POSTED ON JULY 20, 2011:
Play to Pay
Why has professional theater been such a tough sell for an arts city like Tulsa?
Community theater in Tulsa has struggled on life support throughout its existence, a nonagenarian dating back to 1922 when Theatre Tulsa was founded. As a form of expression to the creative class of those bygone days, it served a niche, but rarely thrived.
Nearly every theater company founded in Tulsa has been founded with the everlasting hope and goal of one day becoming "professional," employing actors, directors, producers and administrative staff who make their living off of the theater -- who don't need full-time day jobs to support their nighttime endeavors.
For some of talent and means, New York, LA, Chicago, Boston beckon.
And though the city boasts one of the world's top ballet companies in Tulsa Ballet, and one of the top opera companies in Tulsa Opera, traditional theater has not been as successful. Even though the city boasts national-caliber players.
There are at least 20 -- probably more -- theater companies in the Tulsa Metropolitan Statistical Area that produce plays on a regular or semi-regular basis. Most of them are considered community theater companies: They're nonprofits, their actors and backstage staff are unpaid volunteers, and their mission/passion/inability not to do something theatrical is entertain and educate their immediate community. Such companies have small budgets, but they're completely capable of, and often do, producing work as daring and provocative as any professional theater company in New York or Chicago. Robert E. Gard, Marston Balch, and Pauline B. Temkin define community theater in their 1968 paper "Theatre in America: Appraisal and Challenge": "Community theatre occupies a peculiarly important position in the American theater picture. It is the largest, by far, of the theater's numerous segments, and has the best chance of reaching the average citizen and family. In the bigger cities its clientele is the neighborhood; in smaller ones, a fair cross section of the stable, educated population; and to countless localities not served by the professional or the educational theater, it offers the only opportunity to see live drama... It engages more people in theatrical activity, albeit part-time, than all the rest of the American theatre put together, including schools and colleges."
But for all the good community theater is and does, it's not good enough for some local actors and producers, who've created their own theater companies out of the desire to finally have a "professional" straight theater company in Tulsa.
Money makes the world go 'round -- or does it?
To have a professional theater company, one must first define the word "professional."
Chris Crawford, artistic director for The Playhouse Tulsa, who in 2009 co-founded the company with fellow Oral Roberts University professor Courtneay Sanders, said: "The clichéd answer is that everyone gets paid."
"I have worked for a lot of professional theaters where everyone gets paid, and the quality of a show you see here (in Tulsa) on a Saturday night is better, with people who don't get paid," Crawford said. "And so I think that's a very surface definition of a professional theater company.
"I think a professional theater company is a company with an ensemble that is committed to making every aspect of the production aesthetically excellent."
Playhouse does pay certain technical staff, including its set designer, technical and lighting directors, its sound and lighting technicians and some actors.
Sanders said the company is building an ensemble of actors and technicians by calling them Playhouse members and paying them after they've worked with the company in four shows.
"I think we could safely say we're semi-professional, because I think we can safely say that at least half of the people involved in every production are paid, whether they're actors or tech," Sanders said.
"But it's more than just a paycheck," she continued. "I think we can say we are professional in definition, but not in monetary funds. I think that, if anybody from Chicago or New York were to come into our show and sit and watch it, they would think that everyone would be paid. They would think our show was a professional show."
Crawford's definition of professional includes a full-time, paid production staff.
His hope for Playhouse is to have, in the next three years, a full-time production ensemble that includes a managing director, an artistic director, a technical director, an education director, a marketing director and a development director.
Odeum Theatre Co., created in 2009 by veteran local actors Whitson Hanna, Erin Scarberry, Cassie Hollis, Leslie Long, David Lawrence and Will Carpenter, also opened with the goal of being Tulsa's premier professional theater company.
And that company's definition of theater, like Playhouse's, involves money -- but it's focused on quality.
"It's not different from any other field," Scarberry said. "There are so many artists in town who've gone to school and trained to be theater artists or musicians. And, in other fields, there are opportunities to get paid. What artists are griping about is not being paid for their craft."
Hanna said Odeum was founded on the idea that being professional meant that, not only would the company pay its actors and technicians, but it would demand from them a "higher caliber" of work than a community theater might. And, so far, the productions the company has staged has reflected that mission.
Both Odeum and Playhouse have completed two seasons, and each of its performances has been met with rave reviews, from both critics and general audiences. Each company has also been nominated for (and Playhouse won last year) a TATE -- Tulsa Awards for Theatre Excellence -- award, a program introduced by the George Kaiser Family Foundation two years ago to encourage the production of local theater by rewarding good work monetarily.
