Open a New Window: The Future of Florida Theater – Part Three

Director Michael Leeds rehearses the cast of Island City Stage’s upcoming The Niceties

By Bill Hirschman

“White = a blank page or canvas; his favorite; so many possibilities.”
          –Sondheim & Lapine, Sunday in the Park With George

Then there’s the people on the other side of the footlights.

The amount of available work with traditional structured companies will shrink, as noted earlier, because the size of casts and possibly number of shows in a season will diminish for at least a season or two. It’s more likely you’ll see The Gin Game rather than Hairspray.

Some opportunities – still with small casts — might multiply if informal artist collectives spring up with less intent on making a profit and more devotion to simply expressing their creative soul. But professionals who viscerally need to perform may find themselves auditioning for community theater productions.

This is part personal commentary, part reporting based on decades
of covering theater. But insights were gifted, altered and enlightened by interviews
with nearly two dozen Florida-based theater artists, plus many others on social
media over three months.

Particular thanks to Dave Arisco, Andie Arthur, Nan Barnett, Jamel Booth, Timothy Mark Davis, Christopher Demos-Brown, Patrick Fitzwater, William Fernandez, Sabrina Lynn Gore, Sara Grant, Cary Brianna Hart, Michel Hausmann, William Hayes, Anna Lise Jensen Arvelo, Andrew Kato, Julie Kleiner Davis, Nicholas Richberg, Andy Rogow, Geoffrey Short, Matt Stabile, Nicole Stodard, Marilynn Wick and Kent Chambers-Wilson.

Pay scales, already a sore spot among professionals, might suffer, although several companies’ leaders said they strongly hope not to waver. Still, some companies that hired more expensive Equity union actors under special contracts may end that for a while. Therefore, the union’s membership may shrink if it is a block to being hired. Resignations also may proliferate because the union has raised the requirements to receive health insurance and has been slow to grant companies’ proposed imaginative projects to resume operations.

That shortfall in opportunities may affect the size, depth and quality of the local professional talent pool.

“I think we were really hitting a robust period,” said Stabile. “In the last eight years…we’ve seen an increase in the number of productions and the number of contracts out there…. And I think because of that, the talent pool has also grown because people are like, ‘Oh…I can actually find a career down here.’ And if we start losing companies again and productions again, that’s going to have a ripple effect across the industry that we’re not going to even fully realize for years.”

Already, there has been a brain drain as artists once willing to put up with the vagaries of their calling now find the lack of work has prompted serious introspection.

Before the pandemic, most theater artists needed a survival job. Waiting tables, temp work in an office. Some luckily had a conventional full-time job that allowed them ample time off for rehearsals and performances.

But bills have to be paid, children have to be fed, insurance has to be found somewhere. As a result, some artists have retrenched, making their fallback professions into their full-time job. Some have begun training for other time-consuming professions. Some have left the region.

“Some of the most talented people I have ever met are now restaurant managers, and day laborers… and Uber drivers,” said Marilynn Wick, founder and CEO of the Wick Theatre in Boca Raton. “I have never seen so much resignation and defeat as I witnessed in 2020 and witnessing now, even into 2021.”

Nick Richberg, managing director of Miami New Drama, outlined the danger: “People that normally worked for us are now working in other industries…. It’s like when Florida got rid of the film subsidies and everybody moved to Atlanta. You can’t put together a film crew in Miami if you want to.”

Listen to a supremely skilled and highly lauded performer stepping away from the stage as the primary defining facet of her life as she trains for a different profession.

She wrote on Facebook, “I will hopefully be able to keep pursuing some bucket list projects as they come up. On one hand, I’m heartbroken. On another hand, I am looking forward to a salary and benefits and a regular schedule. And paying our mortgage…. I think I will mourn my stage life in Florida for a while…. I’ve been hustling since 2003. Mamma is tired. I’m looking forward to working for the man and collecting my paycheck and going home.”

So one possible fallout is that there will be fewer full-time artists available and in play when things slowly chug back to life.

More than a few have also announced that the low pay, long hours and tough working conditions have convinced them to start saying no to more offers once the seasons gin up again.

It may leave a smaller talent pool composed of artists similar to those who work in community theater for whom their still-beloved art remains second on their priority list, or third behind family. Of course, a new generation of college grads may arise to take up the gauntlet.

This crisis will be especially pronounced in the desperate dearth of designers and tech people that existed before the pandemic. Those existing artists were overcommitted to the point that some time-reliant projects were endangered. These folks, more than their performing colleagues, have marketable skills in other areas. Wick said, “I’ve had people actually go to Home Depot who worked in the theater world for 20 years and now they’ve got benefits.”

