We usually expect some transitions at the close of each theater season. Groups reconfigure, partners change and stage artists in local colleges follow a migratory pattern well known by now.
But thus far in 2012, three area companies have closed shop for good, including one of our oldest and most celebrated independent troupes. In addition to those three, a fourth company has announced that this coming year will be its last.
The fall opens to audiences that have remained resilient during the economic downturn. Two noted companies are returning from multi-year hiatuses, and groups are clearly innovating in the ways they create, stage and market their work. But the fall also begins with word of closings, economic caution and unexpected cutbacks from established programs.
Call 2012 the year of the gut check—and the year when the concept of sustainability suddenly became a lot more important to regional theater.
In May, RALEIGH ENSEMBLE PLAYERS, a 2011 recipient of an Indies Arts award from this newspaper, stood on the verge of its 30th anniversary, at the end of its first full year in a new theater space in the heart of downtown. But a long-term lack of large-scale fundraising skills and adequate fiscal oversight among the company's board and management were about to come due.
Saddled with ongoing production costs and much higher rent, the group had made little headway in more than two and a half years against debts mainly accrued in upfitting the space in 2009. That September, the group owed $200,000. When it suddenly declared bankruptcy this May, the amount was just under $250,000.
The news rocked regional independent theaters, forcing companies to closely reexamine their own practices.
"I think it's incredibly difficult to build a sustainable organization, particularly on the small scale," says Tim Scales, an arts marketing and management consultant who works with local theaters.
"What happened to REP could happen to any of us," said Jeff Storer, artistic director for MANBITES DOG THEATER. "What we do is not easy. All small theaters hang on by a thread, and every step you take has to be taken carefully. Our survival has been understanding that we couldn't take larger steps than we could pay for, or that we could raise money or find donors for."
Beth Yerxa, executive director for Triangle ArtWorks, a regional support organization, says the state of the economy is a factor.
"All of these arts organizations are businesses," she says. "And in a tough economy, like the past couple of years, it's not just arts businesses that have been struggling with the bottom line. Theaters can do a better job on the business side of things, and we're going to work to help them get the resources they need to do that in a more organized way."
Elsewhere, FREE ASSOCIATION THEATRE ENSEMBLE called it quits after its promising initial productions in 2007 gradually gave way to much more uneven work in venues including an improvised storefront space in Cary. And while THE DISTILLERY, a self-styled playwrights' development group, showed equal promise in early works, a change in artistic leadership sparked changes in venue and focus, along with cancelled performances during the group's final spring staging.
In August, we learned about the "11th and final season" of GHOST AND SPICE PRODUCTIONS, who'll go dark after producing Absurd Person Singular next spring. "I think we just learned everything we could from the structure in place, and all felt we wanted to creatively move on," says artistic director Rachel Klem. "There weren't financial issues or company issues—we all get along just fine."
COMMON GROUND THEATRE, which has hosted Ghost and Spice and many other regional companies, remains unaffected by the decision, and Klem plans to announce details of a new artistic endeavor in 2013. Ghost's final go-round opens with the stage version of Harold and Maude, Hal Ashby's beloved 1971 dark comedy with Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon, starting Sept. 28.
But UNC's PERFORMANCE STUDIES program, recipients of a 2010 Indies Arts award, has seen its production budgets slashed in the aftermath of major funding cuts in the state's universities. Casualties include most of its customary season of faculty and graduate student productions, and the SOLO TAKES ON festival of one-person shows.
"It's hard for us to fund our own productions," says director Joseph Megel. "We have to change our strategy and make choices about what we can and can't do."
Meanwhile, the PROCESS SERIES, which Megel created in 2008 for major works in development, survives. Its fifth season opens with audio installation artist Stephen Vitiello's new work with field recordings from Cork, Ireland (Oct. 5–6) and The Mexican, As Told By Us Mexicans, a "queer theatrical retelling" of a Jack London story by Ricardo Bracho and Virginia Grise (Oct. 12-13). And the PERFORMANCE COLLECTIVE does its usual—and therefore wholly unpredictable—thing when Rachel Lewallen adapts Matthea Harvey and Amy Jean Porter's recombinant nursery rhyme, Of Lamb, starting Nov. 8.
On the plus side of the column, BOTH HANDS THEATRE and ARCHIPELAGO THEATRE will return to production in the coming year. But LITTLE GREEN PIG THEATRICAL CONCERN is another company dialing back its season, with three productions reflecting a decrease from previous four- and five-show seasons.