American Theatre Co., founded by Kitty Roberts in 1970, was a non-Equity professional theater company in its heyday in the 1970s, when it employed an ensemble of actors who toured the state and region and took up residence in various local theaters.
When the oil business busted, so did ATC's funding, and the artists working there took on full-time day jobs and kept the company afloat, albeit on a smaller scale.
"Professional theater is when people are seriously trained, they choose theater as their vocation and they get paid something," Roberts said.
She hopes to reincarnate her company into what it once was.
"I'm sure (ATC) will -- confident it will (become a professional company again)," Roberts said.
But other companies, like Odeum and Playhouse, are also confident that theirs, some day soon, will be considered professional.
"The point is, when you come to see a Playhouse show, you're going to see a finished set," Crawford said. "You're going to see a good lighting design. You're going to see good acting. It's not always going to the best that you've ever seen ever in your life, but we're striving for that.
"And I think striving is what makes us a professional theater company -- even though we're not Equity, even though we don't pay everyone who's involved -- we're giving the audience the illusion and we're striving hard not to break it."
Equity: To Be, or Not to Be?
The issue of Equity is a point of contention among different theater groups.
Tulsa Project Theatre, founded by Todd Cunningham, who's also president of the PR and marketing company Garage Media, has explored, in the last few months, a relationship with the University of Tulsa's musical theater department.
The two organizations worked together on a recent production of Rent at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino's The Joint, which prompted Cunningham and Machele Miller Dill, artistic director of Tulsa Project Theatre and a musical theater professor at TU, to propose a contractual agreement between the two entities that would enable them to collaborate on their seasons, with Tulsa Project Theatre handling marketing and ticket sales and hiring professional actors to guest star in shows and TU building the set, costumes and lighting and providing the bulk of the cast.
"It's good for TU, in that gives them lot of exposure they wouldn't otherwise have gotten, and it gives students a chance to work on stage with professionals and gives them professional experience outside of their own stage and department," Cunningham said.
It would also provide Tulsa Project Theatre with an Actors' Equity Association URTA -- University/Resident Theatre Agreement -- contract, which allows colleges and universities to employ Equity actors and stage managers on a regular basis to work with students.
Although Tulsa Project Theatre hasn't yet entered into a contract with Actors' Equity, it's in negotiations with the union to do so. First the company must finalize its agreement with TU and settle final details on its season.
"Some people consider that, if they pay their actors at all, that they are a professional company at that point," Cunningham said. "You can call yourself whatever you want... To be truly considered a professional theater company, you have to have a working agreement with Actors' Equity Association.
"There has to be a standard somewhere," he said. "Because what tends to happen is some groups -- and I'm not even talking about here; I'm talking worldwide -- will pay some actors to do some shows and not pay them to do other shows. So this week, they're paying actors so they're professional, and next week they're not paying actors so they're community. If you're part of Equity, they're an organization that is monitoring you, helping you, guiding you and setting a standard for you to follow. So, until you're truly following those standards that truly make you professional, then you're really not."
At this time, there is no local theater that is formally associated with Equity. They are, however, Equity actors living in Tulsa -- but just a few.
Crawford is Equity eligible, meaning he's earned enough Equity points to be awarded membership into the Union, but, if he does, he can no longer act with Playhouse Tulsa, because it's not an Equity theater. For that reason, it plans to become one next year -- but not because its founders think that will make them professional.
"Actor's Equity Association is an actors' union, meaning it is a union designed to protect the rights of professional actors," Crawford said. "As an actor, you work 50 weeks in an Equity house and you can apply for your Equity membership. You pay the dues, which are very expensive, and all that stuff. And then after you are a member of Equity, you have to work a certain amount of weeks a year in an equity house to maintain your status.
"Equity is an actor's union. It protects actors. It has nothing to do with whether a company is professional."
Playhouse plans to operate under a Guest Artist contract, which allows nonprofit and community theaters to occasionally hire Equity members.
American Theatre Co. also uses a Guest Artist contract to occasionally hire Equity actors.
"Now, you can exist under a Guest Artist contract, but that's what (Cunningham) was just telling you: One week you're paying (actors) and the next you can go back to being a community theater," Dill said. "So anybody here in town can get an Equity artist with a Guest Artist contract, but if you want to be recognized by the union, you can get URTA... or LORT (League of Resident Theatres) -- that's the grand daddy.
