Small Theater Survival Stories

Published October 18, 2004

By Cara Warfield

WNEP SignBefore each production in the 50-seat theater on Chicago's North Side, the production staff strategically plans around and stretches the inadequate budget that plagues most small theaters. An estimate of opening-weekend revenue becomes the production budget needed for the set, props, rehearsal space, costumes and countless other costly details that keep a business going. But despite such financial struggles and corner-cutting, What Now Entertainment Productions (WNEP) prides itself on the creative, quality performances and intimacy that please its regular patrons.

"If we can cut a corner and get away with it, we will," said Don Hall, executive director of WNEP. "If the audience can see it, we won't cut the corner. But backstage looks like we put the show up with spit and toilet tissue. Ah, the magic of illusion."

Known for the unusual, the strange, and the confrontational, WNEP features nearly all original material in the form of dramatic and comic plays, improvisation, sketch comedy, musicals and performance art. "[Our artistic director] compares our work to the heffalump from Winnie the Pooh," Hall said. "I can't describe it, but I know it when I see it."

Retaining such artistic flavor poses additional financial dilemmas for WNEP, the largest of which is marketing. Forget print ads or radio spots — its pockets don't run that deep. So Hall and company proceed to poster the entire city and use the Internet to promote upcoming productions. Moreover, set costs are brutal, resulting in modular, reusable sets.

And of course the staff itself often sees little compensation. "We rarely have money set aside to pay people," Hall said. "Most folks are willing to act, build, tech, direct for free, but our commitment is to find ways to give everyone a piece of the pie without getting our electricity turned off. Sometimes it works out. Sometimes it doesn't."

Although a well-deserved slice of the financial pie may be more satisfying to those in the tiresome small theater business, it is certainly much harder to come by. Indeed, the small theater exemplifies the "starving artist."

[Editor's note: In December of 2003, WNEP was one of a number of theaters that fell victim to the City of Chicago's crackdown on small theaters operating without proper licenses. This is part of a broader ongoing sweep of places of entertainment in the wake of the E2 nightclub tragedy in early 2003. The long-term effect on storefront theaters may be profound. WNEP has vacated its home of 3 1/2 years and is now renting other spaces for each new play.]

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.

A trade-off?

Finding a unique niche certainly can prove challenging, however, as the very thing that makes a theater unique may thwart future success. After all, a theater featuring Shakespearean or Pinter plays will quickly run out of new material. So, after scraping together startup capital and a noble bunch of actors, the struggle for the low-budget theater now becomes attracting the largest audience possible to a theater that is unique, but not limited by design.

"The challenge is to set yourself apart without limiting your options," Simon said. "It's a tricky one."

However, Simon admits that the Factory Theater, known primarily for its ensemble-generated original works, may feel less trapped by its production niche than a larger theater. "Larger theaters are pretty dependent on their reputation," he said. "Their patrons come to expect a certain product from them. It's not that smaller theaters are immune to pigeon-holding, but I think it's easier for us to recover when we throw our patrons an artistic curve ball."

Likewise, Hall was passionate that, although the possibility exists to cater to societal whims for the sake of a bigger bottom-line, WNEP doesn't play that game. "Don't misinterpret. We're not artistes, pretentious assholes who look down upon the uncultured massed and expect them to see shows strictly for the sake of art," he explained. "But we would rather go broke with integrity than suck cock for money. WNEP is a creative ensemble, as opposed to an acting or writing ensemble. Our jones is only satisfied by stretching our imaginations and creating the never-before-seen."

However, from the more practically-driven marketing and economic perspectives, pleasing an audience with a specific performance genre is ultimately important. "It is the constant struggle that we fight with every show we do," Hall said. "We want a 'brand name' but we won't allow ourselves to be pigeonholed by that brand name. It's very dada, in a way."

Steppenwolf goes to the ball

Steppenwolf Theater photoBringing optimism to stubborn small theater owners who yearn for a steady venue and a bigger bottom line is the fairytale success story of the now popular, and quite large, Steppenwolf Theatre Company. The theater company, with roots back to its 1974 debut in a small church basement in Highland Park, was officially founded in 1976. Beginning with only nine actors and a handful of patrons, Steppenwolf has now expanded to include 33 theater artists, a subscription base of 25,000, and room in its Mainstage Theatre to seat over 500. In fact, no other theater has lived as long or thrived as well as the famous theater company.

"Steppenwolf celebrates the intelligence of the actor, the vision of the director, the works of the playwright and the power of the theater," the theater's Web site boasts of itself and the over 200 works it has produced. Going so far as to compare itself with the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Moscow Art Theatre "in vision and quality," the theater company rose to fame through a combination of talent, community support and unity, described Cathy Taylor, Steppenwolf publicist. "This was a 26-year process," she said. "Its success came about partly because it started in Chicago. It was a family working together. And certainly their talents played a factor."

Now rubbing elbows regularly with playwright bigwigs like Sam Shepard, Lanford Wilson and Steven Jeffreys, Steppenwolf has the audience following, budget and prestige many theaters envy. "I think smaller theaters quite often do use us as a model," Taylor said. "A play recently came out called The Terrible Tragedy of Peter Pan in the House Theater, and people compare them to Steppenwolf, saying their so much like Steppenwolf when it first started. Along with the support and nurture we give to the small theater by allowing the spaced to perform, I'd say many do look to us as a model."

But a purist at heart, Hall now looks to for inspiration among those theaters that remain untainted by the poisonous corporate dollar. "My inspiration now comes from places like the Group Theatre, from NYC 1930s and the Wooster Group. These groups never had a $3 million parking garage; they influenced how we view ourselves and the American theater in general.

"A theater like Steppenwolf suffers from the money the way an individual does — too much 'stuff,' and too much focus on keeping that stuff overwhelms the art. No matter what they say in the commercials, a Lexus is not a work of art."

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."