But some people, including artistic directors, are taking this time to reimagine a revolutionary future to address long-time inequities, once the worst of these nightmares have eased. Issues include admittedly insufficient pay for people sacrificing more remunerative hours at their day job. Several people said theaters need to have understudies (such as those hired sometimes at the Wick and the Maltz) so that performers do not have to perform when ill (and can be replaced if they contract COVID). No one interviewed was clear on where the financing would come from for these initiatives, other than scaling back the number of productions.

But they uniformly had a vision about reforms in pay, casting, racial issues, sexism and some legendarily miserable backstage conditions. Arthur wants to hear colleagues say, “’I don’t need to tolerate this behavior anymore…. I think artists will stick up for themselves a little bit more.”

Stabile went further: “I can see a world where we become more adamant that artists have viable careers, we don’t devalue them as the industry currently does.”

“Money makes the world goes round, the world goes round….”

One encouraging observation almost never mentioned anywhere: While businesses around the country have shuttered, not a single theater in South Florida has announced that it is closing. Indeed, the opposite is true: Almost every theater here has kept connected with its patrons with emails and website updates. A majority held seminars, classes, staged readings online, playwriting contests and a dozen other imaginative low-cost initiatives. 

But most theaters must battle to climb out of the red inkwell by cutting costs on stage and in behind-the-scenes operations. Even the few theaters whose survival was not imperiled by the crunch, will be trying to restore their reserves by being frugal.

This is not the first time South Florida theaters have faced serious fiscal calamity. Theaters struggled after Hurricane Andrew flattened the economy in 1992. During the 2009 recession and stock market crash, donor contributions lagged; one patron sheepishly asked the Mosaic Theatre if it would return his gift. South Florida’s professional theater facet was too young (compared, say, to Chicago’s) to have sustaining endowments. The region did not have many mega-sponsors such as Coca-Cola in Atlanta.

Almost everyone agreed that 2021 finances in the short-term will insure that productions will be more modest. Support staffing levels will likely not return to pre-pandemic levels soon; employees will double up on duties.

But the pandemic’s real lesson is how survival is tied more to financial management than most artistic souls have made a priority. Many theater companies’ operating cash flows kept just one or two shows ahead of fiscal collapse. That perpetual tightrope walk was considered an accepted norm. A few had built rainy day reserves, but the bulk of those safety nets amassed over years have been washed away by the pandemic flood.

The financial impact is especially frustrating to nascent theaters like New City Players in Fort Lauderdale, which had succeeded “enough to where the cash flow is not a nightmare” and which coincided with a strong artistic year, said Davis. But “now everything is deleted. It’s going to be two years at least before we do a show like we have done in a black box theater with a three-week schedule.”

“The lesson here is financial stability is so very important” while theaters simultaneously must maintain their artistic integrity, Davis said. “It’s (been) something we gripe about because it gets in the way of doing great work, gets in the way of equity and diversity and our better angels sometime. (But) to get money in the bank we have to focus on things on… that base line.”

Therefore, reforms like hiring understudies will be enabled or sidelined depending on available cash and donor generosity.

Some are thinking outside the box for alternative funding and producing paradigms. Arthur wondered if the entire non-profit season-long paradigm could be revolutionized by such companies. In its place would be more stand-alone ad hoc projects by informal artist collectives with no set calendar or commitments – but minimal budgets.

One person suggested that switching to a 100 percent pay-what-you-can model would not only rebuild the old audience, but attract the young and diverse audience who either don’t have a lot of disposable income or are accustomed to spending it on other entertainment options. But the uptick in the number of butts in seats is unlikely to make up the shortfall in box office receipts.

In the meantime, companies have lost nearly all their earned income such as tickets and concessions. Additionally, companies hoping to go forward are facing five- and six-digit expenses they would have had trouble paying for in a normal year: replacing air handling systems, rebuilding dressing rooms for safety – measures they know that they might not need three years from now.

Further, social distancing mandated by local and state regulations make producing any significantly-sized production inside a theater fiscally impossible as a profit-making endeavor.

At least, their subscribers and fans have shown their support by not asking for refunds and most have agreed to apply their investment to the next season. But many of those companies had already committed those 2020-2021 ticket sales to paying year-round operating expenses and the considerable cost of mounting shows that were close to opening but were closed by the pandemic. Therefore, if a company did not have significant reserves, they are nearly guaranteed to have ended up in the red for the 2020-2021. And now they face the production and operating expenses of the coming 2021-2022 season with a negative cash flow to begin the schedule.

All the penciled-in, erased and penciled-in again spreadsheet calculations of the future are based on the assumption that surveys are accurately portraying the craving of an audience willing to risk their health.

At the heart of the income issue is ticket prices which have crept steadily upwards at many shops, in some cases beginning to rival the inhibiting prices at New York City venues. Several interviewees suggested that individual ticket prices may have to come down to rebuild the existing audience and definitely if companies hope to attract a younger and more diverse audience.

