Can local live theater survive decreased funding and multi-media distraction?
Thursday, September 2, 2004
When the Magic Circle Center announced it would be closing its doors after its current production of The Drawer Boy due to cuts in funding, the Monterey County Weekly invited a half-dozen of our area’s most vital theater figures to discuss the current state of affairs in the local theater world.
This esteemed group included Gary Bolen,
Outreach Coordinator at MPC Theater Company; Elsa Con,
Founder of the Magic Circle Center; Dawn Flood, actress and
public relations officer at the Magic Circle Center; Susan
Grant, member of Children’s Experimental Theatre, the
Monterey County Theater Alliance and the Forest Theater
Foundation; John Light, Managing Director of The Western
Stage; and Steve Retsky, a stagehand with 25 years
experience and member of local IATSE (the International
Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, Moving Picture
Technicians, Artists and Allied Crafts).
MCW: The demise of the Magic Circle Center is a sad and ominous development for Monterey County theater. These seem like dark days for stage folk.
Elsa Con: I think there are two issues. First, I think videos, DVDs, films—all of that—are impacting our audiences. That is the realm of culture that children, teenagers and young adults are comfortable with. I think that’s the primary reason we’re losing audience. People are more comfortable going home and watching DVDs in their jammies instead of coming to the theater.
John Light: We stopped doing performances on Sunday nights because we’ve heard people say, “Sorry, I watch ‘The Sopranos’ and ‘Six Feet Under’ on Sunday nights.” We’re competing not just with gadgets but also with very fine drama.
Gary Bolen: They don’t have Tivo, these people?
EC: Another issue obviously is a lack of government funding. Not only are we not filling seats but we’re not getting funding either. And when I say “we” I’m not just saying our theater. The Magic Circle Center actually sold out most of its shows. It just wasn’t enough. We relied upon grants and community support.
JL: What’s happening here is not unique to us.
It’s happening all over the country. The data coming out of
national theater organizations has been showing some very
anomalous trends. Something’s changed for the worse. Here in
Monterey County, as our senior audiences shrink, we’re not
getting the younger audiences, in spite of our theater’s
ongoing audience development programs. We’ve had a young
children’s program for over two decades.
Steve Retsky: Sometimes the beneficiaries of those programs don’t stay in the area.
GB: Plus, we’re essentially all dipping into the same pool in terms of our audience base. People who see musicals are just as likely to see Henry VI, Part 3 or Agnes of God. It’s theater-going people. We’re sharing that resource and sharing the people that contribute monetarily. A couple years ago, the season tickets sales dove in half. Conversely, individual shows spiked. People were picking and choosing instead of buying whole seasons.
MCW: So is the primary problem not filling seats or a lack of funding?
ALL: Lack of funding.
JL: Well, there are many factors. Developing a new audience. Selling the seats right now is as much a challenge as the grants are. Plus, there’s no question that 9/11 drove people back to their homes.
EC: Yet if you have more funding then you can spend more to promote your shows, get more people to them and improve them.
GB: We rely on season ticket holders for the bulk of our funding. But also the funding we get from the college. We took a 49.6 percent hit in the course of two semesters. Before the big cuts came, a memo came out: They were looking for areas to cut in creative arts. Photography $600; art and sculpture $1,000; and theater $35,000…I thought it was a typo. Nope. So does that affect the way we operate and design our season? Sure. We’re very concerned with our audience’s tastes. I mean, we’re doing Annie next year.
MCW: It seems like local theaters are
between a real Scylla and Charibdis. Either a) you do
Annie and please your established audience, or b) you
do Agnes of God or Blue/Orange or The Tale of
the Allergist’s Wife—edgier plays that few people have
heard about—and risk half-filled houses. How does that
conflict affect the design of your seasons?
JL: We’re having this exact discussion when we’re designing our play schedules for every season. At the Western Stage we’re making bolder choices now. We’ve decided that we have to take the risk. In fact, there’s no better time to take a risk than when you’ve got nothing to lose. Now’s the time to take risks and we’re not doing our jobs as artists unless we do. Of course, sometimes we lose.
GB: We had full houses for the musicals; then we did Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead! Not exactly groundbreaking, but it’s a challenging play. You have to be paying attention.
EC: You have to think.
