Friday, March 3, 2017

Permanent Theater Venues, While Useful, Are Not A Panacea

Much has been discussed about how the Triangle needs more black box theaters, more fertile ground to grow the native, nascent nonprofit theater groups and companies. With Common Ground Theater closing up after ten years and Sonorous Road Theater’s future in question, it does seem like there is less room for itinerant groups to ply their trade.

Examining the twenty-five year history of the Triangle theater scene, the same venues tend to be used over and over again. Most of productions happen in the same handful of spaces, even if made by different groups of people. For the time period in question (1990-2015), the vast majority--90% of companies who produce at least one full weekend show--do not continue to make work over a decade.

Out of 24 (give or take a few) companies that have succeeded in sticking around the Triangle for a dozen years or more, only six have successfully operated their own venue. Again, the majority of ongoing theater organizations are either affiliated with a college or with a municipally-owned venue. Raleigh Little Theater, Theater in the Park, Durham Savoyards, North Carolina Theatre: as long-standing and as important to the ecosystem as they are, they are all beholden to a municipal venue for their performance space. Our single “professional” theater, PlayMakers Repertory Company, is fully-owned by UNC-CH. Yes, it has a nonprofit arm for raising funds, but without the people, work, and space provided by UNC, PlayMakers would not be PlayMakers.

The six that have lasted over twelve years and had an established space are The ArtsCenter with its various in-house theater programs, Burning Coal Theater, Deep Dish Theater Company, Manbites Dog Theater Company, North Raleigh Arts & Creative Theater, and Raleigh Ensemble Players. It is important to note that two of these organizations (Deep Dish and REP) are no longer in business and a third (ArtsCenter) has guttered its in-house theater productions as of this writing.

Burning Coal Theater and Manbites Dog both spent many of their formative years producing shows in various spaces around Raleigh and Durham, respectively, before they were able to locate and afford their own building. Deep Dish Theater was located in a mall retail space and made do with low ceilings and nonpermanent set restrictions because of mall protocols. Raleigh Ensemble Players started as a summer company for two years, using Theater in the Park’s space during their down time. After several itinerant years, REP partnered with the new Artspace, a visual art studio and gallery. After many years in Artspace, the attempt to secure their own permanent full-time stage space proved unviable and forced them to close. The ArtsCenter’s in-house theater programs grew out of acting classes in the 1980’s at its original space in Carr Mill Mall, before morphing into the ArtsCenter Community Theatre, which quietly died in 2001. Shortly thereafter, Lynden Harris came on board as staff at the ArtsCenter and revived programming under the “ArtsCenter Stage” brand. NRACT found and held a venue through sheer power of numbers. Enough committed volunteers to establish a true working board plus enough interested actors and technicians--including a deep relationship with the local high school--provided enough revenue from six large cast shows in the early years.
The axiom is true for any business: success is in large part due to location. ArtsCenter was the only non-school performing arts venue in Carrboro. Deep Dish and NRACT both were surrounded within retail establishments in highly suburban neighborhoods. Burning Coal and Manbites spent years growing their audiences before settling into venues that would themselves become catalysts for their neighborhood’s growth. REP benefitted from the constant flow of artists and visitors in Artspace, conveniently located in the middle of downtown Raleigh.

Many of these companies have themselves also played host to itinerant groups, and because none of them are professional or a closed group of participants, the constant flow of talent both on and back stage has helped grow the opportunities available for creative work.

These companies successfully found and maintained venues because they had enough people willing to put in sweat-equity to make the space viable and because there was enough differentiation in their locations and products to find a profitable audience. Types of revenues varied from business to business, but all found many ways to make expenses every month.

Dedicated venues bring their own downsides. Rent or mortgage payments, insurance premiums, cleaning and maintenance expenses add up every month, and that’s after an initial push to upfit a space with a stage, seating, and appropriate lighting and sound systems. And then you need someone to manage the space! If you look at the budget of any business, the largest line-item is employees.

Can many of these downsides be mitigated? Yes, certainly: a government-owned facility with provided infrastructure or a co-op space with volunteer management. A wealthy theater-loving real estate developer who wants to be a singular patron to a small company. Insert many other options here.

Finding a permanent venue is possible; these six companies clearly demonstrate that. However, they also demonstrate the hard work involved in doing so: both before in establishing a feasible product and growing audience, and after, in earning enough income to meet ongoing expenses. Desiring a permanent home is admirable, but actually finding one comes after the need justifies it.

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