Friday, March 14, 2008

A Theatre Space

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.


Sarah McL said...

I don't mean to quibble, but is it necessary to refer to NY artists as "freeze dried"? I would hope that this worthwhile conversation has room for the substantial merits of all talented theatre professionals.

Anonymous said...

How much does an ache of land cost in independence? How many aches do we need to put up this mod theatre and adequate parking? How much will the property tax be annually?

I think this is a good model to start from. Thousands of dance schools and churches around the country take a similar approach.


Anonymous said...

I kept saying ache, I meant acre


Anonymous said...

Good stuff. It should be noted, not that it makes that much difference, that Dallas Theater Center is not on the hook for $338Mil. The Times article was referencing the Dallas Center for the Performing Arts (DCPA) build project which includes the Rem Koolhaas buidling, a new Opera House, condo development, city operated performance space and new performing arts high school.

DTC is actually responsible for none of the funds going in to this, as all the fund raising is done by the DCPA. It is also likely that due to extremely poor financial management on behalf of the DTC leaders, they will NOT move into the performance space as originally planned. Rather, they will probably rent the space 1-2 times a year.

Shows that just because a theater is 50-60 years old, doesn't automatically qualify it for a beautiful building. These funds would be better served fixing holes in the ship, rather than buying a pretty new sail.

Scott Walters said...

Sarah -- I was quoting Mike Daisey, who talks about NY actors and directors being freeze-dried and shipped out to the regional theatres. While I understand how this joke might not be humorous, I don't think Mike or I am saying that NY actors THEMSELVES are freeze-dried. Anyway, what about the central topic of the post -- any comment?

dv -- Yes, cost of acreage would be the next step. Again, this model doesn't go into expensive downtown space, so acreage will be lower. For instance, where I lived outside of Asheville, an acre went for $10,000. Closer to town, probably more.

And thanks, anonymous, for the DTC update -- I think the NY Times article kind of implied that it was a larger project, not just DTC. That said, WTF? $338M for a Big Box performance palace? That is more about prestige than about working artistry.

Sarah McL said...

Scott, ok, but I think there's a lot of room for negative interpretation in the characterization. I'm just saying.

Re: the central idea of the post, I think you've got some wonderful ideas cooking up! I'm very concerned about the funding-trend towards edifice and away from artistry. I'm particularly excited about the green thinking - something I think will become more and more of a concern (and buzzword) in the very near future.

Nick Keenan said...

There's a great article over on Nonprofiteer about the whole issue of "space kills a theater dead":

There's a couple companies that "benefit" from the $1/year rent plan in Chicago, and I am involved with The Side Project, which rents their space for a much larger chunk of change and ALSO built and coded a lighting grid and accessible bathrooms, etc, etc to create a repertory storefront space. (in another life, I was also an intern at DTC - I was actually the kid asked to collect information and samples about Rem Koolhaas, Frank Gehry, and other trendy architects for the project proposal the ED at the time was putting together) and backup whole-heartedly what anonymous is saying. Theaters don't do this because it's a great financial move or even for the infrastructure. They do it because it's absolutely about prestige - that's the only way they can think of to get the attention of the city they're working in and become relevant again. Remember that prestige is something you need to survive.

On the smaller, under $500k level, Being caretakers of a space is a HUGE responsibility, and most theaters are not equipped to do it properly - to the point when they try to, the theater or the theater staff ends up leaving the theater. This is true of DTC, apparently, because the ED and AD have both moved on since the start of the project. It's a traumatic experience outfitting a working theater venue - and I'm talking about simply dealing with developers and city inspectors, not even integrating their needs with the needs of your particular approach to theater and especially theater design.

I wish also for your beneficent developer solution, but it's the rare developer who has the skills to achieve what you're after and also wants to support the arts - to the tune of paying all the bills while it happens, indefinitely. Heat, Property Tax, facilities maintenance, etc... The costs of creating a building are nothing compared to the renewable costs of maintaining that building.

What I think might be a good idea is for theaters even looking at getting their own space to grab a developer into their tribe and pick their brain - or even better, if one of their company members needs a day job, use that soul-sucking day job to some benefit and get an admin job WITH a developer, and see how the process goes.

I had some construction experience growing up so I was able to help the Side Project ask the right questions and know where to save money (lobby lighting choices) and where they had to spend money (fire safety) when they went through the city approval process. Someone more knowledgeable than me would have been even more effective at balancing the needs of a theater against the requirements of building code. There are many ways to adhere to code, and if the building is your starting point and the aesthetic principles of your theater company, the building you build will not use the space efficiently, and you'll be "fighting the space" for the remainder of your tenure there.

Scott Walters said...

Nick -- I would argue that prestige is a bad substitute for an on-going, positive relationship. If a theatre is part of the community, and is making a contribution to that community, and has been embraced by that community, then prestige comes pretty far down the list of needs.

I'm not proposing a developer do this, I'm proposing a patron of the arts pay for the building, and the building alone. All the other items you mention -- utilities, upkeep, etc -- are the responsibility of the theatre tribe. This isn't a free ride, it is the elimination of a mortgage (and possibly only for a certain number of years until the tribe is on its feet, after which they might pay all or a portion of the mortgage to the donor).

