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Hard Times

December 31, 2008

The recession is hurting A.C.T. and others

On December 14, I received an e-mail from a theater director friend. It had been forwarded to her from an actor, who had in turn received it from a Shakespeare Santa Cruz (SSC) insider. "Shakespeare Santa Cruz — the theater in the redwoods that has been around for 27 years — is in major financial trouble," the message read. "If $300,000 isn't raised by next Monday, December 22, the theater will close its doors for good."

Hardly a week goes by when a theater company in this country doesn't threaten to give up the greasepaint. Even in economically affluent times, it's not unusual for performing arts organizations to go under. But over the last few months, news of the SSC variety has become alarmingly frequent.

Earlier this month, the South Bay's 74-year-old musical theater bastion, American Musical Theater of San Jose, shut down, citing a variety of factors including the plummeting economy. Traveling Jewish Theatre came back from the brink of bankruptcy this year but was forced to close its latest show, The Last Yiddish Poet, early, blaming poor ticket sales and a lack of media coverage. At Berkeley Repertory Theatre, ticket sales have held strong, but contributions and corporate donations (which constitute 50 percent of the company's income) tumbled throughout the fall, according to executive director Susie Medak. Meanwhile, American Conservatory Theater (ACT) has canceled next spring's second-stage production as well as its First Look contemporary play series, choosing instead to develop new work via the ACT Masters program. "Subscription earnings are down 11 percent," says Heather Kitchen, ACT's executive director. "But the biggest effect that the economy has had on our finances is through our endowment. A year ago, ACT would have expected to draw approximately $1.2 to $1.5 million in this fiscal year. With the downturn this fall, we were only able to draw $160,000, and our expectation is that the endowment will remain underwater for the next couple of years."

With the overall U.S. economy behaving like King Lear at his most poor, bare, and fork'd, it's no surprise that the performing arts should be going the way of Cordelia. "In times of recession, people are likely to cut back on the amount they go to performances, as well as the amount they spend on tickets when they do go," says Cynthia Kroll, senior regional economist at UC Berkeley's Fisher Center for Real Estate and Urban Economics. "Arts organizations, which already run tight operations, are seeing fewer donations. Plus their endowments are way down because much of the money is in stock."

Theater companies all over the country are suffering. In late October, the Milwaukee Shakespeare Company closed after losing a major donor. In November, New York's Public Theater announced that it would be postponing the world premiere of John Guare's A Free Man of Color, citing a funding deficit. In December, South Carolina's Charleston Stage, facing a near 50 percent decline in donations, cut salaries and laid off employees.

Even the for-profit sector is in trouble. By the end of January, six popular Broadway musicals including Hairspray, Grease, and Spring Awakening will have prematurely shut down. Disney Theatricals, the producer of such crowd-pleasers as Mary Poppins and The Lion King, is even offering free children's tickets next month.

Meanwhile, performing arts organizations in San Francisco are likely to see their public subsidies slashed by the city, which is facing a $575.6 million deficit next year. "We are in a deep financial crisis and need to cut $120 million out of the budget right now," says Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who recently called for cutting civic funding of the symphony, opera, and ballet by 50 percent to mitigate the city's budget shortfall. "It's tough choosing among one's children, but the symphony, opera, and ballet have healthy endowments and are more likely to be able to go to the private sector to offset their reductions than people who rely on the city's safety net services like San Francisco General Hospital." Mayor Gavin Newsom opposes Peskin's radical debasement of the city's arts funding, but is proposing a 7 percent cut to the aforementioned institutions as well as ACT, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Exploratorium.

Despite the fact that many Bay Area theater companies — particularly those with larger operating budgets — are faring badly, some smaller companies are doing okay. Berkeley's Aurora Theatre just announced a 2,600-foot expansion project, and Intersection for the Arts recently received a $1.5 million grant from the Hewlett Foundation. Meanwhile, organizations like the Climate, the Marsh, and the Exit Theatre run such bare-bones enterprises anyway that they're ironically immune to the worst of the financial tailspin.

"I don't see us cutting down on the number of shows — four hundred — we do each year," says Stephanie Weisman, artistic director at the Marsh.

"Our ticket prices are low and we keep our expenses low, so I am hoping to ride out the storm without a huge drop-off," says the Climate's artistic director, Jessica Heidt.

"In the ecology of the theater world, small venues are perceived as being at the bottom," says Christina Augello, artistic director of the Exit, who says Fringe Festival applications and attendance increased by nearly 20 percent this year. "Like most bottom feeders, whether it's sunny or stormy up top we just keep swimming along."

During the week leading up to Shakespeare Santa Cruz' day of reckoning, missives of hope and foreboding came pouring in. "This is very sad news," Tom Stoppard empathized on the company's online message board. Olympia Dukakis wrote, "I think it's always important to remember why you are doing something. Not for the theater, but for society, for the larger community that you share." Doubtless fueled by a belief in these same values (not to mention the viral power of e-mail), the community rallied fiercely around the ailing company. Shortly after noon on December 22, Shakespeare Santa Cruz announced that it had exceeded its target by $116,417 thanks to gifts from more than 2,000 individual donors.

The ax won't fell those redwoods today, which is great news. As for tomorrow, who knows?


  • Traditional theater is going to have a tough time for the next two years. Enjoyed hearing about the Climate/Marsh/Exit as these spots and other bare bones spaces (Off-Market, The Garage) will weather the storm no problem, namely because people still want entertainment, they just want it for cheap, and these guys can provide.
    Thanks for this Chloe, well done as usual.

    By Blogger Carl Benson, At January 7, 2009 at 10:58 AM  

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