"Thing got a little scary around The Birthday Party, last year," artistic director Jay O'Berski recalls. "We ran out of money. After REP, we were afraid we were getting a little beyond our abilities to raise enough funds in enough time."
But the cutback, O'Berski notes, actually permits the group to do "19-person shows like our opener, and The Wooster Group, which is also quite ambitious and large."
And other companies are using local bars as staging spaces this fall. NATIONAL THEATRE OF SCOTLAND, whose Black Watch packed houses for CAROLINA PERFORMING ARTS in February, presents The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart at Top of the Hill, starting Sept. 16.
Having previously devised performance works to cross-pollinate fashion design, visual art, roots music and choreography's disparate communities, URBAN GARDEN's The Game(ing) Show cross-wires the region's world-class gaming culture into a new multimedia work at King's Barcade in November.
Companies should examine Little Green Pig's publicity for Richie, since it likely contains a major clue on the future of regional arts marketing. Up to now, theater ads have looked like ... well, theater ads: mostly polite, unimposing visual petitions, which might not get a second look from anyone not already dramatically inclined.
But Alex Maness' full-color ad (at bit.ly/richieLGP) doesn't care if you're a theater fan or not. It drags you into its world with a promise of a singularly raucous girls' night out. Folks who've never got to the bottom of a conventional theater ad will be checking the fine print on this one. Then they'll do something else they haven't done before: actually consider going.
Nick Karner's trailer video (at bit.ly/richieVID) similarly takes that form to places we haven't seen before. If we see more full-immersion ads like these, more people will be going to the theater.
But what if getting people in the theater isn't the ultimate goal? What will happen when local companies investigate the services of websites like stageit.com, which lets musicians present and sell tickets to live performances and "interactive experiences" online?
A century ago, they were called salons. But funkier versions are being produced locally: PROFESSOR DIABLO'S TRUE REVUE and the MIXTAPE, produced by Duke's CENTER FOR DOCUMENTARY STUDIES and THE HINGE, respectively, feature genre-bending collaborations and declamations by leading regional writers, performers, artists and musicians. At last week's iteration of Professor Diablo, Howard Craft, Thaddaeus Edwards and Justin Robinson helped Anita Woodley share sections from her new solo show, The Men In Me, which plays Common Ground Nov. 10. Though Sept. 25's Mixtape features Erin Espelie, elin o'Hara slavick and Adra Raine, Diablo (aka Duncan Murrell) is keeping his Oct. 23 gig under wraps for now.
Before that, the PLAYGROUND begins its series of staged readings for regional playwrights, Almost Ready, Oct. 21 at the ArtsCenter.
We'll close with a note on politics, which (for some reason) is showing up in a number of independent offerings this fall. John Honeycutt and David Henderson take the leads when JUSTICE THEATER PROJECT presents Frost/ Nixon's regional premiere starting Sept. 7. ARTSCENTER STAGE participates in the Neo-Futurist's national Plays for Presidents Festival with 44 Plays for 44 Presidents, opening Sept. 28 (PlaysforPresidents.com). And Boged (Traitor), an Israeli reimagining of Ibsen's An Enemy of the People, gets a staged reading at the Friday Center Sept. 29 before an American premiere in Washington next spring.
Closer to Election Day, STREETSIGNS CENTER presents a staged reading of Election Central, Elisabeth Lewis Corley's new work on election fraud, Oct. 23 at Manbites Dog Theater. Later that week, BARE THEATRE adapts Ionesco's The Leader into an evening of sketches, movement and clown work about leadership and following. It opens at Common Ground Oct. 25 and moves the following week to Raleigh's Visual Art Exchange.
And among the collegiate shows we're keeping an eye on: MEREDITH COLLEGE's Machinal, starting Sept. 25; HOOF 'N' HORN's Avenue Q, opening Oct. 5; and UNC DDA's take on Sarah Ruhl's Eurydice, beginning Oct. 11. PAUPER PLAYERS' Rocky Horror Show takes wing on Nov. 9, before COMPANY CAROLINA's production of Neil LaBute's Filthy Talk for Troubled Times starts Nov. 15.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Blackouts, slow fades and reasons to believe."
Correction: Ionesco wrote The Leader (not The Candidate). Also, Ms. Corley's first name is spelled Elisabeth (not Elizabeth).