“Ah! I am a bad man, am I not? I say what other people only think; and when all the rest of the world is in a conspiracy to accept the mask for the true face, mine is the rash hand that tears off the plump pasteboard, and shows the bare bones beneath.” -Count Fosco, The Woman in White
Someone's got to do it.
This latest polemic started at a dinner with my teacher, Jennifer Tipton, and, as often happens lately when we are together, I was complaining. She was, and always has been, patient with me. I told her that I felt betrayed by my profession. How so? I told her that I was now in my 20th year as a designer in regional theatre. My frustration was a result of observing, over my 20 years, a true decline in my chosen art form. The frustration was doubled because I felt, all modesty aside, that over the same 20 years, I had grown as an artist. I said that after one throws out the usual naivete that accompanies any young professional upon entering his or her chosen field, one still proceeds with the belief that as one grows in ability and expertise, the field will grow as well. Instead, to my utter despair, the field of regional theatre had only reduced itself.
There are five main reasons that American regional theatre has devolved to its current state: less-than-inspired artistic leadership; a forgotten or misunderstood mission; less-than-adequate compensation for the people who actually produce the “art”; less-than-adequate resources provided to the artists; and less-than-adequate time in which to create any art at all. Before I continue, I must allow that I speak from a position of privilege: I have been lucky enough to be associated with some of the better regional institutions — often (but not always) the exceptions to the following rules.
LESS-THAN-INSPIRED ARTISTIC LEADERSHIP
When I began working professionally in 1984, most regional theatres were still run by the artistic directors who founded them. Twenty years later, most theatres are run by second, if not third, generation regional theatre artistic directors. There is a fundamental energy shift with this evolution. The people running regional theatres now are “caretakers of institutions,” rather than founders and creators. It doesn't take much to see the difference in both responsibility and in temperament.
Whereas the first generation could rightly take joy and inspiration from pushing the boundaries, the succeeding generations have instead the day-to-day obligation of ensuring the survival of the institution. In the first instance, the artistic directors were engaged by the theatre company boards as artists of vision (when they didn't go out and create those boards for themselves). The boards were often beholden to the artistic director, not the other way around.
I remember when Adrian Hall was fired by his board. He turned around, fired them, and created a new board! Most of today's boards expect the artistic directors to raise money first, and not rock the boat second. How much satisfaction, or artistic potential, is there in that? With such less-than-inspired leadership, regional theatre has lost much of what made it interesting, not least of which is its idiosyncracy.
With co-productions becoming the rule, regional theatres are turning to a smaller and smaller pool of generative artists to provide the bulk of their programming. In addition to this, most artistic directors look either to New York or London for their offerings (when they aren't playing a game of “chicken” with each other to see what plays each will pick for their seasons — so they can pick the same plays). This has led to what Robert Brustein once decried as the “McDonaldizing” of American regional theatre. And we all know that at any McDonald's you get the same thing as any other McDonald's — and it's not always good for you.
Read the mission statement from almost any regional theatre. With rare exception, the theatre will espouse some kind of “celebration of the artist,” and, perhaps even “celebration of the human spirit.” Somehow, however, this “celebration” has been forgotten. How else can you explain that actors and designers are paid around $15 per hour, and in most non-union theatres the technicians are paid just above minimum wage? Which “human spirit” are we celebrating, exactly?
It has shocked me terribly that most managing directors view it as a given that they will need to replace the bulk of their production staff every two or three years, or that they feel that it is not their obligation to provide a living wage to designers and actors. It has been my experience at most regional theatres that, rather than being uplifted by their work and conditions, most of the people involved are just plain tired.
LESS-THAN-ADEQUATE COMPENSATION FOR THE ARTISTS
I have demonstrated graphically, in a previous article, that theatre artists are underpaid (“You Can't Afford To Be a Lighting Designer,” ED Oct. 2003, p. 28). Most people take this for granted, citing the lack of funds flowing into the coffers of regional theatres, and the marginalization of the art form in today's society. I view this less as an overall lack of funding than as a misapplication of the funds available. It seems to me that those administrators who are responsible for the sustenance of the art form have fallen victim to the same cynicism in regards to artists as the rest of the world.
