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November 21, 2008


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I'm on the email list for one company you might be talking about- I got an email this week from them asking their patrons to donate because they're facing the possibility of having to cancel their next show. I won't name them, but my jaw hit my chest while I was reading the email. This is absolutely the last company I would have guessed would be in that serious a financial situation. This company does work I generally admire, and has what I'd have thought was a substantial enough following to sustain itself through single ticket sales even if corporate or government funding fell through. My thought process was something along the lines of "Holy shit, *they're* having trouble?! What the hell chance have the rest of us got?" How bad of a lean time is the non-profit arts sector heading into? Or already in? Is this going to be the recession that finally kills theatre as we know it in America, and long live the glowing TV or computer screen? I know better- I have to believe that live performance in some form will always be important to humanity- but it's still a sobering thing to contemplate.

Re your question about market saturation- there are both too many theatre companies and too few. Too many for the market to bear, but too few for all the artists in town to do the work they want to, which is why new ones constantly form. If every theatre in town charged no money for tickets and sought no corporate funding whatsoever, there would be room for everyone- and much better audience attendance, I'd wager. Unfortunately, to produce even a show with no costumes, sets, etc., and with actors and staff working for free, still costs a shitload of money because you have to pay for the rights (if you're not doing an original work or something public domain) and a space, and you've got to try to make that back *somehow*. That's why there will always be more improv groups than theatre companies- no rights issues to worry about, no sets, and if they perform at a bar or cut a deal with IO or whoever they don't have to rent. Maybe theatre companies will have to become more like improv groups (or bands?) to survive- perform only work they develop themselves, with little to no technical requirements that they literally can do anywhere, whether it's at some random bar, bookstore or candy shop, and migrate even more than they have to now (i.e., only a night or two at a time at any given venue).

Not necessarily a bad thing (good art can still happen in that environment, and becoming that lean, mean and adaptable could be good for some troupes), though that leaves designers out in the cold. I bet the Jeff Committee would be thrilled though. Just think, no more having to cram themselves into weird little storefronts just because some young upstart company has technically fulfilled the requirements for them to have to attend and judge, or having to be at the theatre six nights a week! There wouldn't be enough eligible companies left to make it necessary.

Eric Ziegenhagen

A few weeks ago, I was in a local coffeeshop a few doors down from a fairly new theater space. The barista said that someone from that theater had been in to buy coffee, and she had asked about their current show and asked how she could see it. He said that tickets were $18, or else that she could usher. Unless this company is already selling out their shows, this seems like the kind of business sense that only exists with a subsidized theater (versus giving free or discount tickets to someone like this, the very people who could spread the word about the show).

The fact that Schubas and the Hideout aren't going out of business indicates to me that the problem isn't a saturation of theaters but only that the non-profit business models of the past 30 years may not be the most successful ones at present. If we go through an era in which none of us want to pay $25 for a storefront show, then the best shows will emerge from living rooms or bars or public gardens. Theater will survive.


Ed...I too received the email from that unnamed company. What they may be feeling is the downside of how much money it takes to produce the sorts of work they produce. If you'll pardon the poker metaphor, thus far this company has seen great dividends by going all-in with very strong hands...but it seems that this time they may have run into a very bad beat.

I was not surprised by the ask--everybody does an ask this time of year. I was surprised by the tone of the ask, and I hope it doesn't hurt them more than it helps them...the scent of desperation can drive people away if they worry that their donation is just delaying something inevitable.


I put a response to the question here:


Mark Jeffries

Yesterday I saw a cast member of that unnamed company's show (who is not a member of said unnamed company), who told me that the show is most likely going to happen.

I say this knowing that the intense negative feelings held towards unnamed company by some is not going to be quelled by this bit of information.

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  • Kris Vire
    I write about theater for Time Out Chicago. I write more about it here.

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