A new player will be popping up more and more frequently on Baltimore stages next season: The Almighty Dollar.
As local companies prepare for the 2009-2010 theatrical season, never in recent memory has the economy played such a prominent role in determining the number and type of shows that will appear on local stages.
Some theaters, including Rep Stage in Howard County, will offer fewer productions, or fewer performances of them. Some such as the Hippodrome are opting for tried-and-true crowd-pleasers instead of more adventurous fare. Some are staging only plays with small casts; others will recycle productions that have been mounted elsewhere.
"Programming is a theater's life's blood, and I worry about the health of some of our fellow arts groups who are being forced to alter their seasons because of very real financial challenges," says artistic director Vincent Lancisi of Everyman Theatre, which announced its 2009-2010 season Monday and has already reused costumes and sets to save money.
"In the long term, those changes could result in fewer total audience members, and fewer provocative shows that engage our customers and make them think. Even in the toughest of times, even during the Great Depression, we had a vibrant arts program in this country. So I worry about the cuts I'm seeing."
The financial pressures - and reactions - seen in Baltimore are part of a national trend.
According to Teresa Eyring, executive director of the Theatre Communications Group, the trade group for nonprofit, regional theaters such as Everyman and Center Stage, the budgets of troupes nationwide will shrink next year between 10 percent and 15 percent.
During a January survey of the group's 500 members, 20 percent said they plan to cut the total number of productions; 16 percent said they plan to reduce performances; and 29 percent said they plan to replace large-cast shows with plays requiring just a few actors.
Eyring thinks that ticket-buyers understand that arts groups are scrambling to survive, and will put up with theatrical economies for now. But if the downsizing continues, she says, eventually audiences will find other ways to spend their hard-earned dollars.
"Theaters in this economy are suffering and sometimes make choices that affect what's on stage," Eyring says. "But in the long run, artistic sacrifices can frustrate audiences, and lead to reductions in both attendance and support."
In Baltimore, the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center has cut the number of subscription offerings for next season from seven to six. Next year's slate of offerings contains such traditional musicals as Fiddler on the Roof and Dreamgirls. Absent is cutting-edge fare from the past two seasons such as the randy puppet musical, Avenue Q, and Spring Awakening, with its themes of incest and suicide.
The Hippodrome showcases touring Broadway musicals, and the venue's executive director, Stella Benkler, has said that the programming changes were made because her audience prefers "a more traditional Broadway season."
Eyring has been hearing similar tales.
"Some companies have said that they are backing away from producing new work, or plays with a risky subject matter, or shows than an audience might not have heard of," she says. "Instead, they're choosing plays that audiences have heard of before and that are more likely to be a sure bet."
Center Stage, which is facing a 20 percent budget cut for next season, will make up the shortfall by staging works requiring less rehearsal time. In previous years, Baltimore's largest regional theater has offered a six full-length plays and musicals; next year, that will be reduced to four. The season will be supplemented by two hour-long shows, three staged readings and a cabaret series.
"Instead of mounting shows that will require four weeks of rehearsal, the rehearsal period for the staged readings, the short works and the cabaret series will vary from one or two days to two weeks," Managing Director Debbie Chinn says.
"This isn't to say, though, that the audience will see something that is bare bones. We're trying to find economies in the performance structure instead. We've been thinking about introducing this model for some time, but the economy pushed it into the forefront."
Rep Stage in Howard County will stage five shows as part of its subscription season, instead of six. No show will have a cast of more than four actors. Its production of Wittgenstein, opening Aug. 26, will be strikingly similar to one opening May 22 at the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival, with the same director, the same actors in two lead roles, and some of the same costumes.
Eyring said that sharing a production can make sense if the audiences of the two troupes don't overlap.
"There can be considerable costs to building a production that can greatly outstrip the costs of running it," she says. "For instance, it might cost a company $300,000 to rehearse a show, and to build the sets and scenery. But once the show opens, it might only cost $100,000 to perform it for four weeks."
Even little Everyman Theatre, which has managed to increase its subscription sales and to sell out shows despite the economy, has been forced to cut back.
Audiences who applauded the troupe's recent production of The Cherry Orchard apparently didn't notice that the actors wore the same costumes in the first and fourth acts.
"I kept expecting someone to complain," says Lancisi, the artistic director. "I was pleasantly surprised when no one did. Maybe, no one will notice the cost-cutting measures we've had to adopt if we do our jobs well enough on stage."