MILWAUKEE -- Declaring "We are pigheaded enough to say we would rather stop," Jonathan West, artistic director of Bialystock & Bloom Co., has announced that the 11-year-old Milwaukee troupe will close at the end of its current season. West and the group's two co-founders, actors Scott Howland and Stephan Roselin, said declining ticket sales over the past two seasons has led them to disband rather than search for broader audiences or scale back production values and actors' pay.
Created to present provocative work and to push the boundaries of Milwaukee theatre, the group will have mounted 40 productions of plays by such dramatists as Nicky Silver, John Guare, Caryl Churchill, and Neil LaBute when its final show, Edward Albee's The Zoo Story, closes May 21.
"It's very difficult to run a company that consistently does challenging work," West said. "It's difficult to choose plays. We were always under the thumb of needing to do something that is financially successful. I think audiences are in a happy mode right now. I think, increasingly, theatres have to turn to that kind of programming. We could do The Odd Couple and survive. But I don't want to stick around for longer than my expiration date."
For its first three years, Bialystock & Bloom Co. was a late-night theatre, mounting such works as Bent and The Elephant Man with 11 p.m. curtains and $500 production budgets. For the past few seasons, it has been one of the resident companies in the Broadway Theatre Center, sharing that facility's black-box Studio Theatre with Renaissance Theaterworks and the Milwaukee Chamber Theatre. This season the company has mounted Rolin Jones' The Jammer and Dario Fo's We Won't Pay! We Won't Pay!, and it will present the gender-bending Matt & Ben in March before finishing up with The Zoo Story.
Bialystock & Bloom tapped into Milwaukee's deep pool of non-Equity actors during its early years, not paying anyone until a 1999 production of Sam Shepard's True West. Since then, according to West, all actors, designers, and production staff have been compensated; in recent years, two union actors have been hired for each season, with West and one production person serving as the only full-time staff. The company also operates a production shop, co-owning tools with Milwaukee Shakespeare and building sets for Renaissance Theaterworks and itself.
Bialystock & Bloom had slashed its budget from last season's $300,000 to $220,000 to address ongoing deficits. The company's current deficit is about $25,000.
"We made a lot of tactical errors," West said. "I tried to be an artistic manager and a managing director. I'm a better artistic manager, I think, because I care about that more. We have not been good at cultivating a big board and a full staff. We didn't cultivate a large volunteer corps." Howland added, "I wish we had been better businesspeople, but we didn't [create the company] for that reason."
West, Howland, and Roselin hope to retire the company's debt before it goes out of business by selling assets, aggressively pushing ticket sales for its final productions, and devising various fundraising events. For example, a party following the final curtain call of The Zoo Story will feature all 40 of Bialystock & Bloom's productions condensed and performed by the original casts in just 45 minutes.
"The triumph is we can close the company on our own terms," West said. "Our hand is not being entirely forced. We still want to be members of the [Milwaukee] theatre community, and we don't want to end in a distasteful way."
Yet Bialystock & Bloom's announcement has sent a shudder through the community, which had been energetically expanding for more than 20 years before Theatre X shut down in November 2004. The Milwaukee Chamber Theatre teetered on the edge of closing in March 2004, and its financial condition is still considered perilous. Asked to assess the current state of Milwaukee theatre, West said, "We are all competing for one audience. There is a theatregoing audience here, but I don't think it has expanded at the rate that companies like ours have grown."