Thursday, May 16, 2013

Black Box Versus Broadway: Why Small Theatres Matter by Harper H.

“I regard the theatre as the greatest of all art forms, the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being.”
-Oscar Wilde

            Some people think they know what theatre is. A raised stage with curtains drawn, an orchestra warming up unseen below, hundreds, maybe thousands of plush red seats arranged in rows along the ground and balconies. Some people go to the theatre to be told a story, a fantastic tale where impossible things happen and people burst into song and dance. But this is not theatre for everyone.
            For others, theatre is the stage that extends under the crowd’s feet, the world which, for an hour and a half, they experience with the four, five, maybe six actors speaking directly to them. This is theatre for me.
            Sitting as far away from Artists Repertory Theatre’s main stage as possible, I am a mere five rows from the actors. There are a hundred other audience members, maximum, and every one of us is engrossed in the scene onstage.
            Race, through the almost too real story of three lawyers defending a white man in a rape case against a black woman, talks about the underlying and often unspoken racial and gender issues that exist today. It’s gritty, it’s vulgar, and it blows open a topic that would be too intense for a bigger theatre.
            There are only four actors: the three lawyers, one white man, one black man, and one black woman; and the white man they’re defending. The dynamic between each of the actors is incredible, and each of the show’s relationships pulls me deeper into the story, which is seems almost uncomfortably non-fiction. The set is nothing special, just an office. Nicer, perhaps, than the average conference room, but simple nonetheless. And I can’t help but believe it. Everything about this show is very real and very close, from the distance between audience and actor to the issues that are a part, however big or small, of each of the viewers’ lives.
            As the show ends, I applaud for the actors with the rest of the audience and make my way out into the scarlet-painted lobby, looking at the pictures on the walls from a padded bench in the middle of the room as I wait for my ride. When I get home, I add Race’s program to my ever-growing collection.
            There are currently around thirty-two independently owned and operated theatres in Portland (Travel Portland), and Artists Repertory Theatre is among the oldest and most successful of them. Founded in 1982, Artists Rep is currently celebrating its thirtieth season, and in those three decades it has managed to progress from a small, six-person company to a thriving business with forty-eight people on the staff and board of directors, not to mention the myriad of actors that appear from year to year (Artists Repertory Theatre).
            Artists Rep had fairly simple origins, recalls David Gomes, one of the founding members. After a city-run production of the show Joe Egg, he and three other actors got together and decided to start a company, feeling a need for greater control over their work and a more “company perspective,” something, says Gomes, that Artists Rep continues today. “Working by consensus,” he remarks, “was a foundational part of what we were doing.”
            Artists Rep’s preliminary seasons took place not in a theatre, but in the second story of a YWCA building (Gomes). As a result of this, it has always identified as small and very local. “I was proud of this, I’m still very proud of this, that the only locally grown, Union professional theatre in the city is ART,” says Gomes, explaining that Portland Center Stage, one of the best known theatres in Portland alongside Artists Rep, actually started out as a branch of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (based in Ashland), and therefore doesn’t really qualify as locally generated. As for small, Artists Rep can certainly claim that title, with its main theatre on SW Morrison Street seating a maximum of 164 audience members for one show (Artists Repertory Theatre). However, it is what Artists Rep lacks in size that gives it immediacy.
            David Gomes, who started acting very young, can best be described as quirky. He is constantly gesticulating with his hands, either pounding the table for emphasis, drawing sweeping pictures over the table between us, or running his hands over his head (balding on top, but with a healthy crop of white around the back) or goatee, and when he walks, you can hear the jingle of keys in his jeans pocket. Currently a teacher at Oregon Episcopal School, he has experience in every part of the professional theatrical process, from acting and directing to the backstage and business elements.
            Gomes has worked in a multitude of venues, including the Globe theatre in San Diego, which seats close to ten thousand (Gomes). When this work in larger theatres wasn’t satisfying his creative need, he began working in smaller theatres, and by the time he moved to Portland, seeking out smaller playhouses was natural for him. “It was so satisfying to work in the smaller theatres, that that’s what pulled me artistically,” he remembers, and he began to move between the smaller venues in Portland before forming Artists Rep.
            One of the best things about Artists Rep is how local it is in every sense of the word. Not only is it located in the middle of downtown Portland, but it also, as Gomes says, “understands our community.” Portland, because it is located in the Northwest, in the Pacific region of America, the region with the highest non-musical theatre attendance rates in the country (Williams). “The Northwest tends to be a pretty good environment for the arts in general,” says Gomes. “It’s kind of a Mecca.”
            Gomes estimates that a little over fifty percent of the actors at Artists Rep are Northwest actors, an even higher percent amongst the backstage and management staff. According to him, because of this concentration the audience is “going to see people onstage who they know.” He calls it “part of the magic” of a local theatre. In the larger media world, explains Gomes, and especially on film, actors tend to be typecast. In the world of small theatre, however, one actor might play very different roles in different plays, and this has an effect on the audience. “They get to see what acting is, they get to see that difference,” says Gomes.
            “Theatre is a participatory event,” says Gomes, and he’s especially right when it comes to Artists Rep, whose locality and intimacy encourage audience members to keep coming back for more.
            Playwright Ruben Carbajal is no stranger to small theatre. Determined when he first started to write professionally that he would be in control of his own work, he wrote in a minimalist fashion, “so I could be sure it would be easy to produce,” he says. Carbajal’s playwriting career began in college, where he and his friends performed his plays in their dorms’ open spaces, and progressed to the nation’s theatre capital, New York, where a small company, OVO, produced several of his plays (Carbajal). “My shows have been performed almost exclusively in small theatres,” says Carbajal, “mostly because those are the only places that have taken interest!”
            OVO is certainly small. A company consisting of only seven writers and directors for the stage and cinema, it produced Carbajal’s original play The Gifted Program in 2003 to rave reviews (OVO). While the performance itself was amazing, however, the setting was not. In a recent visit to Oregon Episcopal School, Carbajal said after a tour of the unfinished set of the show, which built to resemble a rundown high school hallway, “it’s better than the set I had at the world premiere,” which he remembers as little more than a wall.