I have in front of me the operating budget of a mid-level regional theatre. Their operating budget is $6 million and they do seven productions per year. I know what they pay their lighting designers, and I can extrapolate the design fees for the remaining fields (scenery, costumes, sound). Including pension and welfare payments, the compensation for all designers comes to just 2% of the total operating budget. Huh? If you take all of the Actors Equity Contracts that they pay for the year — average eight actors per show (when was the last time you saw 8 actors on stage?), two stage managers, a four-week rehearsal period (when was the last time an actor got four weeks?), and a four-week run, plus benefits — the total compensation comes to less than 9% of the operating budget. If you add in the directors' fees (1.7%), and the playwrights' royalties (2.5% — Shakespeare and Chekhov don't get a cut any more), then all the artists who create and perform the work that the audience pays to see, receive just 15% of the total operating budget.
The rest probably goes to the development department. I don't know for sure, and I may be alone in this, but these percentages seem a little out of whack. Imagine a redirection of just 2% in favor of the artists whose work the audience pays to see. This would give an additional $120,000 to about 100 artists per season. If each artist were to receive an additional $1,200 per production (using very simple math), they might, over the course of a year, actually be able to eke out a living.
I suspect that a healthy chunk of the budget pays the salaries of the new generation of artistic directors, so some artists are getting support. My theory goes like this: most theatre company boards are composed of business people — usually CEOs and other corporate executives. They cannot be immune to the tremendous inflation of CEOs' salaries over the last 20 years, and feel that unless they pay six figures to their artistic directors, they are not going to get good value.
They also cannot be immune to the devaluation of the worker in today's environment, when companies routinely look to the bottom line and slash wages and workforce, and look for ways to outsource to third world countries. So it probably doesn't occur to most board members that there is such a disparity between the compensation of the people they see in the boardroom — the artistic and managing directors — and the people they see on the stage, and even more so, the people they don't see at all: designers, crew, and the technical and production staff.
Again, it boils down to money, and how theatres choose to allocate it. In a world where the half-life of computer technology is measured in six-month increments, at most regional theatres a lighting designer is lucky to have a lighting console that is less than ten years old. I was talking with a student the other day about my views on moving light technology. I think it's great, except it's not available to me in regional theatre. Whereas other elements of the entertainment industry are celebrating over 20 years of such equipment, it is worth a designer's life to get it into a LORT (Local Or Regional Theatre). However that doesn't stop the audience, which has a steady diet of VH-1, Super Bowl half-time shows, and even the shopping mall multiplex, from expecting a certain level of technical sophistication.
These constraints don't just affect lighting designers. I just found out from a good friend who is a set designer at a LORT, with an annual operating budget of $16 million, that he is expected to fill a 36' wide proscenium stage of a 1,000-seat house with only $8,000 worth of scenery materials. Over an eight-show season, the scenery materials budget works out to less than one-half of one percent of the total operating budget! Who wants to work under those constraints? My friend is a genius of design with tremendous experience. Is he truly flexing his artistic muscles? At best, he is engaged in some kind of triage.
Most regional theatres now work on a schedule that has the load-in on a Monday, and by Friday has an audience paying money to see some kind of product. Often, this is after less than three weeks of rehearsal. I remember once uttering this politically incorrect sentiment within earshot of a managing director (whose theatre opened — not previewed — its shows on the Friday of tech week!): “their theatre would never be able to tackle a great play like Hamlet, and even if they wanted to, they should not.”
Great work takes time, unless real geniuses are involved (and they can take even more time). With the current production schedules, the odds of great work happening in most regional theatres are not very good. On the plus side, however, for those of us in “fee based” disciplines like design or direction — the less time we have in the theatre, the more possible it is for us to create something close to a decent hourly wage.
For anyone who aspires to art, regional theatre has grown to be one of the last places to create it. It has evolved into a factory of entertainment at best, yet it still retains the attitude that its practitioners should be grateful for the opportunity to create “art.” The best of these practitioners are fleeing the profession, and those that remain have evolved into managers of expectations rather than artists, and have become ruthlessly efficient to survive. I wish it were otherwise, but it will take more than my voice in the wilderness to make it happen.
But before I leave too terrible a taste in everyone's mouth, my indictment of regional theatre, and my despair over its direction, comes from a profound love of theatre, and of those who attempt to create it, in spite of the odds. One only despairs over something one loves.
To quote Count Fosco again: “I shall leave you, before I do myself any more harm in your amiable estimations. As your excellent Sheridan said, I go — and leave my character behind me.”
Peter Maradudin designed lighting for over 300 regional theatre productions, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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