The Love You Give

Illustration by Bob Aul

Here's a (belated) New Year's resolution for the county's storefront theaters: stop dreaming you'll become a professional theater with big-boy wages.

It's not that the efforts of dozens of hard-working souls at theaters like the Chance, the Maverick, Hunger Artists, Rude Guerrilla and Stages aren't worth real money. A new year is just time for a reality check: in the present business and artistic climate—one that is steadily worsening—the possibility of a hard-working collective creating a second South Coast Repertory isn't bloody likely. Even high-end organizations like SCR and the Laguna Playhouse, which pay their people a living wage, grapple daily with the rising cost of doing art.

The flow from the government-funding-for-the-arts spigot has slowed to the tiniest of trickles, and what with tsunamis, hurricanes and assorted natural disasters, private foundations are increasingly being called upon to devote their money to problems arising from the demons of our nature rather than our angels—our art.

To hear people in local theater talk, they still believe that someday their passion and commitment will be rewarded in financial terms and that everyone involved will be able to leave their day jobs. It's not going to happen, people. Rents continue to rise, as do the costs of lumber, advertising and printing—and everything else it takes to build a set and promote a show. With few theaters in the county able to seat more than 80, banking on subscriptions and single-ticket sales to pay everyone a living wage is ludicrous. As Ben Cameron, the executive director of Theater Communications Group in New York, told an audience of theater producers in December: "If you're dealing with the paradigm of selling tickets, your ship is sinking."

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This past year, two companies that long aspired to full-time professional status either folded (the Vanguard Theatre Ensemble) or announced their conversion to gypsy status (the Grove Theater Center). And when the Fullerton Civic Light Opera—one of the most successful and venerable producing entities in Southern California—asked the city of Fullerton for a one-time subsidy of $461,000 to help deal with an "unmanageable" debt level of more than $200,000, the city turned it down.

The county's best storefront theaters, like the Chance, Hunger Artists, the Maverick and Rude Guerrilla, aren't in imminent danger of closing; they've adeptly managed to mix the occasional audience pleaser with risky new plays or more obscure contemporary offerings. But none is ready to do what SCR did in the late '60s, when it transformed from a small storefront theater into a company where everyone was reimbursed for their incredibly hard work. Doing that would take the kind of money that just isn't out there anymore.

And making your living at theater isn't just an unreasonable possibility—it's counterproductive to the art of doing meaningful work. The regional theater movement that erupted in this country in the 1960s was a reaction to commercial theater: young artists embraced a collective mentality in which revisiting the classics, staging new works and producing less mainstream fare were paramount. Instead of admitting defeat, re-orienting your theater's vision to one where the art is more important than making money can be liberating. Theater began in ancient Greece as a place where the community gathered for a cathartic experience. Theaters need to remind themselves that, unlike a film studio or record label, they exist within a community—and that finding ways to reconnect to it is essential. I'm not suggesting changing one comma of your artistic vision. Whether you're a theater that loves visceral, left-of-center politics—like Rude Guerrilla—or one with a more balanced mix of new plays and proven mainstream fare—like Stages—you'll have to continue doing great shows, but you should also be reaching out to and partnering with educational institutions, businesses, civic groups and people.

Some of our storefront theaters have already begun redefining themselves. The Maverick Theater, through its cabaret-style performances, has shown that a theater doesn't just have to produce standard two-hour plays. Stages' managing director Brian Kojac is in the process of creating an acting conservatory that aggressively courts non-actors—potential audience members as well as practitioners. More of this direct engagement is critically needed, whether through play development workshops or apprenticeship programs involving local teenagers and other potential audiences. It's about taking theater out of the theater, to places like hospices and prisons (something that the Santa Ana-based STOP-GAP has proved remarkably adept at doing). It's about making the community realize that your theater isn't just a place for someone to slap down $15 or $20 and turn his mind off for a while; it's a dynamic, evolving forum where ideas—artistic, political and communal—can be shared and discussed, and where debates can be framed.

The more this happens, the greater chance the community will respond in kind. Imagine what would happen if a group of citizens fighting to stave off development of Coyote Hills in Fullerton created a show for Stages about the effects of development. Or if a social organization in Santa Ana partnered with Rude Guerrilla and did a play about what it's really like to be a Latina teenager living in a Santa Ana apartment with 14 other people. Or if a community group fighting urban sprawl in north Irvine or taking on the toll road at Trestles created a performance about those issues.

These kinds of stories may not draw national headlines or the attention of, say, Hollywood—but presenting them in a theater could be affordable, almost immediate and locally relevant. And while doing this kind of theater may never offer its principals a living wage, it could offer something far more valuable and intrinsically noble: a calling. It could also help foster a community that truly cares about a theater—because it's theirs.

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