Small Theater Survival Stories

Published October 18, 2004

A people-pleaser

The bold artistic integrity and out-of-the-box performance characteristic to many a small theater engages the audience member in search of a little less than the formal ambience and in-the-box productions often featured on the main stage.

And make no mistake — small theater doesn't not imply amateur. "That's the remarkable thing about this community," Simon said. "Some of the most outstanding shows I've ever seen have been in a 50-seat house where no one was getting paid. There's a certain commitment that most of the performing artists in this town have, and it's that commitment that keeps me going."

Along with the original works and determined crew, which may or may not be the case among larger theaters, the intimacy of a small theater remains unmatched by its mainstream counter-part, attracting those who enjoy the up-close-and-personal. "It's really something to see the beads of sweat on an actor's face," Simon said. "I think that's something the larger theaters are missing. How connected can you feel when you're 200 feet from the stage and need opera glasses just to see a facial expression?"

Additionally, Hall noted that small theaters' bold creativity and virginity from corporate-dollar-mania make the industry attractive as well. People are drawn to the "affordability and the possibility that you may see something that the overwhelming need for commerce hasn't completely fucked up," he said. "We can take risks that the Goodman and Steppenwolf can't because we aren't spending the gross national product of Bolivia to put it up in the first place. And don't underestimate intimacy. I believe no theater should have more than 90 seats. If the audience can't feel the heat off of the actors, they might as well go see a fucking movie."

Live on or give up?

Unfortunately, the silver screen and the big-theater hoopla have drawn audiences away from the small theater scene, making its future uncertain. In fact, far more fail than survive, according to Hall. "Most small theaters fall apart over either money or artistic conflicts," he said. "Last time I checked, well over 2,500 small theaters over the last 10 years were started and only got two or three shows under their belt before throwing in the towel.

"In Chicago, anyone can start a theater company, rent a space and put on a show," he continued. "And lots do. Starting one up is easy. Keeping it going through what is a non-growth industry, unless you serve chicken or prime rib along with the show, is very difficult."

Such struggles make the typical life span for small theaters rather short-lived. In fact, surviving for a decade is unlikely. "It just seems fairly consistent across the board that more little groups cave in after five and ten year marks than other times," Hall said. "Only a handful make it to ten."

Despite such disheartening odds, small theaters continue to do what they can to make ends meet and preserve art, rather than present fluff. For its recent performance of Poppin' & Lockdown, the Factory Theater cut corners through bargaining. The show "required the services of some really talented graffiti writers," Simon recalled. "Our deal was to provide the paint, and then they came in on three or four nights and made Angel Island look like an urban landscape. We also provided them with the opportunity to do their own show after ours for free. We do a lot of back-scratching."

At times, preserving the budget may even mean overstepping legal boundaries, as Hall has been taken to court a couple times for illegal shenanigans. "Prior to having a space, we would engage in late-night illegal fly-posting, teaser posters with just the title of the show and a graphic that we would glue " yes, glue " to poles and mailboxes all over the city at 3 a.m."

Although running a small theater inevitably requires such drastic measures, not to mention the horrible pay and marginal recognition, Hall and Simon remain in it for the long haul and are optimistic of the future. "There will always be a certain amount of attrition in the arts," Simon said. "It's a dog eat dog world, but I know that for myself as well as most of my associates, theater is not a hobby, but a passion. There's a feeling of having no choice but to dig in and weather this particular storm. The day The Factory closes its doors there will be 10 other companies to replace us. Small theater will never die."

Hall concurred that the small theater in Chicago and nationwide will undoubtedly live on. "As long as there are more artists than places to perform, ether will be small theaters," he said. "Small theaters are the forefront of artistic change and risk. Small theaters create the vital theatrical concepts that are later co-opted by the wealthier companies. Small theaters feed the artistic community in a way that large companies cannot. So, they'll always be around."