Before the market became particularly volatile, theaters were already in challenging economic model. Accepting poverty isn't a problem. In fact, small theaters in New York City exist in a state of constant poverty, through a combination of the restrictive Showcase Code and union tiers, a lack of adequate arts funding at the federal level, high rental prices, and the difficulty of finding and exciting new audiences.
It's the more successful institutions that get the funding love and get the strings attached. Generous new grants seems to rain down primarily on companies like the Public; companies that are adding power to an already powerful brand. Nonetheless, they all depend on the liquidity and goodwill of private institutions. The more a non-profit theater grows, the more it relies on a smaller and smaller list of larger and larger funding sources. Ticket sales are a small part of the math, especially as you become a larger company.
The market has gone south. The economy has been "maybe in a recession" for a year. In New York, the state provides more arts funding than the NEA does. New York State just declared that it was in a financial hole. Off-Off / "Indie" companies may feel the heat and their company member's respective day jobs; but it's the larger institutions that are being punished for growth. We all want small theaters to become flush with cash; but the cash is tied to the invested endowments of families and foundations. When the market tanks, the first to go are organizations that are mid-sized, growing, and successful.
Essentially, you can't move, in our current economic model, from a successful small theater with a solid audience and few paychecks to a larger, more stable institution where the actors get $400 a week without a steady infusion of cash from private funders. In this way, instead of theaters becoming successful on the merits of their work, or the priorities of the society, their survival is about not only courting private funds, but the health of those institutions - something theaters have no control over.
This is the free market for theater producers and actors alike: want to get paid? Pray for the health and safety of Phillip Morris.
- Matthew Freeman is a Brooklyn based playwright with a BFA from Emerson College. His plays include THE DEATH OF KING ARTHUR, REASONS FOR MOVING, THE GREAT ESCAPE, THE AMERICANS, THE WHITE SWALLOW, AN INTERVIEW WITH THE AUTHOR, THE MOST WONDERFUL LOVE, WHEN IS A CLOCK, GLEE CLUB, THAT OLD SOFT SHOE and BRANDYWINE DISTILLERY FIRE. He served as Assistant Producer and Senior Writer for the live webcast from Times Square on New Year's Eve 2010-2012. As a freelance writer, he has contributed to Gamespy, Premiere, Complex Magazine, Maxim Online, and MTV Magazine. His plays have been published by Playscripts, Inc., New York Theatre Experience, and Samuel French.