Could dumping permanent performance space help solve the theater affordability problem?

These companies are taking unconventional steps.

In January 2014, the Single Carrot Theater in Baltimore had taken one of the most important steps in the life of a professional theater company: they had built their own dedicated and permanent theater space.

The theater management had worked with a developer to design it exactly to their specifications. It contained a flexible black box for performances, as well as a small rehearsal space and offices. The building was the realization of a dream that the founders of Single Carrot had had since the company played its very first season in 2007.

“The vision has always been to have this permanent performance space,” explains Geneviève de Mahy, artistic director of Single Carrot and founding member of the ensemble. “In our minds, we had this feeling of having reached a certain level as an institution.”

But after five years of living that particular dream, the management of Single Carrot has made a bold decision. They no longer wanted this space.

Instead, they took a different view of their business and their relationship to the city they worked in: Single Carrot would take their performances to unused, transient, or unconventional spaces, embracing creative and financial freedom—as well as the unique challenges – this would come from not being tied to a single building.

“We realized, over time, that it was becoming more and more difficult to maintain this space,” says de Mahy. “And we also had other priorities in terms of paying people and paying artists. We found that these things were always at odds with these high installation costs. So we got to the point where we decided that the best choice for us, from a sustainability standpoint, was to leave that performance space.

They are essentially turning away from the traditional and established growth and sustainability models of professional theater groups and blazing a whole new trail.

Single Carrot isn’t the only theater or arts organization, for that matter, that has made the decision to abandon a permanent space in favor of a more flexible performance model, but it’s likely to be difficult to do so. know for sure, because the data on this is nothing more than anecdotal – among the very few who have done it voluntarily.

Across the country, a decrease in affordable performance space has caused countless small and medium-sized theaters to close or drastically reduce their operating budgets, which often means a drop in the huge costs associated with owning or even rental of a permanent theatre.

In Charlotte, North Carolinaseveral local theater groups have started performing or rehearsing in bars, restaurants, breweries, retail spaces and even gravel lots due to lack of budget or lack of funding. affordable space.

The Houston Chronicle also reports that several of Houston’s Small-Medium Theaters closed or were forced out of their spaces due to rising costs and lack of donor funding.

But while the problems facing professional theatres, and the arts as a whole, are daunting, creative solutions are emerging.

One is in Toronto, Ontario, where the famous Why not the theater is working on a groundbreaking pilot project to help connect performers with available and unused spaces across the city, from churches to office buildings.

Founder and Artistic and Managing Director Ravi Jain, along with Managing Director Owais Lightwala and Executive Producer Kelly Read, are spearheading the project.

The genesis of the project lies in the phenomenal growth that Why Not Theater experienced in a short time, when, in 2016, the The Canada Council for the Arts has changed its funding prioritiesemphasizing equity, that is, supporting institutions that promote diverse voices.

Jain and company were not present, and they have been committed since their founding to creating cross-cultural, innovative and inventive theater, as well as actively questioning and resolving issues of representation. “Our work tends to be work that is new and challenges the status quo – what stories are being told and who can tell them,” says Jain.

In other words, they correspond precisely to the profile that the city was looking for.

And that meant going from a three-person organization with a $550,000 budget to a nine-person organization with a $2 million budget in just a few years. “Everyone told us, ‘Oh, if you grow up, you have to find a space,'” Jain says. “So we looked at it a bit, and we were surprised because when you become a theater with a venue, your whole business model has to change…So we thought, ‘Okay, you have to raise millions of dollars to build a building,’ and it felt like a waste of resources. If we raised millions of dollars, we could change the industry overnight.

With this in mind, Jain, along with Lightwala and Read, began looking for a way to solve the space problem not only for themselves, but also for their fellow theaters and performing arts organizations in Toronto. Lightwala explains: “One solution that came to my mind, just looking around, is that there is actually a lot of unused space in the city that is just not considered a cultural space.

The Why Not team experienced this first hand when approached by a local church that was struggling to keep its doors open and maintain its relevance in the community. Church leaders wanted to know if the theater might have some use for the building. “So we asked, ‘When is the building available?’ and they said, ‘Oh, it’s available six days a week, we only need it on Sundays’. And conveniently, it’s also the cycle that a theater company operates on – rehearse or perform Monday through Saturday,” says Lightwala.

Partnerships between churches and performing arts organizations are nothing new, but this conversation inspired Lightwala, Jain and Read to think bigger. Now they are working not only with this church, but also with a company that owns vacant buildings in Toronto, a real estate developer, and the City of Toronto itself to locate available or underutilized city-owned space that would be offered. to arts groups on a temporary basis at very little or no cost.

The project is still in its early stages, but the goal is for Why Not to become a kind of agent that connects local artists to free or heavily subsidized rehearsal and performance spaces. “The idea was, what if we could become the broker for this relationship?” said Lightwala. “We will find all the logistics. Then, eventually, artists might come to us and say, “I want space for X,” and we might say, “Okay, here’s the perfect space for you.”

The issue of affordability is key, of course, when it comes to maintaining a healthy theater community in any city.

But just as important is how this kind of flexible model, which Why Not and Single Carrot embrace in different ways, can open up the sector to performers and audiences who are largely excluded from the traditional theater experience.

“The most interesting new work with the most diversity is often where the most emerging artists are found,” says Lightwala. “You start losing those people in the cities, and that creates a ripple effect throughout the sector. So eventually, in larger institutions, you start to see less diversity, less interesting work, less innovation, more ecological stagnation.

While Why Not Theater is heavily invested in solving this problem on the artists’ side, Single Carrot is focused on broadening accessibility for its audience. When the company decided to leave the space it had worked so hard for, it sparked a lot of soul-searching. “We were really thinking, what kind of art do we want to do? What kind of relationship do we want to have with the city of Baltimore? said of Mahy. “Baltimore is a very complex city – it’s very segregated economically and racially, and people stay in their own neighborhoods a lot.”

Using the flexible, site-specific model that Single Carrot landed on allows them to bring their work to the audiences and neighborhoods they want to reach, while adding an exciting immersive aspect to the pieces they produce.

For example, their current production is a piece called “Mr. Wolf” by Rajiv Joseph, which centers on a girl who was abducted as a baby and miraculously found and returned to her family as a teenager.

Single Carrot stages it in a real house, with a small audience of 25 people moving around the house with the actors. “A lot of the play is centered around him being reintroduced to his family, so there are these very intimate conversations that take place in the bedrooms, the living rooms,” de Mahy explains. “What’s really amazing about doing theater in a space like a house is that because you’re so close and you’re in this small space, the actors can, say, whisper to each other and you You can hear it. It’s really like sitting in the living room during those very private family conversations.

Besides the benefits, this model also has some challenges. One of the most immediate is helping potential audience members find Single Carrot now that they’re performing in a changing array of venues.

“People are creatures of habit, especially when it comes to how they integrate their cultural offerings,” says Alix Fenhagen, member of the Single Carrot ensemble and acting general manager. “One of the challenges we’re having right now, which we’ve anticipated, is bringing everyone back to the fold and saying, ‘Hey, that’s how you know us. This is how you engage with us.

Although it’s too early to tell how successful these alternative models will be for the theaters that undertake them – and much, of course, depends on each individual theatre, its audience, mission, etc. – it is clear that theater organizations are going to have to be creative in order to survive.

“We’re only at the start of this journey and we’re seeing where it’s going,” says Fenhagen.

Elizabeth Pandolfi is a freelance journalist specializing in arts and culture. She is the former arts editor of the Charleston City Paper, and her work has appeared in Art and Antiques magazine, Charleston magazine, WNC magazine, and other publications.