What do Hadestown, Angels in America, and Come From Away all have in common? Before they were Broadway hits, they got their start in small theaters or venues. I mentioned in my post last week that small theaters in Chicago contributed over $80 million to the local economy, but they are also critical in supporting innovation, new artists, and even larger performing arts organizations. When we talk about the performing arts industry, we often leave out small-to-midsize theaters, even though they make up approximately 65% of all performing arts organizations in the US. Small and midsize theaters and companies are the lifeblood of the performing arts industry because they nurture new talent and provide greater opportunity for experimentation and innovation.

Defining Small and Midsize Organizations in the Performing Arts

The IRS defines small businesses by sector, but usually classifies them as companies that have between $750,000 to $38.5 million in revenue for year, or between 250–1,500 employees. If we applied that definition to the performing arts sector, approximately only 2.1% of US nonprofit performing arts organizations would be considered larger than a small business. However, that definition doesn’t help us understand the performing arts landscape. Other organizations classify “small” as organizations with budgets under $500,000, or who play in theaters that have 500 seats or fewer (this is especially true for New York, where revenue goes a lot quicker than in other parts of the country with lower costs of living). Most performing arts organizations are nonprofits who must make their financials available to the public, so I was able to do a little investigation and break down the budget levels of performing arts organizations in the US.

For the sake of keeping things as straightforward as possible, I am defining small performing art organizations as those with revenues under $500,000, and midsize organizations as groups with revenue less than $5 million, but I look forward to seeing how arts research can grow so that we can have even more accurate data in the future. For the purposes of this blog though, we’ll make it work!

Note: Only 42% of performing arts nonprofits reported any income. This chart removes those who listed their revenue as $0. That’s an investigation for another day! Source: IRS Tax Exempt Listings

Blockbuster Strategy

Though industry experts can predict to some extent will take off, creators will never know whether an idea will be a hit or a flop until they’ve already produced it. As a creator, it’s a beautiful, messy part of the process. As a business, it’s a liability. Larger theaters operate on a blockbuster model; that is, they need to ensure that they are selling tickets that appeal to a broad range of audience members. Anita Elbese who (literally) wrote the book on blockbusters defines this model as “a strategy in which a company…spends a disproportionate amount of their budget on just a select few of the most likely winners.” It is extremely costly to produce a show; for example, it cost $13.5 million to mount Kinky Boots on Broadway-and less than a third of Broadway shows recoup their investments. Nationwide, 48%of arts nonprofits broke even or were operating at a deficit in 2014, and literally cannot afford to have a bad year.

While people complain about the prevalence of movie adaptations and revivals on stages, it’s a much safer bet in terms of making money. And the bigger the organization, the more time it takes to plan a season to ensure that marketing and production have enough time to manage. I’ve listened in on meetings to decide a season and it’s a complex puzzle of acquiring show rights, securing sets, lining up directors and choreographers, and timing. While many theaters who operate on a blockbuster model can and do innovate with readings or less of a crowd-pleasing show, they have to find at least 1–2 shows a season with “mass” appeal to have the best chance at earning ticket income. As budgets get tighter, it may seem like a safer option to favor blockbuster shows for the majority of the season. Because there were-and are- so many barriers to entry to create a show, you end up with seasons of movie adaptations and well-known shows written before Black women had the right to vote (1965, by the way).

Small Theaters, Big Impacts

Smaller theaters are more likely to rely on grants and donations to produce their shows, meaning that individuals and smaller organizations can be much more nimble in how they create content than their larger counterparts. Worst case scenario, small and midsize productions may be small enough for one person to finance. Though relying on fundraising is an imprecise and very risky model, some performing arts groups are created just for a single production, while others have small seasons. Because these organizations are less financially concerned with selling out a house, they can afford to take on riskier projects, like Rogue Artists Ensemble who present what they call hyper-theater; half puppetry, half digital multimedia, and all artistic innovation this work is unlikely to originate in a larger theater. However, larger theaters can still benefit from the innovation of small theaters; the RAE artistic director Sean Cawelti was brought into Pasadena Playhouse to design Audrey, the homicidal plant, for Little Shop of Horrors.

Small theaters are also likely to be more connected to their communities; they can create theater that is uniquely for their residents in a way that larger theaters following a blockbuster simply cannot. Take for example the award-winning Sound Theatre Company in Seattle, an all-volunteer theater that amplifies artists of color and female voices. The theater company has a budget of just $150,000, and launched a site-specific production of The Tempest on Lake Sammamish, translated A Midsummer Night’s Dream into American Sign Language, and launched Making Waves, a reading series made for and by artists with disabilities. All of these productions are closely tied in with the members of their community, as opposed to the Blockbuster one-size-fits-most model.

Apprenticeship in the Arts

More importantly, small and midsize theaters cultivate new talent; playwrights, actors, designers, and more. Theater follows an apprenticeship model; artists learn on the job alongside more experienced performers and designers. You can’t practice lighting design without a theater and a light board-not something you can replicate in your apartment. You might be able to design costumes at home, but you won’t know until a dancer splits his pants doing a lift how to provide enough stretch. Small theaters provide access to new artists to gain confidence and skill before they “graduate” to larger stages. Without small theaters, the only way for artists to learn is through conservatories, colleges, and pay-to-play industry events which are huge barriers to access to those who do not have money and may not support diverse students. Small theaters can level this playing ground, especially when artists can be paid equitably for their time.

Additionally, local organizations are more likely (though not guaranteed) to reflect the people living in their communities. Most organizations led by people of color fall into the smaller theater bracket (largely because these organizations receive far less support from donors), however these organizations are critical to the creation of new work that amplifies BIPOC and LGBTQ+ perspectives. Los Angeles-based East West Players rose out of a need to “create roles beyond the stereotypical parts they were offered in mainstream Hollywood.” Chicago’s Congo Square Theatre is “one of the premier African-American theatres in the country,” and supports multicultural voices through their August Wilson New Play Initiative, yet their financial records show that their revenue was only $380,000 in 2018. Both East West Players and Congo Square Theatre offer educational programs to the community, development opportunities for new artists, all while bringing in less money than the median CEO salary in the US.

In spite of their critical role in the performing arts, small and midsize theatrical organizations are constantly under the threat of closure; and it’s never been so critical to support small theaters as it is right now. Most performing arts organizations have only 3.6 months of operating income-that means that without putting on any shows or receiving any income, most of these arts organizations would have been out of money in July 2020. If you have any money to spare-especially if you’ve seen a show from a small theater before and especially for BIPOC organizations-please consider donating, or donate to a local arts alliance who are helping secure money for these smaller organizations.

Originally published at http://laurarensing.wordpress.com on September 10, 2020.

My life goal is to prove the value of the creative sector. Board Member of Exposition Review lit journal. Founder of 1099 Creative - www.the1099creative.com