Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Theater on a shoestring

One of the things that worries me about our current soon-to-be economic depression is that it might kill big chunks of the theater community. Theater survives on love as much as money; it works because every single person involved is willing to do whatever it takes to make it happen. Already in the last few years, I've seen performing companies take hits, but the only people who are readily aware of it are the people doing the actual work. One company I know of has had their traditional four days of in-theater tech and rehearsal time turn into two days, then into one day. The show still happens, and the audiences would never know the difference, but the process has gotten stressful and painful for the people doing the work. It's the way of life in the theater -- the show must go on, at any personal cost to the people involved. Staff and performers and volunteers do things that would be considered insane in nearly any other endeavor, putting forth tremendous, often last-minute efforts to make the show happen. We mostly started learning this in school, where tech weeks were extreme and stressful, and the show always somehow managed to happen in spite of it all. And it continued into our professional careers, the vaguely seat-of-the-pants vibe that all shows seem to have.

But it's been this way for so long -- staff and performers and volunteers doing excellent work under extreme stress -- that it's become almost the normal operating mode for the performing arts. The people at the top of the biz (as a friend of mine says, "the people who shower before work, rather than after") don't realize how much coping happens in the trenches, how tight things truly are for the people doing the work. So they keep cutting, because it never seems to matter; they cut, and the show seems to go on regardless.

And this is the reason why theater is in a position where it will take a heavy hit in the economic downturn. It's already stretched and stressed to a degree that most industries couldn't survive. I've already seen little instances of people leaving the biz, or curtailing their involvement, because the stress finally surpassed the payoff. And I know a distressing number of serious professionals in the field who are looking for a way to get out, searching for some other job that pays better and provides more security with less constant stress and more respect.

And none of these are high hurdles. Better pay is easy; fast food would be a lateral move for the majority of people in the performing arts. Security is a hard thing to come by these days, but the arts have even less than the norm; a lot of jobs are seasonal contracts, so it's not a matter of keeping your job, it's a matter of hoping to get re-hired for it, season to season. Stress is everywhere, too, but I suspect theater is worse than most, the stress of short-term, hard-deadline, improvisational work with demanding, occasionally neurotic management, repeating itself with every new show. And respect is its own issue; between often top-heavy management cutting budgets and schedules from the bottom, and decreasing audiences, it's easy to feel thankless and unappreciated.

When the people that make the magic happen start leaving, it's going to get that much harder for the people remaining. And the snowball effect might even overbalance the constant influx of new people who love the performing arts so much, they're willing to do the stressful work for the low pay. So far, the most troubled theater and performing companies seem to be getting hit from the top; when a company folds, it's because expense and debt have outpaced income. But I don't think it'll be long until we see companies drying up from the bottom, when there aren't enough dedicated people to produce quality shows that attract audiences and donors. From the outside, and probably from the front office, it'll look the same -- not enough money to keep the doors open. But the money will be a symptom, not the cause....

1 comment:

NerfSmuggler said...

I think the whole problem with cuts to a theater budget is that the experience is not quantifiable. It's not like some product made on an assembly line which clearly malfunctions or can be demonstrated to be of unsafe construction.

Less rehearsal time means the first few shows get lots of notes and become, in essence, dress rehearsals. The more talented and experienced people leave but there will always be a newer, younger crop -- if people weren't willing to do this for free, there wouldn't be community theater.

So the bar gets lowered. The new people don't realize that they are missing needed rehearsal and they are generally facing a steeper learning curve so they won't absorb as much in the shortened rehearsal schedule -- bar goes even lower.

The audiences will notice and less funding comes in -- the vicious cycle is complete. Instead of a 2D circle, think death spiral.