A Vicious Small Theater Cycle

[BACKSTAGE is a series of posts focusing on the ‘Inside Baseball’ of the theater.]

This week on air, I ran a preview of the theater I’m looking forward to in Los Angeles this spring. Now, most of the shows listed are either from our presenting houses (RedCat, The Broad etc.)  or our bigger theaters (Center Theater Group, The Geffen). Underrepresented are our intimate theaters. Why?

backstage-with-anthony-byrnesThere are a couple of easy reasons, and they are part of what plagues small theater in L.A.

Take a minute to think of your favorite three intimate theaters in L.A.  Got them? (You have at least three favorite small theaters, right?)

Okay, go to their websites and tell me what’s playing through July.

My guess (and my personal experience) tells me that you probably can’t figure it out. Maybe you can find the next show or what’s playing now but what about the next two shows? Maybe you couldn’t even find listings for this year because the website still reflects shows from the fall. Or if the theater’s got its act together maybe you know the next show but it doesn’t start till March. What do you go see now?

Now, this isn’t universal. There are some small theaters that have a season announced and a website that’s up to date but . . . my guess is at least two of your three favorite theaters came up short.

Why? The answer is pretty simple: time, money, and priorities.

It’s no secret that L.A.’s intimate theater is tragically underfunded. These scrappy nonprofits are making do with limited philanthropic money,  favors, and the donated time of staff (either in accepting vastly less than their worth or by working for free). We’ve spent a lot of time in the past year talking about actors working for next to nothing, but it gets even worse when we talk about the folks backstage who are keeping the ship afloat, the folks responsible for those websites you just checked.

The folks in charge of these small theaters are underfunded, understaffed, and probably close to burnt out. Most, though not all, got into theater to make plays not to update a website or reconcile Quickbooks (accidental administrator syndrome). And when given the choice, who wouldn’t rather spend time on the art?

Couple that with the fact that they probably don’t have enough money to fund a full season of plays and are desperately trying to figure out where the money’s going to come from for this show  much less the next three!?!  And we haven’t even talked about whether there are three scripts that are good enough or right for this particular company that are worthy of a production.

It’s a mess.

But then a company finally does produce a show, maybe for a six-week run, and they wonder, “Hey, where’s the audience?”

Contrast that with virtually any other entertainment choice. You might not have seen the latest “Star Wars” film but five seconds on Google can tell you the release date for the next “Star Wars” film.  Netflix? Sports?  You get my point.

Small theater is caught in a vicious cycle. With little time and not much money, it’s hard to plan. If you don’t plan well into the future, you make it harder for an audience to find you and commit to you.  If an audience doesn’t come, it’s harder to convert audience members into donors and tougher to justify grants. If you don’t have contribution income, it’s hard to plan into the future . . . (lather, rinse, repeat).

So what’s the answer?

Over the next weeks, I’m going to try to tackle that question. While theater is in competition for time and attention with all the other entertainment options (film, TV, the Internet, sitting quietly at home, etc.) I do not believe theaters are really in competition with each other.  There’s a lot of evidence to suggest otherwise (Big List data in L.A., audience patterns in other “theater” cities, etc). Couple that with the reality that no one theater in Los Angeles is doing enough work to support an audience (not even CTG or the Geffen) and the first step seems pretty clear: collaboration.

What if every theater in Los Angeles shared the goal of supporting a city-wide theater audience?

Would those three websites you checked a minute ago look different (especially if the theater didn’t have a show they were producing now)?

I think they would.

And, I think it would make a difference.