GB: We ended up dropping two performances out of the schedule. We had people walking out at intermission. People were streaming out past the dressing room at intermission. The actors were going, “Man, we must be awful.” But they weren’t! The performances were fantastic and the play had high production values.
MCW: So in terms of community support
and donations, etcetera, you’ve got to be careful about
alienating your established audience who have very specific
Dawn Flood: I’m the one who answers the phone at Magic Circle. Even some of the diehards didn’t want to see Agnes. They said they don’t want to be sad. All of our big showy musicals came out during wartime.
EC: It’s like, “I promise if you donate no one
will die this season on stage…except maybe the baby in Agnes,
but that happens off-stage.”
JL: During our production of Cabaret, we had one member count the number of swastikas on the stage. She thought there were too many and held back her donation.
GB: We recently did a survey asking what our audiences wanted to see. The number one response was My Fair Lady. We were like, “Uh, we just did My Fair Lady in the summer of 2000.” They were like, “We know. We want to see it again.” We’ve got this syndrome where people are coming into the musicals already humming the tunes. We’ve got to get back to this idea that surprise is good.
MCW: Do you think producing riskier plays cost the Magic Circle Center?
EC: Honestly, I don’t think that really affected us. The Laramie Project, which may have been our riskiest project, was our biggest-selling show. Of course, Wit and Agnes did not have full houses. Although, riskier choices do build respect from certain audience members. But, the bottom line is that the Magic Center’s closing because of a lack in funding.
MCW: What do you think the general public’s perception of theater is?
GB: There was a [Street Talk] in the Weekly two years ago asking people about entertainment and nightlife in Monterey. And one of the respondents said something like “I go to clubs and movies because I don’t have a tuxedo and the money to go to a play.”
DF: I taught for Cal State Long Beach. You’d be surprised. Young adults have this perception of theater that everyone wears tights and speaks funny. Look at what’s happening at elementary and high school. They’re cutting arts budgets, so it doesn’t surprise me that they’re totally unfamiliar with theater.
EC: I think a lot of people say “I don’t want to go to the theater because so many plays I’ve seen have been tacky and low quality.” It’s important that all theaters across the board present quality productions. That will reinforce the audiences. It’s important because it’s so easy to slide when there are budget cuts, but when quality slides, everyone loses.
SR: We haven’t done much to change the public’s perception of theater. Theater, by and large, is a pretty ponderous ship and it takes a long time to make a turn. It takes a long time to change our perceptions so we can change our audience’s perceptions. I’ve been advocating age-appropriate theater for a long time. Instead of doing Guys and Dolls in junior high school, find an age-appropriate piece. We also need to include multi-media elements in plays to be more inclusive to our audiences that expect that.
GB: Of course, you need the technique and equipment to be able to do that.
SG: Our area is unique because it’s a high
tourist area and it’s a high second- and third-home area.
Almost 50 percent of the people in Carmel have homes
elsewhere. They come in from all over during the summer. This
is a very diffused audience group to bring into theaters. I
think the municipalities need to look upon their theaters as
an asset for drawing tourists. When we talk about tourist
attractions we talk about the fine restaurants and the
Aquarium and that’s it.
SR: We are a living, growing, breathing art form. It’s theater’s most effective selling point. You can watch videos again and again and see the same line delivered time after time. The way you react to what you see on stage changes what you see on stage.
SG: In the moment.
SR: It makes you, as an audience member, just as important as the actors on the stage.
JL: And I don’t think we communicate that well enough.
MCW: Are you optimistic about the future?
GB: My classes are full. There are more kids at auditions, more students auditioning for plays. I think maybe we are building a base of fresh blood. In terms of our financial situation, we just have to aggressively keep beating the drum. Theater magic extends into funding. Some of it is smoke and mirrors. In terms of content, we’d like to challenge our audiences more but, yeah, I’m afraid of losing people.
JL: I’m hopeful that there’s a new generation that will get turned on to the tradition because that’s so rich. If that doesn’t happen we have to change. How we’re going to change, I don’t know. We need to identify new potential audiences and develop them.
EC: Well, I’m not optimistic about the Magic Circle’s future, of course, but I am optimistic about theater in general. Theater always keeps going no matter where you go. Even in a small town in the middle of nowhere. Theater survives.
GB: Passion. Passion keeps theater alive.