"I used to write symphonies; now I write chamber music, smaller plays."

--Tennessee Williams, interviewed in the early 1970s


Commentary: Is financial prudence inhibiting art?

Rachel Swan, East Bay Express, 4/4/12

...in a bad economy, local theater companies are under the gun to cut costs and optimize revenue in whatever ways they can. In order to survive, companies are favoring lean productions that have small casts and require few stagehands and simple set pieces. The problem, though, is that as smallness becomes endemic on both a local and national scale, it tends to stifle creativity. For [playwright Mark] Jackson, the pattern is profoundly distressing. "Playwrights habitually write small-cast plays, and the result is this smaller-scope material," he said. "Then there's the complaint that there aren't enough plays of scope, buy why complain if you're not going to produce them?" And since smallness begets smallness, it manifests in all parts of the theater ecosystem. Actors complain they can't find enough ensemble work. Writers whittle their cast sizes. Artistic directors privilege small-scale shows that won't drain their coffers. Audience members are trained to like sparse material, even if it sacrifices ambition for thrift. Aurora Theatre Artistic Director Tom Ross said that quirky, ninety-minute, one-act shows have become the lingua franca of contemporary American theater, which signals a major paradigm shift. "Theater" used to be synonymous with extravagance, but now it seems to be painting itself into a corner. The paradox of theater, as in other industries, is that the bigger a company's budget, the higher its costs [because of higher union pay scales]. That means, ironically, that smaller theaters are sometimes in a better position to do bigger and more experimental plays. They're the place where the creativity might thrive.


In India, big cast shows are inexplicably back

Quasar Thakore Padamsee, AsianAge.com, 3/23/12

A play with many actors [is a] luxury traditionally afforded to children's plays, classics from the Mahabharat and Ramayan, or Shakespeare and the Greeks. Similarly, when directing in college, the aim was to have as many characters as possible, so "everyone got a chance". But in the more "professional" setting, the economic reality takes precedence -- more actors equal to more costs per show. Companies that relied on "freelance" actors began staging smaller plays. Modern playwrights seem all too aware of the commercial aspects of theatre, and therefore limit the number of their characters so that the play has a strong chance of being staged, rather than being branded "unstageable" because of its large cast. However, recently, over the last two years, this trend is inexplicably changing. Purva Naresh populates her plays with scores of actors, qawwali singers and musicians. Manav Kaul's latest offerings Red Sparrow and Laal Pencil have huge casts. Makarand Deshpande's latest Sona Spa has 20 performers, even though there are parts that can easily be "doubled" up by the same actors. This is a very exciting new trend. And a renewed "resplendence of people" is being brought back to the small experimental stage. The costs of materials and sets and equipment are burgeoning. Perhaps the only way to counter this inflation is with the dedication of people. Full-time actors now seem much happier to forego a [film] shoot or reschedule an audition if it means being on stage.


Commentary: Cutting costs to the bone won't secure future for the arts

Richard Dare, HuffingtonPost.com, 4/5/12

This past year saw six major bankruptcies and closures amongst orchestras. 73% of all orchestras surveyed by Yale University this year are straining under significant and growing deficits. The 18% that are breaking even are primarily doing so by cutting programming and other costs to the bone -- at the expense of their missions, one might at least worry. Naturally, there are wonderfully positive exceptions to this situation, and they are cause for celebration. But the grimmest of news is, I'm afraid, an undeniable macro trend. A popular analysis I read recently concluded that the current proliferation of nonprofit failures in America is the result of continuing fallout from the 2008 financial (housing) crisis. The result of the recent economic downturn? You must be joking. It's the result of more than 100 years of ignoring the mathematical realities about the ways in which economics works because the methods we were using appeared to work for other reasons entirely. It's not a downturn. It's a predictable systems collapse. The traditional nonprofit business model...says it "protects" our artists from the rough and tumble of the real world out there. It prevents them from being influenced by money. It maintains the purity of our missions and lets us operate without being swayed by financial concerns. It says the means by which we "raise funds" in the nonprofit world is to be accepted as a sort of divine revelation, unalterable, and that those who do not accede to this business model are almost certainly infidels, outsiders or at least threats to peace and quiet. Nonsense. I don't think the nonprofit model works well enough at all anymore. For all the blather about how much money doesn't (and shouldn't) matter to our missions, most nonprofits are more or less entirely consumed by the relentless task of doing little other than pursuing the almighty dollar.

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