Biggies, Meet Smalls
When big theatres host little ones, some valuable cross-pollination of resources can occur
By Rob Weinert-Kendt
For large theatres to diversify programming and audiences, and support the work of local companies.
For large theatres to host small local companies, making their facilities, staff and audiences available.
Large theatres broaden their programming and audiences, and small companies get a larger box office and higher profile.
The culture of small and large companies can clash; success at a larger theatre isn't always portable for small companies.
An expanded definition of "local," as large theatres become presenters of small companies' work from near and far.
It would be premature to suggest that American theatres have fully diversified their work in terms of race and gender. But one promising sign of progress is that several U.S. theatres have begun to recognize that diversity has more valences than color and sex; there is also diversity of theatre size, budget, aesthetic and audience.
Even better, opening up channels along these lines is often an effective way by itself to broaden theatres' cultural and gender diversity. Since 2008, California's La Jolla Playhouse has selected a small local company for a residency, offering two rent-free productions at the Playhouse, along with tech support and marketing advice; resident companies so far have included Mo'olelo Performing Arts Company, MOXIE Theatre, San Diego Asian American Repertory Theatre and Eveoke Dance Theatre. In Chicago, Goodman Theatre has an ongoing presenting relationship with the Latino-focused company Teatro Vista.
Such programs start with a sense of responsibility, says Arena Stage managing director Edgar Dobie: "We feel blessed to have as much public support for this building as we have, and with that comes an obligation to share it."
Arena, based in Washington, D.C., began its Visiting Companies Initiative last February with a hit production of Theater J's The Chosen in its 683-seat Fichandler Stage. Theater J, which usually mounts its shows at the city's Jewish Community Center, found itself reaching a much wider audience than usual at Arena. It was also a win for Arena, says Dobie: "It awakened a whole new interest in our building."
The Arena initiative was partly inspired by Steppenwolf Theatre Company's Garage Rep program, which takes the residency idea two steps further by picking three emerging Chicago companies (so-called "storefront" theatres) and presenting their works for 11 weeks in rotating repertory. That long run, and the rep, is designed to maximize exposure and create intra-company camaraderie.
Each company has to pull off fewer shows per week but can do a longer run, and gain momentum in a way that wouldn't otherwise be possible," says Rebecca Rugg, artistic producer at Steppenwolf. Still, Rugg says, some challenges arise when a smaller company culture rubs up against a well-oiled resident theatre machine.
"What often happens is they experience a bigger buzz and audience than usual, and the company and sometimes their board get really excited about being at Steppenwolf," says Rugg. "But that excitement is often not portable. They return to business as usual in the storefront world." Still, she says, Garage Rep alums are still very engaged with the program, with each year's participating companies offering an orientation to the next year's applicants.
For Steppenwolf, Garage Rep acknowledges the theatre's roots as a scrappy ensemble and keeps in touch with younger artists and audiences. "We have a grant from the Wallace Foundation to do research on new audiences, so this is only partly altruistic. These companies bring in young people, and that helps to broaden our audience."
In Minnesota's Twin Cites, the Guthrie Theater has programmed its 200-seat black box Dowling Studio largely with the work of small local companies for six seasons now (this season will host Walking Shadow Theatre Company, Carlyle Brown & Company, Shapiro & Smith Dance and Sossy Mechanics). Ben McGovern, associate director of studio programming, echoes Rugg and others on the costs and benefits of such collaboration.
"It's two different cultures coming together," says McGovern, who comes from the world of small theatre himself. "Smaller companies are often utilizing volunteer or severely underpaid staff—there's a labor-of-love energy, and it gives them a vitality and makes them incredibly flexible, and the machine is much smaller. At a big theatre like the Guthrie, we have a lot of union obligations, and things have to be a little more rigid and scheduled, just by necessity."
The upsides are obvious, though: "As soon as a show is going on at the Studio, the pool of artists who want to work with those companies is larger. And we take off of their plate a lot of things that artists shouldn't be thinking about: front-of-house, ticketing, where the bathrooms are, where can people park. And for us, it helps us expand the offerings we have in our seasons quite a bit."
Though McGovern also admits that audiences are not always clear on the concept. "One of the biggest challenges is to convey to our audiences that the work isn't being produced by the Guthrie. I've discovered that the whole notion of who is producing a show is lost on an audience. To say, 'You can also see this company's work at Theatre Garage'—I don't think it's a distinction that people naturally get."
In Costa Mesa, Calif., South Coast Repertory has recently begun to open the doors of its 94-seat studio space to Orange County-based companies, and next year plans to host companies in nearby Los Angeles County. It began in early 2010, when Anaheim's Chance Theatre brought its hit production of Jesus Hates Me to the SCR Studio for a few weekends. Says associate artistic director John Glore: "It did exactly what we hoped: Our audiences cross-fertilized a bit."
This past spring, SCR's Studio Series presented shows by Orange County's Underground Burlesque Society, Breath of Fire Latina Theater Ensemble, Rogue Artists Ensemble, Arpana Dance Company and Backhausdance. Now that's diversity.