I would tend to disagree that being a caretaker of a space is something theatre people are incapable of doing. Now, if that caretaking falls solely on the shoulders of only a part of the tribe, then there will be problems. But that's not how a tribe works. Or are you saying being involved in the building of a new space, Nick? Because I was involved in the design portion of the PAC at Illinois State, and you're right -- that was a headache. Any building project is a headache. My feeling is that all this occurs BEFORE the tribe starts producing, so it can be a priority. That said, there are many, many people every year who oversee the building of their own homes while simultaneously working a job and having a family -- a Del-Tec is a home, and while there are certain aspects of the process that are unique (such as the lighting system), if you follow the sustainable design values you probably won't be building a space with an elaborate lighting system or need a scene shop capable of creating massive sets. Remember, all these values go together -- you can't cherry pick!

Nick Keenan said...

True, I agree that prestige is a bad substitute for being a fundamental part of a community - it assumes that you're maintaining a degree of separation from that community, for instance. But I think a number of LORT-sized theaters feel the need to maintain that prestige for their own survival, which is why the building boom is hitting theaters in recent years. (I'll also concede that my thoughts are not nearly clear on this issue today, just trying to balloon out the conversation.)

And yes, I was primarily talking about the considerations of creating the building, not maintaining it... And the question of who bears the cost of maintenance is a big one to answer for a prospective patron of the arts. I've found great value in having the same people involved in both processes - building and maintaining - because if you build something, you'll know how best to maintain it.

As far as the question of building/theater aesthetics chicken and egg - Even spare sets and production value require *some* build infrastructure, so it's a question of scale. I think your 28' x 22' scene shop / costume shop is tight, but entirely appropriate for spare design.

Storage is the real question mark. Again, from practical knowledge, our theater uses the entire basement area for storage - something like 100' x 75', and it's overflowing with stuff we use all the time - costumes, platforms, basic rep furniture, etc.
And this is for spare design - the Goodman prop storage / scene shop takes up something like four city blocks on the south side of town. Having cheap storage space also reduces production costs and environmental impact - because you don't need to throw as much out, and you can store goods from past shows until you find a buyer on craigslist or something.

If you design your building without the *ability* to have a paint sink or ceilings high enough for or have three phase power tie-ins, that's going to force the hand of the kind of theater you do.

My basic point: Building design inevitably impacts all aesthetics of the theater company - forever - and I'm a fan of building the space to match the aesthetics and values of the theater. Again, not disputing your proposal here, just adding to the conversation.

Scott Walters said...

Nick -- I am not annoyed in the LEAST by your comments -- it is EXACTLY the kind of dialogue that I need to clarify the ideas. So please don't feel as if I am PO'd or anything.

Obviously, my concern is not with the current regional theatres, but rather with this new model. They are doing what they believe needs to be done to survive in their market, and that's fine.

The dimensions of the shops can be altered -- that's the beauty of a Del-Tec. So if the company feels that 28 X 22 is too tight, we can add more length, or add another wing.

There is a part of me that wants to dig a basement for the theatre, which would add considerable storage space. I just didn't know how to price that out, so I didn't include it. I also think that, in the case of the Independence Theatre, forming a storage and scenery (and costume?) partnership with the community theatre might be a good way to get even more sustainable. Of course, storage doesn't necessarily need to be on-site, either.

I also agree that the building makes certain aesthetic choices inevitable. In my opinion, this is a good thing. There need to be constraints, so that the natural tendency to get bigger and bigger is countered by something. The path of least resistance can assert itself very easily. Jacques Copeau, in an attempt to make it impossible to expand into scenic overload, created a permanent stage that, as I remember, was made out of conrete to it couldn't be altered! I like the way his mind worked!

Nick Keenan said...

Yeah... Frank Lloyd Wright did the same with DTC's Kalita Humphrey's Theatre. It was built to essentially reject the need for scenery (a loading dock & elevator were later added, which just goes to show you how time can make heathens out of us all). Having worked in there, I can say this - Theater needs breathing room over time, and buildings need allow artists to connect with future audiences. Wright may have been a genius, but without the ability to load in scenery, he very nearly created a museum, not a theater.

I agree that balance needs to be achieved. Some designers are so megalomaniacal that they'd ideally like to build and tear down a new building for every show. Limits are very good, but restraints will restrict the flow of blood to the head and the heart.

So a basement it is!

Scott Walters said...

Nick -- I'm afraid we're going to have to agree to disagree about this one. A theatre tribe by necessity needs a spare aesthetic -- we're not designing for future flexibility, but for the now, and any future tribe members will have to accept the constraints or decide that a tribe ain't for them. One of the bedrock values is sustainability and ecological friendliness, so the building needs to be built in such a way that those values are made possible.

Think Again: Funding and Budgets in the Arts

Every once in a while, I think I'll post a link or two to posts written earlier in the life of Theatre Ideas that seem worth revisiting ...