By Lily Janiak
Theater has never been among the Bay Area’s most cutthroat industries, but for years, the scene was marked by a polite but determined “every theater for itself” mentality. Not so any more. Changes in the economy, in the habits of theatergoers and even in the population makeup of the Bay Area have prompted a new era of cooperation and partnerships, which not only benefit the theaters but audiences as well.
“I think we live in a moment right now,” says California Shakespeare Theater artistic director Eric Ting, “where this idea of artists and organizations competing against one another is not the best way to advocate for the health of the art form.”
Instead of existing solely unto themselves, local theaters like Cal Shakes and Santa Cruz Shakespeare are co-producing plays, which reduces costs and increases the visibility of both the show and the presenters. Other companies are sharing leases, as 42nd Street Moon and Theatre Rhinoceros are on the Eureka Theatre, which gives small theater companies almost unheard-of stability. Other small companies are teaming up to apply for grants for which they wouldn’t be eligible on their own.
Santa Cruz Shakespeare artistic director Mike Ryan, with whom Ting is co-producing “Measure for Measure” this summer, says the alignment makes intuitive sense. “One of the things that we have started to do at Santa Cruz Shakespeare is shift away from this idea of being a single organization pursuing a single mission,” says Ryan, adding the company’s mission is “something we actually share with a number of other organizations. Often, the best way of accomplishing our mission is by seeking those organizations out and sharing resources and effort with them.”
One reason for the new era of sharing is changing audience preferences. Audiences today, especially younger ones, are less likely to subscribe to a whole season — which is key to many theaters’ financial models. That’s reflected in Theatre Communication Group’s “Theatre Facts 2015,” which surveyed financial data from 125 theaters across the country from 2011 to 2015. The report shows that while theater subscription income only kept pace with inflation between those years, single ticket sales grew 10.5 percent, adjusted for inflation.
Since contemporary audiences are less inclined to commit than their predecessors were, it’s not strategic for theaters to pitch them only on subscriptions, on allying themselves to a particular company. Instead, they also have to pitch audiences on theatergoing in general — a goal more easily accomplished through partnerships.
Economic instability is another reason to band together, as manifest in a string of theatrical casualties: the Thrillpeddlers’ recent loss of their space; Impact Theatre’s closing its doors on La Val’s Subterranean, in Berkeley, in 2016; the closure of A Traveling Jewish Theatre, also known as the Jewish Theatre San Francisco, in 2012; and Asian American Theater Company’s disbanding around that same time.
Paradoxically, theaters can suffer both when the economy is doing poorly and when it’s doing well, says John McGuirk, director of the Performing Arts Program at the Hewlett Foundation. The 2008 recession, which shrank individual donations, foundation giving and ticket sales, meant “a big constriction of resources” for theaters, which had to produce more with less. Then, the notoriously skyrocketing rents brought by the economic recovery “again forced organizations to collaborate around space and shared needs,” he says.
That pressure is part of how, nine years after Theatre Rhinoceros executive director John Fisher tried and failed to find a rental partner to cut down on overhead, it’s now landed one in 42nd Street Moon, which is sharing its new lease on the Eureka Theatre with the Rhino and other companies.
“There’s so much common sense that I think people forget about (in) collaborating with other companies,” says Daren A.C. Carollo, who with Daniel Thomas is 42nd Street Moon’s co-executive director. “I don’t think of theater ever as competition, because then we’re not serving the community the second we do that.”
The space sharing at the Eureka joins a surge of partnerships. Since January, PlayGround has been partnering on its lease of the Potrero Stage with Crowded Fire and Golden Thread. When Magic Theatre opens its rehearsal and small performance space in two to three years at 950 Market St., it plans to make the venue available to other companies for free. Two blocks northeast on Market, ACT has been allowing small companies to rehearse and perform at no cost in its Costume Shop and the Rueff at the Strand Theater, thanks to the support of the Kenneth Rainin Foundation and San Francisco Neighborhood Arts Collaborative. With the African American Theater Alliance for Independence, or AATAIN, the African American Art and Culture Complex and organizations in residence there are teaming up to apply for grants. Finally, there will also be another intraregional co-production when Marin Theatre Company and TheatreWorks team up for Dominique Morisseau’s “Skeleton Crew” in early 2018.
