At a Profile Theatre event in early May, I happened into a conversation with Daniel Pollack-Pelzner, the esteemed theater professor and journalist, and Dámaso Rodríguez, who at that time was an arts consultant but had been artistic director at Artists Repertory Theatre and has since been named AD at the much larger Seattle Rep.
We were chatting about the troubling plight of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which, a few weeks earlier, had issued an emergency fundraising plea, saying that it needed $2.5 million in order to make it through the 2023 season.
“You know, it’s not just Ashland,” I recall Rodríguez saying. “Companies all over the country are in crisis like this.”
I was a bit taken aback by the comment. Though I trusted Rodríguez’ insider knowledge, I was surprised; it had seemed to me that, though the theater industry clearly was sluggish in getting back on its feet after being walloped by the Covid pandemic, it seemed to have avoided widespread mortality among its producing organizations.
Since then, however, the field has been hit with a pandemic of bad news. As American Theatre magazine recently summarized: “significant layoffs at New York City’s Public Theater and Dallas Theater Center, season ‘pauses’ at L.A.’s Mark Taper Forum and Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre Company … not to mention a cascade of closures” (some dating back to 2020) from Chicago storefront companies to Bay Area Children’s Theatre, Seattle’s Book-It to the vaunted Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville.
Just in the past few weeks here in Portland, Oregon Children’s Theatre delayed the start of its coming season until 2024 (in effect, canceling one large fall production) and Artists Rep announced a “strategic suspension of production” for the 2023-’24 season.
That dark overview from America Theater was published in late July, and it pointed out that, in contrast to the most recent two periods of widespread crisis for the industry, following the 9/11 attacks of 2001 and the housing-bubble bust of 2008, we’re now facing neither war nor recession.
“Why is this happening?,” wrote Michael Paulson, in an article for The New York Times the day before the American Theatre missive. “Costs are up, the government assistance that kept many theaters afloat at the height of the pandemic has mostly been spent, and audiences are smaller than they were before the pandemic, a byproduct of shifting lifestyles (less commuting, more streaming), some concern about the downtown neighborhoods in which many large nonprofit theaters are situated (worries about public safety), and broken habits (many former patrons, particularly older people, have not returned) … said Christopher Moses, an artistic director of the Alliance Theater in Atlanta. “It’s clear this is the hardest time to be producing nonprofit theater, maybe in the history of the nonprofit movement.”
Left: Cynthia Fuhrman. Photo: Gary Norman. Right: Dámaso Rodríguez. Photo: Lava Alapai.
A couple of weeks before these large examinations were issued, I tried to take a simpler sort of temperature reading, reaching out to the Portlander I thought might be best equipped to offer perspective on the unfolding trauma. Cynthia Fuhrman, much like Rodríguez, moved from theater leadership in Portland (as managing director of Portland Center Stage) to a role as a national arts consultant (vice president for executive search with the Tom O’Connor Consulting Group).
Her long career at companies in Ashland, Massachusetts and Seattle, as well as involvement on the board of the national organization Theatre Communications Group, have given her a network of connections and the accumulated wisdom that comes of broad experience.
Overall, Fuhrman’s diagnosis was much the same as that arrived at by both American Theatre and The Times.
“The very first summer of Covid, we were able to get a good allocation from the state and from Save Our Stages, the big national fund, and that money gave us a longer on-ramp for reopening,” she recalled about the situation at PCS. But once those funds dried up, theaters had to rely again on ticket sales and donations. “And if both those are being compromised, then it’s difficult.”
Even before the pandemic, many corporate and institutional donors began shifting from the arts toward funding other priorities in social and racial justice, public health, the climate crisis and other areas. “Individual donations are driven by attendees,” she noted, “and so, if attendance is down…
“The fundamentals of the economy are getting stronger, but people are still skittish.”
Cost is a factor, but so are safety and convenience. The theatergoing audience skews older (surprise!) and therefore more likely to be more cautious about returning to public gatherings out of health concerns. Fuhrman also cited the increased availability of quality drama on television, and the change in working and commuting patterns.
“One of the shifts of the pandemic was people working from home and not being in the central city, where most of the venues are. It’s one thing to be downtown at work and see a show and then go home. It’s different being at home and then having to go downtown and find parking and all.”
