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Dream Big, Realistically: Of Small Casts and Big Economics

0815 stage
It’s no secret that theater casts are getting smaller. With theater companies across the country facing tough financial decisions, scheduling more small-cast or one-person shows and fewer large-cast productions provides a proven way to stretch increasingly scarce funding dollars. Of course, that means fewer jobs for actors. As Actors’ Equity Association noted in its most recent annual report, the 2009-10 season was the second straight in which the number of jobs for Equity members declined. The report went so far as to link those declines directly to “seasons and shows becoming smaller.” For this, of course, you can thank the giant vampire squids who ruined the economy and the elected officials who have adopted a Bến Tre strategy for saving it.

In a recent study, the National Endowment for the Arts found that while demand for filmed entertainment will, in the years to come, translate into a continued demand for screen actors, stage actors’ fates are more closely tied to fluctuations in the U.S. economy as a whole. “A weak economy results in limited funding from private and public sources,” the study claimed. Of course, saying that the current economy is “weak” is kind of like saying that Stephen Sondheim’s feelings about “Porgy and Bess” are “strong.”

Not that any of this mattered much to Seattle Times critic Misha Berson, who in a piece published this weekend bemoaned the shrinking of cast sizes and urged playwrights to get back to writing plays that call for grand numbers onstage. “If theater is, as Shakespeare declared, a mirror held up to nature,” Berson wrote, “wouldn't it be grand to not just see a few faces reflected in the glass — but sometimes, also, a crowd?”

Of course it would. Berson’s piece was, no doubt, well intended, and she gave a nod to the economics that have driven theater companies to play small ball with their seasons. But she offered no solutions to these institutions in urging them to get back to thinking big. Her argument isn’t much of an argument at all, but rather a complaint. It’s the equivalent of walking into an art museum in a medium-sized American city and shouting, “Hey, I like Van Gogh. Why ain’t you got a room full of Van Goghs in here, huh?” Van Goghs cost money. A lot of other great art costs less money. Duh.

One of the best recent examples of the toll the crap economy has exacted on American theater comes from Berson’s own back yard. When Seattle’s Intiman Theatre closed its doors in April, it did so only after taking a hatchet to its season. The theater’s management had made plans to cut the only large-cast production—J.M. Synge’s “The Playboy of the Western World”—from its schedule in order to cut costs. The saving proved not to be enough, and the season was canceled.

Encouraging playwrights and theater directors to “dream big,” as Berson requested, is all well and good—certainly working actors would benefit from such dreaming. But dreams cost money. What is needed is for pleas such as Berson’s to be tied to the world of reality. Folks who care to think realistically about the challenges facing American theaters can start by demanding that funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, currently under attack by a hostile Congress, be preserved and expanded. For those who want simply to complain about the current state of affairs, they will have no shortage of things to complain about in the coming years.

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