In all these partnerships, it’s not just theaters’ budgets that benefit. It’s also theater audiences.
“At its heart, whenever we talk about co-productions, it’s ultimately about savings,” says Ting. “But in the best of worlds, the savings allow us to invest more money in the show.”
The savings might not be huge. In co-producing, Ryan says, “it’s not like it would cost half what it would cost otherwise.” Still, splitting the cost of rehearsal time and some of the materials budgets for “Measure for Measure” means that Cal Shakes and Santa Cruz Shakespeare “get to focus a little bit more on the art,” says Ryan. That can entail better production values in myriad ways, from grander sets and costumes to the deeper performances that come from a longer rehearsal period.
For AATAIN, which comprises Cultural Odyssey, AfroSolo, African-American Shakespeare Company, Lorraine Hansberry Theatre and Push Dance Company, in addition to the African American Art and Culture Complex, the financial benefits from partnership were more significant. Only together, not alone, the companies were eligible for grants from the Hewlett Foundation to study their audience demographics, upgrade their venue’s technology, transition to a new, shared box office system and develop a three-year marketing plan.
Important as those benefits were, the partnership also supplies a less tangible benefit, says Idris Ackamoor, the founder and executive director of Cultural Odyssey. “It’s been a crisis situation in regards to the African American performing arts here in the Bay Area,” he says. Since Lorraine Hansberry Theatre lost its permanent space in 2007, the Bay Area has been one of the few major metropolitan areas without a stand-alone African American theater, Ackamoor says. In banding together, the organizations can give more visibility to African American arts than they could on their own.
“Skeleton Crew,” about workers in a Detroit car factory in 2008, wouldn’t seem to have a visibility problem. It’s getting 16 productions across the country in the coming year, says TheatreWorks Silicon Valley artistic director Robert Kelley. Both he and Marin Theatre Company artistic director Jasson Minadakis sought the rights for the show, and since they have little audience overlap, they decided to co-produce. It’s not uncommon for theater leaders to rhapsodize about the shows in their seasons, but Minadakis and Kelley agree that “Skeleton Crew,” for its relevance and the quality of its writing, merits a degree of investment that they couldn’t give to every single show.
Minadakis says that theater audiences also benefit from an intraregional co-production in a more indirect way. “We want writers to be able to make a living doing this. … It’s super hard to make a living off of a run at one theater. But (playwright Morisseau) is getting two sizable theaters in the Bay Area to do productions of her play when normally it would only be one.”
For 42nd Street Moon and Theatre Rhino, a new partnership on the lease of the Eureka Theatre spares them the countless inefficiencies of nomadism, with its series of typical, by-the-book theater rental agreements. Together they can plan their whole seasons, on their own terms and timelines, without working around the needs and conflicts of a third-party landlord. If one company wants to load in a set piece two days before its hold on the space technically begins, the answer is no longer a flat no but a shared effort to make it work.
All the energy the companies might have spent toward those headaches they can now redirect to their shows and to broader concerns, such as Moon’s capital campaign to renovate the shabby Eureka.
“When you look at arts funding and some of the challenges that we might face, we can’t afford to not cooperate,” says Thomas, Moon’s co-executive director. “A rising tide raises all boats. If we can’t share our resources and our knowledge and our artists and talents, we’re not going to survive on our own.”
Lily Janiak is The San Francisco Chronicle’s theater critic. Email: email@example.com Twitter: @LilyJaniak
Measure for Measure: Written by William Shakespeare. Directed by Tyne Rafaeli. July 18-Sept. 2 at Santa Cruz Shakespeare at The Grove in DeLaveaga Park, 501 Upper Park Rd., Santa Cruz. $20-$55. (831) 460-6399. www.santacruzshakespeare.org. Sept. 13-Oct. 8 at California Shakespeare Theater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda. $20-$92, subject to change. (510) 548-9666. www.calshakes.org