            As Joann Green puts it in The Small Theatre Handbook, “The small theatre is immediate, intimate, as all theatre should be” (Green 1). Both Gomes and Carbajal seem to agree with this statement. Gomes likes to describe acting in small theatres as “keeping things close”. He says, “Smaller, intimate theatre, for me, is the core of what separates theatre from other media. You can’t really hide very much if all the audience members are within thirty feet of you.”
            Carbajal, from the perspective of a writer, likes seeing his shows premiered in smaller theatres. Of the premieres he says, “I think a black box opening is special because it's a small enough group of people, that you feel bonded, you're in this once-in-a-lifetime-never-repeatable event together. When the lights go up, you've all shared something, been on the same journey.”
            Carbajal and Gomes both like to see shows performed in smaller spaces as well. As Carbajal says, “I like the immediacy of being really close to the actors.” Gomes adds, “If I was going to go see one of the big productions that come through town, I would have to be in the first fifteen rows.”
            Unfortunately for theatre-goers such as Carbajal, Gomes, and myself, small theatres are slowly declining. In fact, many are going out of business. “Most theatres are definitely dead in the first ten years,” says Gomes. In order to successfully maintain a small theatre, you need to have two things: business and marketing skills, and creativity (Gomes). As Green states, “Theatre is a business, and it is in art. These stand not in opposition to each other, but hand in hand” (Green 1). The most successful small theatres are the ones that have a delicate blend of business-savvy people and talented actors and directors.
            One of many theatres in the Portland area that was forced to shut down was Portland Repertory Theatre, which closed its doors in January of 1998. At the time of its closing, Portland Rep was around $500,000 in debt, and wasn’t making nearly enough per year to pay it off. After the theatre missed a payroll, they decided to declare bankruptcy and shut their doors (Johnson).
            Many factors contribute to the closing of small theatres such as Portland Rep, but there seem to be two major ones: the union’s strict rules and decreasing public interest.
            Actor’s Equity is the union for actors and stage managers, and membership ensures that an actor makes a living wage. However, in exchange, actors have to follow certain rules; chief among them is the mandate against working for a theatre not joined with Actor’s Equity. This means that many smaller theatres, which aren’t connected, don’t have access to union actors, who comprise quite a lot of the professional acting world.
            Describing his experience with the actors’ union, Gomes says, “Being a member of the union means that there are a lot of theatre companies that won’t hire you, or can’t hire you.” He explains how there are some cases where Equity actors might be allowed to perform at a non-Equity theatre, but this requires both permission from Equity and the ability of the theatre to pay the actor a guest artist fee. “Most small theatres can’t afford to pay guest artist scale,” says Gomes.
            Gomes, who opted out of ever taking an Equity membership, eventually left the professional theatre business altogether, saying, “I’m done having to constantly struggle to raise my family in one location and yet still continue to generate enough income to do that.”
            “Most actors have to move around in order to make a good living,” he says. “That’s part of the reason we created a local company, that actors shouldn’t have to travel all over the country to make a living.”
            Another main reason for the closing of smaller theatres is the lack of public attendance. Adult attendance at arts events is at an all time national low and still declining, with only about thirty-five percent of Americans over the age of eighteen attending any sort of art exhibition in 2008 (Williams). An astonishingly small nine percent of all American adults attended non-musical theatre productions, which form the backbone of small theatres. Also, the average theatre attendance age is steadily getting higher; currently, the age group with the highest rate of attendance at all arts events is people ages fifty-five to sixty-four. Young people are not inclined to attend plays, which does not bode well for the future of small theatres, which rely on their audiences to keep them afloat economically. Participation in the theatre as a career or hobby is also decreasing. In 2008 only 1.7 million Americans, less than one percent of the population, participated in a non-musical theatrical production (Williams).
            The connection between attendance and participation lies in arts education. The higher level of education someone has received, the more likely they are to be involved in theatre of any kind (Williams). Because of this, the solution to raising participation numbers seems to be to ensure that students have the opportunity to learn about the arts while they are in middle and high school. However, the current arts situation in schools across America is not looking good at the moment.
            Because of the economic status of the country over the past decade or so, schools in particular have been forced to make cuts in their curriculum to accommodate shrinking budgets. One often hears that in this situation, the arts are the first thing to be cut, which causes a drop in participation in the performing arts of middle and high school students who no longer have the opportunity. This decrease is notable; “Between 1991 and 2010, the percentage of eighth-grade students participating in school performing arts declined moderately from 55 to 46 percent” (Child Trends). High school participation is even lower, with thirty-eight percent of sophomores and forty-one percent of seniors participating in some variety of performing art.
            The higher level of arts education a student gets, the more likely they are to participate in theatre, and the opposite is also true; the more a student participates in theatre, the more likely they are to pursue a higher level of education. High school sophomores who participate in theatre are more likely to attend college than those who don’t. Also, parents who have higher education levels are more likely to encourage their students to participate in the arts (Child Trends). The arts could start a cycle of encouraging higher education if they weren’t being taken away by budgetary problems.
            All hope for the arts is not lost, however. Some measures their preservation in schools are being implemented in Portland right now. As recently as November 6th, a new piece of legislation was passed that will pay almost seven million dollars to elementary school art teachers in Portland school districts (RACC). Perhaps if steps like this continue to be taken to ensure the arts are supported at en early age, future generations won’t have to fight as hard to keep them alive.
            It’s been a while since I last saw a show at Artists Rep. Sometimes, when I look at my box of programs from the plays I’ve seen, I’ll pick up the one with “Artists Repertory Theatre” printed in white capital letters across the front, “RACE” in bigger letters along the bottom. The scarlet sequins and the cocoa skin of the picture pop against the black background, just as Artists Rep itself pops out at passersby on SW Morrison between 15th and 16th, the bright red walls contrasting with the subdued grays of the surrounding towering buildings.
            I wonder whether or not Artists Rep will be there when I grow up, if I’ll be able to see my kids fall in love with theatre the way I did, or whether their eyes will slide right over the spot where Artists Rep once stood, now abandoned or some plain-faced office building. However, I’m confident in its survival. As Gomes said, “You’ve got to do serious work and be really committed to it to be really successful.” So maybe if it’s been around for thirty years, it’ll be around for thirty more. Because if there’s one thing Artists Rep is committed to, it’s making good theatre.

