The Urge to Merge

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Co-productions between nonprofit theaters, whether crosstown or cross-country, are becoming ubiquitous, and the economy—if anyone had any doubt—is the explanation. Even large, well-funded institutions are feeling the pinch. In late April, Playwrights Horizons and the Vineyard Theatre, two Off-Broadway titans, announced they'll co-produce The Burnt Part Boys, a new musical, in 2010. And in Southern California, Bruce Norris' play The Pain and the Itch will be co-produced by the Theatre @ Boston Court and the Furious Theatre Company.

But three Off-Off-Broadway groups are taking the idea to a new level. They're not only sharing resources and expenses to mount three new plays in a four-week repertory; they're relinquishing their identities in the process. Get S.O.M. is being presented not by Theatre of the Expendable or Small Pond Entertainment or Cross-Eyed Bear Productions, but by Theatre of the Small-Eyed Bear, a mash-up of the companies' names. Even S.O.M. is a hybrid, consisting of the first letter in the title of each play: Lenny Schwartz's Squiggy and the Goldfish, Duncan Pflaster's Ore, or Or, and David McGee's Mare Cognitum.

The heads of the three companies say Theatre of the Small-Eyed Bear is a temporary venture. But its results—measured artistically and financially, they say—could change that. And all three call it a merger and see it as a possible step toward a more permanent meshing of missions, staff, artists, and funders.

Jesse Edward Rosbrow, Theatre of the Expendable's artistic director, said the groups are relinquishing their names "to add to our brands, not to erase them. We feel the more often we say, 'Theatre of the Small-Eyed Bear,' the more likely our collective audiences will catch on. I feel like this is the kind of thing we could have been doing to cut costs even when we had money. And we do have quality control: We all know each other's work already. For us, it's about trying to get people involved in brands our audiences haven't interacted with before, so all of us can grow."

And for actors—because the sharing of resources allows three plays to be produced instead of one or two—it means more jobs.

A Delicate Balance

Each company retains its own ambitions, said Small Pond Entertainment artistic director Michael Roderick. For his group, that means presenting new plays, promoting high school and college theater artists, serving as an umbrella organization to help new groups raise money, and providing general management services. "So we all bring different things to the table," he said. "I also teach at a high school and run rehearsal studios there, so I can donate a large portion of the overall budget through space—which means none of us are paying $32 an hour or something ridiculous."

"And I was already doing a play of mine in a festival this June," said Pflaster, who heads Cross-Eyed Bear Productions and also contributed graphic design to the venture. "So for me this is interesting in other ways. Cross-Eyed Bear has never presented a play other than mine. When Mike and Jesse asked if I'd be interested in producing with them, it came down to expenses. After we talked, I knew if our resources were pooled, we could make it happen."

But some attitude adjustments were in order. "It comes down to producers and who they are," said Roderick. "There are those who take their resources and try to make everything happen for themselves. And there are those who want to share their resources to build broader audiences. One big misconception about New York independent theater is that we're in competition. We're not. None of us are making bank on any one show."

Roderick has experience in commercial theater and knows firsthand that producers rarely bankroll their own shows. But to him, adopting that model seemed obvious: "The thing is, we know it only works if you're honestly cross-promoting each other's shows. Lots of people think stuffing a post card in a program means cross-marketing. But for us it means promoting three shows three ways. And it works because the best business partners are strongest where you're weakest."

Necessity and Invention

Still, it's one thing for like-minded producers to mount new work less expensively and another to abandon their names. Brand identity is as precious to a theater as it is to any corporation—for one thing, donors need to know where their money is going—and some industry veterans find merger hard to fathom, however grim the times.

Teresa Eyring, executive director of Theatre Communications Group, a service organization for nonprofit theaters, was hard-pressed to cite an example of theaters choosing to cast aside their identities, either short- or long-term. "I've heard of some companies trying to merge," she said, "but some haven't done it yet because of concerns about giving up brands, or there are artistic or cultural specificities that make it not quite feasible." But the recession may reorder people's thinking, she added.

"Next year we're talking the 10 to 15 percent range, on average, in terms of budgets being reduced," said Eyring. "By the way, the economy isn't the one major form of change theaters are dealing with. There's the migration of news coverage—the disappearance and bankruptcy of newspapers. It's affecting groups large and small. They're going to have to become creative as they try to stay alive." So variations on the merger theme may emerge. "At TCG," she said, "we're hearing a lot on partnerships, and sharing resources is on everybody's list of possibilities. I hear about theaters planning strategic alliances to build or keep audiences."

Micro-mergers, in which theaters share some aspects of production, could develop. Washington's Seattle Rep and Intiman Theatre share a costume shop, for example, and they've discussed a merger over the years, Eyring said. And Theatre of the Small-Eyed Bear reminded her of the arrangement between the Great Lakes Theater Festival in Ohio and the Idaho Shakespeare Festival: "Now they share, among other things, a producing artistic director and acting company employed year-round between them. So I think we may see more mergers as we see more successful models. There's a lot of intellectual power being put toward asking, 'How can we think differently?' "

All Things Being Unequal

Of course, fiscal pressures aren't the same in all areas of the country. Los Angeles–based David Elzer, who specializes in marketing and public relations and who represents the co-production of The Pain and the Itch as well as other nonprofit companies, said co-producing isn't as "epidemic" in L.A. because production and Equity contract costs are less severe than they are in New York.

"Certainly the L.A. theaters have no intention of merging together permanently the way New York groups might," said Elzer. "In New York, because of the conditions there, they have to reach out to each other whenever appropriate. Part of what's happening with The Pain and the Itch is Theatre @ Boston Court and the Furious Theatre Company are both in Pasadena, and Furious' home is to be remodeled soon, so they don't have a home during this particular period of time. But I think Furious hopes to bring future projects to other companies to work on. Especially if those projects are bigger in scale than what they're used to doing—and if funding doesn't rise, which isn't about to happen."

But Rosbrow thinks Theatre of the Small-Eyed Bear might be a perfect opportunity to attract donors: "We're selling our merger experiment as part of fundraising. I think it sounds like a good pitch. Now, there is the question we're dancing around—how our money gets pooled—and the answer is that the percentage a company goes in for is what they'll get back. We also understand we'll operate at a loss. This is, after all, small nonprofit theater. But if we can do this, whenever the economy recovers, we can do this in the future."