And that audience dynamic isn’t just about day-of-show concerns. “The arc of audience attendance is real,” Fuhrman said. “You have to invest in getting kids when they’re in high school and college, exposing them to theater as something fun to do, a habit they might enjoy as they get older. But that former arc, where they work hard in their twenties and then settle down, buy a house and start getting involved in the cultural life of wherever they live – well, often they don’t own houses at 40 anymore because that’s become so much more expensive. And that changes the entire arc of how they might spend their time and their money through the years.”
Meanwhile, as the ticket market softens, rising costs make producing theater harder. You might think of the steep rise in lumber prices when it comes to housing, but that affects theater companies (who, after all, build sets) too. Amid the general clamor for greater economic justice, theaters are having to confront inequities in their own operations, too, trying to find ways to pay living wages to all the artists and technical and support workers they employ. The use of unpaid internships to compensate for inadequate budgets also is increasingly frowned upon. “It’s completely right that that be done away with,” Fuhrman said. “But it’s a huge budget adjustment.”
All the same, as she said in this interview as well as in others I’ve conducted with her, “a budget is a moral document; it’s where your values show.”
“The problems aren’t the same across the board,” Fuhrman noted. “Interestingly, the theaters that were closed the least amount of time are recovering the fastest – and I think that speaks to the issue of habit-loss. Companies on the West Coast and in major cities, where the closures went on longer, have had a different experience from those in some other parts of the country.
“… Every theater has to tackle it a little differently. But I’m not going to second-guess how anybody is making the tough decisions to get through this.”
(For readers particularly interested in these issues, I’d also recommend a contrary take published in a Washington Post opinion piece that argues for direct funding of artists rather than continuation of the current hub-and-spoke regional-theater ecosystem.)
Fuhrman, for her part, finds solace in the long view.
“I still have optimism,” she said. “I’m old enough that I’ve seen several recessions and downturns when we had to contract and then build back up until the next thing happens in the economy.”
When it comes to the Anonymous Theatre Company, who knows?
Well, in the case of its 2023 production, The Pirates of Penzance, I suppose that’d be director Sarah Jane Hardy (whose work you may know from Northwest Children’s Theatre, where she’s artistic director), musical director Mont Chris Hubbard and choreographer Elizabeth Young. They’ve worked with not just the material – the famously frothy comic operetta by Gilbert and Sullivan – but with the cast members. So they know.
But everyone else, even the cast members themselves, find out who is in the show as the show takes place. The casting process has been secretive, the rehearsals (if that’s quite the right word) have been individual. And the mystery and suspense are … an absolute delight. The show begins, and actors generally deliver their first line from a seat in the audience before clambering onstage to get into the action. So the familiar local actor sitting next to you might be just someone else out for a fun night in the theater, or she might be the leading lady – and even in the latter case, she’s only slightly more in the know than you are!
The seat-of-the-pants nature of the whole affair can make for somewhat tentative, wobbly performances and/or remarkable freshness and immediacy. And in this case, there’s pretty much equal entertainment value either way.
So what’s to know?
Anonymous Theatre is one of the highlights of a Portland summer.
Sophina Flores’ Ritual Treatment, from Roots and All Theatre Ensemble, just completed a three-week run in Portland State University’s Boiler Room Theatre, but now gets time for further development in Fuse Theatre Ensemble’s Atelier Festival, in the cozy confines of the Back Door Theatre on Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard.
Sprinkled amid film screenings, panel discussions and the like, play readings also are a key part of the second annual Pacific Northwest Multi Cultural Readers Series & Film Festival, produced by the long-running Black theater company PassinArt and going on through Sunday at the Doubletree by Hilton hotel in the Lloyd District.
Sometimes closures aren’t signs of trouble, but merely a necessary part of theater’s normal cycle of life: glitter to glitter, dust to dust, you might say. After this weekend, it’ll be Lakewood’s oldies-reviving musical The Marvelous Wonderettes, Broadway Rose’s updated Cinderella, and Oregon Adventure Theatre’s Julius Caesar (which closes with a performance around an overnight campout at Milo-McIver State Park) all returning to replenish the soil.
The flattened stage
The best line I read this week
“What folly is it in me to write trash nobody will read. All my many pages – future waste paper – surely I am a fool.” – Mary Shelley
That’s all I have for now. I’ll try to do better the next time.