Crucially in another area, the audience that claims to love theater also needs to take some responsibility by putting their mouth where their money is. Subscribers and the community influencers on theater’s boards of directors must aggressively, really aggressively lobby lawmakers and foundations to financially underwrite the cultural and economic importance of the arts, as European governments once did.

Board members’ and donors’ efforts must press the federal government and state legislatures to recognize the economic benefit of a thriving arts sector and its attraction to executives considering moving their industry to the area. As an example, they can note that theater sells more tickets in New York City than all the sports teams combined. Partisans should advocate for a subsidized jobs programs inside the NEA akin to FDR’s Works Progress Administration Federal Art Project. The federal government gives subsidies to agriculture and bail outs to the auto industry. Why not the arts?

This involves writing letters to the editor; it involves personally approaching lawmakers and candidates during political fund-raising galas to get verbal commitments; it involves personal appearances in the corridors of Tallahassee, at Chamber of Commerce galas, and in their own town hall meetings long before budget hearings begin. 

And it requires congenitally socially shy theater leaders themselves to do the same, although Rogow noted that all but a few just hang out with theater people or hide themselves in work. Their reticence has resulted in power brokers and potential donors who “appreciate” the arts but who don’t vote in recognition of its intersection with the economy and the quality of life.

Activism does pay off: Palm Beach Dramaworks’ campaign to lease its new downtown venue from the city and then buy it resulted from extensive efforts by Managing Director Sue Ellen Beryl who became part of the political and social landscape.

High on the future “to do” list, artistic leaders with a master’s degree in 19th Century Serbian Theater need to learn how to adhere to a budget and be fiscally prudent. Many people administering theater companies, at best, are artists learning on the job and who have very little training (or interest) in management or finance, other than a few like the team at Dramaworks,  which has business experience.

One of the main focuses of the National New Play Network has been “sustainability and stability… helping organizations figure out where they really are financially, what the possibilities are financially, how they reframe the concept of staffing, what is essential,” said Nan Barnett, the group’s executive director and former managing director of Florida Stage.

Such theoretical concerns never were out of managers’ thinking previously, but they now they are a priority for survival. Basic fiscal lessons are emerging in stark relief to “insure yourself to the degree you can,” said playwright Christopher Demos-Brown, a co-founder of Zoetic Stage in Miami.

Producing Artistic Director Nicole Stodard had a clear tactic for Thinking Cap Theatre, a company that wags did not expect to survive. Instead, she put her company into hibernation for several months and is now doing staged readings online on a slow ramp back, hoping for full-production in the fall.

“We didn’t have a huge debt or deficit…. We could scrape by with the grant support if we didn’t do another piece of programming…. The lesson is operating within your means, not putting yourself in financial jeopardy,” she said. “But we don’t have a lot in reserve to jumpstart when we decide to start again and I’m wary about fundraising in this moment when everyone is exhausted and depleted.”

Some are exploring non-traditional ways of creating fiscally responsible income sources such as producing in an amphitheater or filming their own future stage productions for paying customers around the country. “We need to be thinking of things we should have been thinking before,” said Palm Beach Dramaworks’ Producing Artistic Director William Hayes.

Artistic directors are divided whether these workarounds will last past the pandemic. Some are secretly disappointed at the quality of even the best of these efforts. But others like Hayes think they are an added revenue stream that will persist long-term if the techniques can be fine-tuned, the quality can be elevated and the expense in producing them can be eclipsed by the revenue.

One hopeful source of additional funding are the current and past donors who provide as much as half of some companies’ operating budget, and most of their reserve and capital campaigns. Most theaters have been low-key in their appeals over the year, even though they have continued to be demurely active online.  Dramaworks had shied from asking for any money until recently, realizing that many of its donors have been hurt by the economic recession, although several have increased their donations unasked. Image is key: “People want to give to strength” not bail outs, Hayes said.

“Calling places for Act Three…..”

Underlying nearly every comment, even the more anxious cynical ones, is the article of faith among artists and audience members that the human necessity to tell and hear stories in the unique sphere of live theater ensures that some form will emerge from this morass.

“There is so much potential, so much talent, so many brave teams of people who have given us theaters down here to work at and are working tirelessly to weather this storm. I just believe deeply that we can promote a wave of growth and change that will benefit us all, and perhaps this reprieve is finally the time to set the ball in motion,” actress Julie Kleiner Davis wrote.

Short’s benediction: “It’s a process that going to take time, and everybody needs to be a little bit patient… But the glory of it is if anybody can do it, the theater world can do it. The creativity and ingenuity and just sheer love in the heart of the art form itself will carry us through to a better day for theater.”

(To read the first’s day story, click here. To read the second day’s story, click here.)

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