Small Theater Survival Stories

Published October 18, 2004

Stretching the mighty buck

In the wake of economic disaster and ever-tightening purse strings, inevitably the first industry to feel the sting is the performing arts, specifically the low-budget operations struggling to survive in the shadow of mainstream theater. Only quality performances, determination, committed fans and "a whole butt-load of luck" stands between the small theater and bankruptcy, according to Noah Simon, artistic director for the Factory Theater.

"Can a theater ever really be financially stable? Only for a couple years at a time, with grants and other such support," Simon said. "Seems as though, in times of economic crisis, the arts are the first to take the hit. Grants dry up and patrons save their money."

Involved sporadically in Chicago theater since 1993, Simon's creative work has certainly been a challenge considering the tight budget of the small Factory Theater. "Larger theater companies probably have more freedom artistically because of the larger budget," he said. "They can build the set they want, do period shows without worrying about how much the costumes are going to run and can hire the best designers and actors because they can pay them."

In fact, the inevitable financial struggle of the small theater venture serves as a bouncer to the theater scene, out-muscling all but the truly dedicated. Hence, adequate start-up capital, most often out of the producers' own pockets, hardly guarantees success. The truly dedicated have the nerve to plunge their every asset into a theater company, and sink or swim along with their investment. "Then it becomes a show-to-show kind of deal," Simon explained. "Hopefully the production will at least make back the original investment so that the next show can go up. People have maxed-out credit cards doing that kind of thing, and it's subsequently what drives a lot of theater companies under."

Relying on support from art-supporters like the League of Chicago Theaters, the Illinois Arts Council, the Richard Driehaus Foundation and private donors, small theaters may receive enough capital to stay afloat for a play season, but remain ever-mindful that the future is uncertain. One theatrical flop has marked the death of many a small company, demonstrating the importance of maintaining artistic integrity while attracting a consistent audience.

However, certain resources do exist in the small theater business, giving it a much-needed edge amidst stiff competition. Most importantly, the people involved provide the backbone and crusading drive for a theater's future. "The biggest resource in non-equity theater is people," Simon said. "I'm talking about people who are committed to working for free, begging their relatives for money, costumes, props and moral support; people who will work a 40-hour-a-week day gig, and then go to rehearsal for three or four hours at night and on weekends. If you have a bunch of people like that, who thrive on little sleep and an even smaller prospect of success, then you've got as good of a chance as any of the other 200 companies in Chicago."

And fortunately, not all 200 theater companies compete for the same audience, as smaller theaters tend to fulfill a specific niche. "Bigger theaters like Steppenwolf, Goodman or Court derive most of their audiences from a subscription base," Simon said. "For the most part, these are not the same folks coming to see a Factory or Defiant show. Smaller, itinerant theater companies rely on the kind of audience that pays attention to theater listings and reviews.

"In addition, we do have to find a niche; something that sets us apart from everyone else; something that makes us unique," he continued.