Works Cited

Artists Repertory Theatre. N.p., n.d. Web. 6 Dec. 2012. 

Carbajal, Ruben. "Literary Journalism Project (from OES)." Message to the 
                 author. 2 Dec. 2012. E-mail. 

Child Trends (2012). Participation in School Music or Other Performing Arts. Retrieved             from  

Gomes, David. Personal interview. 30 Nov. 2012. 

Green, Joann. The Small Theatre Handbook. Harvard: Harvard Common, 1981. Print. 

Johnson, Barry. "A Dramatic Disagreement: Did the Rep Have to             Die?" The Oregonian [Portland] 1 Feb. 1998, Sunrise ed., Arts & Books: B01.             Web. 6 Dec. 2012. <

"Portland voters approve new funding for arts education and access." Regional 
                 Arts & Culture Council. N.p., n.d. Web. 6 Dec. 2012. 

Playwright Ruben Carbajal Visits OES. By OESTV. YouTube. N.p., n.d. Web. 6 Dec. 
            2012. < 

"Responsibilities." Actors' Equity Association. N.p., n.d. Web. 6 Dec. 2012. 

"Theatre: Performance Arts Events in Portland, OR." Travel Portland. N.p., n.d. 
                 Web. 6 Dec. 2012. <>. 

"Who We Are." OVO. N.p., n.d. Web. 6 Dec. 2012. < 

Williams, Kevin, and David Keen, comps. 2008 Survey of Public Participation in 
                 the Arts. Research rept. no. 49. Washington, DC: National Endowment for the 
                 Arts, 2009. Print. 

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