"And that means the theater has taken the time and has a history and can prove to the union they are not a fly-by-night organization."
Roberts said she's not sure if she'd ever let her company become an Equity house.
"Equity is good for artists, but it's a big thing to do," she said. "I've talked to them for years, but every time I started to go that way -- it'd take the better part of a million-dollar budget to join Equity.
"Equity sounds great, but you'd better be prepared to handle it when you have a big company like mine."
Dill also said her goal for Tulsa Project Theatre is to provide the highest quality of theater possible and utilize local actors first and foremost. But with so few local actors being members of Equity, Dill said she is concerned about whether or not the company will be able to employ the number of local actors it wants to.
"My thing is, it's like, the big thing about having a local theater is (utilizing) all this local talent, when at the same time, just because you're an Equity company, by virtue of being that, you have to pull in Equity actors. There are only a few of us here," Crawford said. "Now, giving actors a place to work to get points, that's nothing to slouch at. That's a fantastic thing for Tulsa to have."
Though their opinions on many issues differ, the one thing local actors seem to agree on is the issue of quality. All think producing quality work is -- or should be -- the No. 1 priority of any theater company, and most believe the quality of work produced in Tulsa could improve.
Playhouse and Odeum both were created because their founders said they weren't happy with the work being produced by community theaters.
Crawford attempted to join the board of a well-established community theater company in town in an effort to inject it, and the community at large, with fresh energy and a fresh perspective. Crawford's offer was declined.
"So finally, I was like, 'Well, nobody wants help, so we're just going to do our own. I think when we burst onto the scene, everybody got nervous, and everybody was like, 'Oh it won't last long,' but we lasted a whole season and planned a second season.
"But I think, when we opened Playhouse, we wanted a company that did theater for everybody, something for everyone -- adults, kids, mature audiences, musicals -- that was just excellent quality."
"I think, when someone walks into the theater and pays $10, $15, $25 for a ticket, they want to get their $10, $15, $25 worth for it, as opposed to underpinning culture in Tulsa, which is: 'If we put up this show and get one or two strong cast members, we'll be all right and fill up the rest with warm bodies,'" David Lawrence, company member for Odeum, said. "There's a culture within the local theater community of: 'The audience will forgive this' -- as opposed to: 'The audience deserves its $20 worth; let's give them their $20 worth in every scene, every set piece, every line, every lighting cue.'
"When you detract from any one of those things, you're stealing from the audience."
Mo' Better, Mo' Problems
The conundrum both of these companies face is selling tickets to their high-quality -- albeit sometimes strange or quirky -- plays, when shows they consider to be of lower quality, but with very popular titles, sell out easily.
"A Charlie Brown Christmas and Macbeth have been our highest selling shows this entire season," Crawford said. "Shakespeare sells because the high schools teach it, and well-known shows sell.
"It becomes difficult, because you want to pick stuff that keeps you artistically challenged and creative and cutting-edge, but yet everyone just wants to see Oklahoma!. They want to see something they know; they want to see something that's popular."
Playhouse's lowest-selling shows were Boy Gets Girl and The Irish Rep, which feature Howie the Rookie and Shining City, Crawford said. Those plays were also two of the company's most daring.
A straight (non-musical) play can cost between $5,000 and $10,000 to produce at the local level, and a musical can cost anywhere from $15,000 to $20,000. While some companies receive grant funding and private donations, most rely on ticket sales to stay afloat and ticket sales, recently, have been declining. So much so that Playhouse, which used to host two-weekend runs of its shows at the Tulsa Performing Arts Center, now runs just one weekend.
"I think everybody -- I don think it's just us -- I think everybody is in a difficult position," Crawford said. "Because we're trying to give Tulsa what it wants without giving it everything it wants. We're still trying to educate and motivate ... but that's hard to do because no one wants to come see that when they can go see the new Reese Witherspoon movie."
"Unfortunately, there have been theater companies that have trained the audience to expect crap," Hanna said. "And they really don't know the difference. The theater community itself knows the difference, and a few select artists know the difference, but the general public doesn't know difference."
Scarberry said audience members have shied away from buying tickets to shows they're not familiar with because they've been burned by companies putting on those shows badly. And they're not familiar enough with the community to know the difference between one theater company and another, so they gravitate toward plays they're familiar with.
Hanna said Odeum's first and second seasons -- highlights of which include Speed-the-Plow, Bug and After Miss Julie -- have been about establishing the company's reputation.
