k to make it through the remainder of the season, I just had to completely restructure my Spring season here...)

Is the not-for-profit regional professional theatre movement going the way of the dinosaur? I know there has been like 784 petitions circulating for a "Secretary of the Arts" position but I wonder, with all the trouble the country is currently in, will the arts get lost in the cacaphony of the economy? How do we make our case when Circuit City is laying off 30,000 employees? The Arts clearly are not a priority in this country and we have yet to find a way in to making them so.

Dave, this harkens back to your posting of the survey and my cavalier response to it. Despite study after study that shows both the extrinsic and instrinsic value of having a healthy arts scene in your community, still we struggle for a fingertip hold and are constantly having to justify our existence...We are perceived as being "elitist", too expensive, to remote etc etc etc while cities fall all over themselves to build billion dollar sports stadiums with luxury boxes that I would have to fork over like 2 months salary just to be able to sit in and yet WE are elitist?

Is the model broken...all the talks on this blog center around Barksdale one day becoming a LORT theatre, which I think is an impossibility given the size of the Willow Lawn space, but I also think the LORT model is broken...We are going back to a pre-reigonal theatre revolution America where we will have theatre's in the big cities, New York, DC, Chicago etc and nothing that what we want? Does anyone else think it ridiculous that the LORT model is broke and we need to apologize for wanting to pay actors a whopping salary of like $600/w with some benefits?


Rick St. Peter said...

Dave...clearly I need an editor! And a proofreader and a spell checker and probably many more things. I guess my rant could be localized around Barksdale to use it as an example, since they are the main house in town and here, for me, is the paradox:

Why wouldn't Barksdale Theatre want to be a LORT theatre and at the same time, why on Earth WOULD Barksdale want to be a LORT theatre? For at least 30+ years, LORT has kind of been the standard, even when Theatre IV had something like 2 times the budget of TVA, TVA was always perceived as the "big house" in town...maybe because of the New York-based casting or whatever. When I go to the TCG conferences, I feel like I am relegated to the children's table while the adults sit around the big table...when you see grant funding from foundations, the NEA all disproportionately goes to LORT maybe this is some sour grapes on my part but the one thing TheatreVirginia proved, and I am sure it happens everywhere, is that LORT (like Equity) didn't necessarily translate to quality...some of the deadliest nights I have ever had in the theatre have been at Actors Theatre of Louisville, TheatreVirginia, Virginia Stage Company and the Shakespeare Theatre.

OK, I'm off on the wrong tangent. As an artistic director/producer, my goal is to pay everyone who works with me as much as I possibly can. I always found that to be the case with Bruce and Phil, after TVA closed, Bruce went out of his way to help me get some work (Laramie would have never happened with out Theatre IV and RTP but Bruce initiated it all by calling me out of the blue, if I remember correctly). I am making a decent, not great middle class wage to do the job I do, it is my desire and dream to have everyone working around me making something similar for the work they are doing. Is that wrong? If I could be a LORT theatre tomorrow, I would think I would want to...and yet:

It is such a headache because we are not properly funded, we are held hostage by the whims of the box office, the more people you are responsible for paying, the more people you need to attract to your theatre so the more vanilla your producing has to become to attract the widest net possible. When you get in trouble, the first thing your board wants to do is cut cut cut and the first place they cut is what goes on can't cut the development people, you can't cut the marketing people, but we can do a season of 2 person shows...YAY! (Sarcasm intended)...

Check out this article:,0,3232296.story What the hell other business is there were we would ask people to work for a month without pay. Did the CEO of Circuit City do that while trying to balance their budget? Wait, I'm ranting again...there is no thesis here, there is disillusionment here. Starting on my first day on staff at Barksdale Theatre in late 1999, as Ella and Her Fella, Frank was wrapping up its run, through my 1 1/2 at TVA and now more than 5 years at AGL, the theatre I have been working at has had money problems literally every single day...How creative can you be with running your theatre when you are constantly scraping just to get by?

Someone, anyone, help come up with an new model...Please...

I will now go have some cheese with my whine...

Peace and Goodnight

'Rick Gray said...

Obviously, Mill Mountain's closing hits close to home. I was privileged to see one of its final productions -- last summer's "Into the Woods" -- which was, on the whole, well done. But here's the thing: My best friend was offered an Equity card to do the show -- as were several other cast members. A theatre in that much financial pain doesn't need to be giving out Equity cards to non-Eq actors -- however worthy. It needs to drop its affiliation with AEA.

Here's a prediction: Given the economy, President Obama will have unusual freedom of action on issues relating to struggling families. We may finally get health care -- on some gradual model.

The arts community, which backed the President to the hilt, should ask that actors and other performing artists be given an opportunity to get access to health care EARLY in the process. Perhaps the ability to buy into Medicare at some modest rate.

That would help. But whatever the process, I predict most actors will have access to affordable health care within a few years.

That, in addition to the financial pressure on theatres, might well combine to allow/compel most regional theatres to break away from AEA.

And assuming health benefits are available elsewhere, whatever would be wrong with that.

I agree with Rick St. Peter that some of the worst theatre I have ever seen was on big-name LORT stages who hired NY actors to bring a little class to town. I remember several shows at TVA where I could almost see the actors waiting to get off stage to phone their agents and ask what the hell they were doing in this burg!

I've belonged to Equity, twice, but have long since given it up as a bad deal. Unless you are one of a very small, super-talented elite in your hometown, you don't work. As more and more theatres go to two-actor shows, the competition only grows.

But the only way an actor improves is by working constantly.

Equity could make some provision for actors who choose to live and work in smaller markets, but I don't think the people in charge have ever been outside Manhattan.

I'm a proud member of SAG, a union with sense enough to allow actors some flexibility in order to make a living. The "made-in-played-in" rule for actors in right-to-work states is a lifesaver.

But Equity has no flexibility, no sense of "fly-over" America. Equity deserves the fate it has prepared for itself.

Bottom line: I predict that, within four years, most actors will have access to health care without needed to join Equity. I predict that a great many LORT theatres will drop their union affiliation, while doing their best to pay and treat actors well.
And I predict that the Barksdale will never join LORT.

All of which is not to say that a new business model isn't needed. But how hard is that, really? Last I heard, opera was doing well all over the country -- and with younger audiences.

Hollywood is producing more and more stuff for adolescents. TV is truly a wasteland. If we can't figure out a way to get people into theatres, we just aren't trying.