There seems to be a lot of talk recently about what Harold Clurman once called the "edifice complex." On March 9th, the New York Times published an article called "Enter the Booster, Bearing Theatres" about the decade-long building craze among Big Box Corporate regional theatres. "Since 2000," author Jesse Green writes, these institutions "have initiated dozens of construction projects whose combined tab is approaching $1 billion." Signature Theatre: $16M; Philadelphia Theatre Company: $25M; Guthrie: $125M ("“You either grow or you die,” said Joe Dowling, the Guthrie’s artistic director"); Berekley Rep: $50M; the Shakespeare Theatre Company in DC: $89M ("Michael Kahn, the artistic director of the Shakespeare Theater Company in Washington, said it was difficult enough to induce New York actors, afraid to be out of town for too long, to commit to the six-week rehearsal periods he favors, let alone the eight-week runs necessitated by the small size of the Lansburgh Theater" -- cry me a river); Arena Stage: $120M; Dallas Theatre Center: $338M (Nina Vance is spinning in her grave). Green notes that the new buildings also require a lot more money to operate: Signature Theatre's "annual operating budget ballooned to $5.5 million from $2 million; "The Philadelphia Theater Company’s annual operating budget rose to $4.1 million in the new space from $2.1 million before its capital campaign began. The Shakespeare’s rose to $19.4 million from $10.2 million; the Guthrie’s to $26 million from $19.5 million." Michael Kahn misses the point when he says: "“Will we have to beat the bushes more?” Mr. Kahn said. “Yes.” But he obviously is aware of the real issue, because he hints at it here: "people are curious to see what the spaces are like. Mr. Kahn said that was why he opened the Harman with “Tamburlaine,” a play unlikely to draw crowds otherwise." In other words: better schedule Tamburlaine now, because we won't be able to afford to run it later.
I love that Mike Daisey's How Theatre Failed America is quoted throughout the article as a counterpoint to the insanity, and a reminder of just what the original impulse was behind the regional theatre movement. [Note: I eliminated a reference to a Mike Daisey line that, out of context, was offensive to NY actors. My apologies, and thanks to Sarah McL for pointing it out.]
On March 11th, Garret at Playgoer drew our attention to this article with his "Shiny Happy Buildings," and Isaac followed with "Building What, Exactly?" Isaac asks plaintively, "why is it so hard to raise money to fund the lives of the artists who work in those brand spanking new buildings?" It's the difference between the visible and the invisible, isn't it?
Anyway, all of this dovetails with something I have been working on for the theatre tribe model. If, as Don Hall says, "Most of the problems associated with the American theater in the 21st Century has to do with the fact that it costs too much to create," and one of "the most cost prohibitive aspects of producing live theater is the rental fees for viable and legally sanctioned venues," then a theatre space is at the center of the struggle for survival. Many theatres solve this problem by renovating storefronts and warehouses and old office building into theatre -- in fact, Zachary Mannheimer is in the midst of trying to raise $5M to renovate this building for his new theatre/social club in Des Moines (a chunk of that is to create a restaurant that is run by the theatre, but the building itself will cost $1.6M san renovations).
To me, that seems like a lot, at least for the model I am trying to promote. Zack seems to be pulling it off, and I say more power to him, but I'm trying to figure out a lower price alternative that doesn't rely on city funding, foundations, and grants -- or at least, relies on them as little as possible. However, I think that the usual answer of taking up residence in marginal buildings in low-rent parts of town is problematic as well. While theatre people will go anywhere to see a show (at least if they know somebody in it), and maybe young hipsters will, too (if they can get over the idea that theatre is a geezer art form), many people feel that the maximum amount of time their butt can manage on a thinly-padded folding chair is about 30 mins and they don't want to feel scared about their safety. While we can scorn that attitude, scorn won't change it. Many people will be more likely to attend your theatre if they feel safe and comfortable. If those people don't matter to you, that's certainly your choice; I happen to think differently.
So I am trying to figure out a way to build a theatre that is comfortable, attractive, and also affordable. I'm not an architect, and some of this is pure guesswork, but this is a start. Some of you may have noticed in my "vision" of the Independence Theatre in Independence, Missouri, that I mentioned a theatre that "was built for less than $500,000 as part of a program through Del-Tec Homes that adapts their popular eco-friendly round houses into flexible theatres." Del-Tec is a company that is headquartered here in Asheville, and I recently had a meeting with them. They provided me with a bunch of materials about their home models, which have also been used for churches and community centers. What attracted me to the Del-Tec concept is the fact that Del-Tec homes are designed so that the weight-bearing walls are on the outside, which means no need for posts in the theatre space. Consequently, walls can be placed inside however they are needed, and they can be easily moved if new needs arise without affecting the structural integrity of the building. The building are built modularly, and the elements are then shipped wherever they need to go (including oversees) and constructed on-site by a contractor. They are attractive and flexible, and can be designed to fit the needs of the theatre tribe and the land on which it will be placed. They are also ecologically friendly, and are easily outfitted with solar panels and other energy-saving techniques. Their ceilings are relatively high -- they start at 10' on the outside and rise toward the center -- and you can stack several on top of each other of you need more height.
I have been working on putting together the shell of something that might fit a 150-seat theatre in the round (that could also be a thrust, if the seating was flexible). So I put together a 2500 sq ft model named Vista for the theatre space, an 800 sq ft Camden for the lobby, box office, and office, connected by a, 8' X 12' "connector" that would serve as a passageway from the lobby to the theatre and also be a light block for latecomers. In addition, I added 28' X 22' rectangular wing that would serve as space for the scene shop and costume shop (this could be enlarged if needed), and a 24' X 36' garage for storage. I also added in the cost of 16 windows for the lobby and the shops. At this point, these buildings are empty -- no seats, no wiring, no carpet, no plumbing, and no contractors to put it up (I will be trying to flesh out these costs in the future) -- just the shell. The total cost, according to my addition, stands at $129,131. So far, my vision of a theatre space for under $500,000 seems well within reach.
What I would like to do -- and this may be a very crazy idea -- is to try to get a donor to build one of these buildings and rent it to the theatre tribe for $1 a year. The donor would retain the title. In addition to being a smallish amount of money to risk, I would suggest to a donor that, should the theatre fold, the building could easily be converted into a home and sold by adding walls and traditional home fixtures. So the risk is less.
More to come, but help me consider this possibility a bit more.