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Theaters Take a Nimble Approach to Economic Blues

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Theaters Take a Nimble Approach to Economic Blues
NEW YORK – At the Utah Shakespeare Festival, there's an "Early Bard" special to entice theatergoers into buying tickets in advance — the farther in the future, the bigger the discount.

At Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Mass., set and lighting designers are doing more with less, learning to make the most of minimalism, whether it's for a Pinter play, "Shirley Valentine" or "Hamlet."

And at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Conn., the menu of musicals is deliberately familiar, shows featuring songs the audiences can sing BEFORE they enter the quaint Victorian playhouse.

From major theaters such as Canada's Stratford Shakespeare Festival to small companies such as the Barnstormers Theatre in bucolic Tamworth, N.H., uncertain economic times have forced theaters across North America not only to re-examine what they are putting on stage this summer — and beyond — but how to sell these plays and musicals as well.

At the 2009 conference of Theatre Communications Group, the national association for nonprofit professional theaters, the mood was upbeat, according to Teresa Eyring, TCG's executive director. The conference was held in early June in Baltimore.

"But nobody knows what will happen from month to month," Eyring says. "I would describe theaters as 'optimistic,' but with clear eyes about the realities of the situation."

For one thing, audience ticket-purchasing habits have changed with the recession.

"We are finding that people are waiting to make their decisions," says Antoni Cimolino, Stratford's general director. "People are buying later. It's really created an uncertainty in advance, although theatergoers have started to buy now at Stratford, particularly for our 'Importance of Being Earnest' and 'West Side Story.'"

Still, it's forced some theaters to put more money into marketing and advertising to reach potentially wavering audience members.

"I think the theaters that are primarily destination theaters ... are going to be facing the challenge of people cutting their travel budgets this year and possibly not making the trip," says Eyring.

"On the other hand, some companies ... are seeing people who might have made much longer, international trips, traveling more locally," Eyring adds.

At Canada's Shaw Festival, located in picture-perfect Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, the theater is trying to capitalize on people — both Canadians and Americans — forgoing European vacations and staying closer to home. It has created getaway theater packages with 12 different partners in the Niagara region.

"We are in the heart of the Niagara wine country," says Valerie Taylor, Shaw's director of marketing. With one winery — the Hillebrand Winery — the theater has created a "go-local" dining package that celebrates wine and food grown in the region and includes, of course, theater tickets. Taylor calls it "one-stop shopping."

That shopping also includes the search for value, and more theaters than ever are offering discount tickets.

"You name it, we probably have got a discount for it," says Tina Packer, founding artistic director of Shakespeare & Company, which is located in Massachusetts' Berkshires. Among the theater's many special offers: a 40 percent discount for Berkshire County residents (except for Friday and Saturday evenings), a discount for those over 64 or under 19, a day-of-performance youth rush, a discount for purchase of the five-play Shakespeare package and free tickets for up to three children (ages 5-18) if a parent purchases a full-price matinee ticket.

In New Hampshire, the Barnstormers, according to artistic director Bob Shea, has an affectionate hold on audiences who come every year to this most traditional of summer theaters. Founded in 1931 by President Grover Cleveland's son, Francis, the theater presents eight plays in eight weeks, each one opening on a Tuesday and closing the following Saturday. This year, the season runs July 7 through Aug. 29.

Yet the Barnstormers, too, hasn't been immune to the national economic downturn.

"We're really kind of cautious this season," Shea explains, mindful, he says, of the fact that the area is very rural "and a lot of families are struggling to make ends meet."

He's instituted a special offer, a Friday night discount for families, that cuts the top ticket price in half — to $14.50 for orchestra tickets and $9.50 in the balcony of the 282-seat theater.

Shea has also been cautious with his programming, scheduling only one big musical, "Brigadoon," which will open the season, July 7-11. It has a cast of 28 and a five-piece orchestra. The rest of the season will feature such smaller-cast shows as "Private Lives," "Dinner With Friends" and "The Weir."

Savvy programming has helped the Goodspeed Opera House, the Connecticut River Valley theater that specializes in musicals, increase ticket sales this year. Its season's three big shows — "42nd Street," "Camelot" and "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" — were deliberately chosen because they are well-known.

The first, "42nd Street" (on view through July 4), received strong reviews and has become a hot ticket, says Michael P. Price, executive director of Goodspeed Musicals.

"While we are doing our usually thing of tinkering with the older musicals, the titles themselves are familiar," Price says. "When you are looking at 25 dancing actors in a 400-seat theater (as in '42nd Street'), you are delivering a lot of value. And I think that's what people are responding to.

"We have been very skillful in marketing and pricing, too," he says. "We used to offer a senior citizen discount. If you click on our Web site where it says 'senior citizen discount,' it takes you to the Super Saver where you can buy all three shows at a discount. So instead of selling one ticket at a discount, we are selling three and we are selling well into the season this way. And it will cut down on our advertising and marketing costs."

Yet at other theaters, falling ticket sales and the drying up of corporate and private donations have taken their toll, with some theaters slicing their budgets dramatically, according to Eyring.

For example, the Utah Shakespeare Festival cut its fiscal 2009 budget by $800,000, from $6.7 million in 2008 to $5.9 million this year.

The drop was not without pain, says R. Scott Phillips, who runs the Utah festival located in Cedar City. Three full-time staffers were laid off. The seasonal company, which includes actors, dancers, electricians, carpenters and more, was reduced by 55. And the remaining full-time staff took a 2 percent pay cut "in order not to have to let more people go," Phillips says.

Phillips reduced programming, too, chopping a week off the festival's summer schedule and another seven days from its fall season. Autumn will also see a switch to smaller shows, too. A musical, "Pump Boys and Dinettes," is out, and shows with smaller casts, such as "Tuesdays With Morrie" and "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare Abridged" are in.

Still, Phillips remains hopeful.

"We have a strong company and the visions for the plays are exciting. I think this will be as good if not a better season than we have done in the past," he says of a summer that includes "Henry V," "The Comedy of Errors" and "As You Like It." And Phillips already is planning for a world premiere musical, an adaptation of Charles Dickens' "Great Expectations" in 2010.

And at Shakespeare & Company, some $450,000 was cut out of the production budget, although the number of shows jump to 18, more than double the number done last year.

"At every turn, we have thought, 'How can we do this for the least amount of money?' What it means is that the sets are really simple," Packer says. "There might be one backdrop and six pieces of furniture on stage that get changed around. We're trying to be really inventive. That means the acting has to be impeccable. And so far, so good."

Despite the economic downturn, some theaters forged ahead with monumental projects this year.

Canada's Shaw Festival is presenting the entire "Tonight at 8:30," the collective title for all 10 of Noel Coward's rarely seen one-act plays, which he wrote and in which he starred with Gertrude Lawrence.

And the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis is honoring Tony Kushner with a two-month celebration of the playwright's work including the world premiere of his latest effort, "The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures."

"It's actually quite rare for a theater to celebrate a living playwright in that way," Eyring says. "It allows the audience to get to know the arc of a playwright's career and see how his work has changed over time. Theaters don't often put it together for you."





Copyright 2009 Associated Press.  All rights reserved.  This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. 


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