"People know, when go to see an Odeum show, what they're going to get," Hanna said. "It'll probably be something they've never seen before, and the work is going to be a high caliber."
Hanna said it's also Odeum's goal to educate audiences about the importance of theater, but doing so could take years.
"Years and tons of money," he said. "(We need) funding, community support and an audience."
Lawrence said theater companies will have to earn back audiences' trust before they'll see an increase in ticket sales.
"It's hard to build up an audience that trusts they can spend money on your product," Lawrence said. "Now, it's once in a blue moon (that they get their money's worth). It's not fair to the consumer. We might as well be flipping them the bird when they walk through the door if we're going to do that to them.
"It's a tough thing to solve that issue. There are plenty of people in town who have money. ... If they can trust, then they will give. But they have a history of being let down, and the theater community perpetuates that history from show to show to show."
Come Together (right now)
Overall, the biggest hurdle local theater companies face is themselves. The community is as combative as it is cozy. There's a lot of crossover, in terms of actors, directors and technicians working on productions for various companies, but the collaboration stops just shy of being truly beneficial.
The local theater community is a breeding ground for competition, with each company so focused on selling tickets to its own productions that it's reluctant to assist in another's success.
There are exceptions to this -- Theatre Tulsa has an extensive costume closet it makes available to all theater companies -- but, for the most part, theaters seem to be out for themselves.
Without asking them, it was an issue raised by each of the interviewees for this story.
"I think the lack of collaboration is killing the industry here," Crawford said. "When I worked in Washington, D.C. (for The Shakespeare Theater Co.), we went to the opening night shows are parties (for all of the other theater companies in D.C.). And I thought, 'Why doesn't that happen here?' I mean, ... if I got everybody who's a 'Playhouse person' in a big old bus and we went to see a show, we'd sell out a performance. Easy. Same with American Theatre Co.; same with Theatre Tulsa. And it's like, why don't we do that? If the theater community can't even support each other, why are we expecting other people to support us?"
"It's hard to pull together a really fantastic production because we're divided," Scarberry said. "We're a community divided. So much of the theater community doesn't work together as well as it could."
Hanna and Crawford both said they'd like to see a sort of "theater hub" in Tulsa, where companies could pool and share resources and support.
"We all know what the damn issues are, and no one wants to deal with it," Hanna said. "Everyone has their own little kingdom and doesn't want anyone stepping on their toes.
"People can't get in your show, so what do they do? They start their own theater company. What good is that? People would say that about Odeum, but we started it to build a theater for this town so people could get paid, so they could know they're walking into an environment where they're doing professional work, where their fellow actor is going to show up on time and know his lines."
"I don't think there's any reason for any of the individual theaters to go away or reduce the amount of work they're doing on their own," Scarberry said. "We just need a central theater where everyone can go work in a professional setting."
And each company seems to think it will be that central theater.
American Theatre Company has aspirations for once again becoming a professional organization, and Roberts said she welcomes the existence of other community theaters.
"I always say it's a free country," she said. "I wouldn't want to censor or limit anybody. It is different when there are a lot of smaller groups, but I'm very hesitant to say anything negative about any kind of growth. I think it's good to have a lot of theater."
"I would eventually love to see us, TPT, we're doing some big show and we have professionals from Tulsa and all over the country in it, and Theatre Tulsa, or a community theater organization, comes in and goes, 'We're doing these kids workshops; can some of your folks come in and talk to our folks?'" Dill said.
"We're not here to compete with anybody; we're here to enrich," she said. "And I think there's room for everyone. We just want quality. That's what we're concerned with."
The Moral of the Story
No one has a definitive answer to the problems the local theater community is facing. On the to-do list are: improve quality, educate audiences, work together and pray the economy improves.
It would also be nice if Tulsans recognized the value of having a professional theater company, as it seems to with the ballet, opera and symphony.
"It's getting local people to understand that local theater can be just as good as touring theater," Roberts said. "They have a provincial attitude. Now, not all local theater is good. You have to have a selective attitude. I've had come up to me after a show and say, 'Where are you guys from?' because we were so good, they didn't think we were from here.
"Have a little more faith in your community. Support local theater."
"Musical theater is, in the United States, the most popular genre of that kind of stage performing," Cunningham said. "That a professional musical theater company doesn't exist here is kind of odd.
"This city has always invested in art, and it's been very supportive of touring shows," he said. "Tulsa has supported art like that forever and still does and wants that. And they want good theater. Good theater is being done, but professional takes it to a whole new level."
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