Building a Sustainable Theater: How to Remove Gatekeepers and Take Control of Your Artistic Career

Chapter 23: Costs

In calling this chapter “Costs,” I am rolling together the Business Model Canvas’s categories “Key Resources” and “Cost Structure.”

Like the previous chapter on “Income”—maybe even moreso—you need to let go of your ideas about “the way theater is done” and unleash your imagination. The authors of Blue Ocean Strategy describe what they call a “Four Actions Framework” involving four key questions that can be useful in breaking free of the theatrical status quo:All of these questions have an impact on other parts of the planning process, especially your “what” (Value Proposition). The Cirque du Soleil, which the Blue Ocean authors use as an example, eliminated animal acts, which was a very expensive element of traditional circuses, but it not only lowered costs but it deeply affected what they were going to do. After all, the image most people then had of a circus was clowns, animal acts, and trapeze artists. If there were no animal acts, what were they going to do instead? They couldn’t compete with Barnum & Bailey’s “Greatest Show on Earth” by billing themselves as Cirque du Soleil’s “Pretty Good Show Around These Parts”! So what did they create that the industry had never offered? Well, one thing was a narrative. Traditional circuses were just one disconnected act after another, whereas Cirque du Soleil told a story. They also raised music well above the industry standard. The traditional circus had always used basic, recognizable band music and a lot of “ta-das” with the trumpets, but Cirque du Soleil used a sophisticated original score including a great deal of lyric singing. They also raised their use of lighting far above industry standards. And so forth.

Let me give you another example of reducing costs, this one from a university theater department at Virginia Tech. In March of 1999, faculty members Barbara Carlisle and Randy Ward published an article in the journal Theatre Topics called “Writing for RALPH: An Exploration in the Dramaturgy of Sustainable Theatre.” The first paragraph might have flowed directly from a Quality of Life Statement and a Vision Statement! As you read, notice the combination of lifestyle issues and departmental purpose:

Since at least 1990, the authors of this article—director and playwright Barbara Carlisle, with scenographer and lighting designer Randy Ward—have been participating in a common theatre problem at Virginia Tech. As a department we pride ourselves in maintaining high standards of execution to provide valid design and technical learning for our students. At the same time we confront increasing materials costs with fixed budgets, intense pressure to meet overlapping production deadlines, and perhaps more importantly, deep discomfort with the unrecycled waste that has gone out the door after each production. In every respect we have balked at the model we were perpetuating for our students--debilitating burnout, financial anxiety, and production panic. In writing the book Hi Concept - Lo Tech, Barbara and her co-author Don Drapeau (also of Virginia Tech) coined the expression "sustainable theatre" to refer to the need for a mode of theatre making that does not deplete the resources of the theatre makers (174). Yet our theatre at Virginia Tech was not sustainable. We were working off the backs of exhausted students and staff, caught up in a theatre mythology that presumes "if you're not willing to kill yourself for the art, you better get out."

In a letter to the faculty quoted in the article, scenographer Randy Ward wrote:

In an era of constantly accelerating decline of natural resources, are we justified in the consumption of material and the landfill impact of very short-term construction applications? I am disturbed by the cavalier way we utilize wood and wood pulp products. We should find a more ecologically sound approach to theatre production. A university theatre--perhaps any artistic enterprise--should challenge the old modes and set new models, not just propagate past traditions. Try as we might, there is still an unspoken value system that equates tonnage of built scenery with the value or importance of a production."

In summary, they were trying to create a theater department that was sustainable both personally and environmentally. How could they do this while still fulfilling their production and educational values? They could have achieved their goal simply by reducing the number of productions to one or two per year, but this would negatively impact their ability to educate their students as theater artists. So what other alternatives were there?

Ward’s proposal was to create RALPH—a name originally chosen as a joke because they couldn't figure out what to call it, and eventually acronymized to mean "Radically Alternate Limited Production Habitat." It was a permanent set, sort of, built inside of their black box theater. Carlisle and Ward described it:

A flexible set of elements, such as those we routinely use in the workshops, would not be sufficient; RALPH must have its own character, its own voice....Our idea was that RALPH would be designed in advance of the season selection, and would, in some respects, inform the choice of season. It would provide a theatrically challenging environment with the possibility of some tailoring to a specific production via lighting, props, and detail elements, or, in some cases, projections. We imagined that every two or three years a new structure would be designed with an altered theatrical emphasis--ladders and doorways, trampolines and jungle gyms, sails and fabric. A new set of tools and a different aesthetic would drive each RALPH.... RALPH was never intended to be neutral, nor a clever framework that would be disguised. Its form would remain a constant from production to production. The individuality of each production would be realized in the way the workbench is spatially used by the actors. RALPH might change over time, and new RALPHs might be built; but most, if not all, RALPHs would involve objects to be arranged by the actors and director into a specific configuration during the rehearsal process. RALPH would offer a physical aesthetic giving tangible life to the performance.

So the faculty at Virginia Tech moved toward sustainable scenography through the creation of a flexible set that was used and adapted by departmental designers and artists for several seasons at a time. Environmentally, they reduced the amount of building materials they used by using RALPH for multiple years. By doing so, they also reduced their production costs, and they reduced the amount of time that students and faculty needed to spend building sets. But they didn’t want to simply offer their audiences a stripped-down experience. Instead, “RALPH must have its own character, its own voice.” And because of its simplicity, scenic elements could be more organic because it would involve objects to be arranged by the actors and directors during the rehearsal process.

Something similar, inspired by the traditions of the Elizabethan stage, was undertaken by legendary British director Peter Hall when he led London’s Old Vic. He wrote:

"John Gunter developed a simple design where the actor and his text was clearly presented on a well-planked stage. The actor, his passion, a few visual elements and some bare boards: this was all we had or needed. The audience's imagination was encouraged—we had no technology or complication.... By having a strong design discipline at the Old Vic—in effect a permanent stage—we spent little of our money on building and rebuilding sets. Our changeovers from one play to another took one hour—no more than is customary to set back to the beginning of a single play. We were able to play real repertory—which meant a change of play after every performance.... Did the permanent stage at the Old Vic result in monotony? I don't think so. There were no complaints from the critics or from the public, and several other designers enjoyed using John Gunter's stage as an environment in which they could place the essential images for their own play. Everything on the stage was strictly demanded by the action, and at all times we tried to avoid decoration. We never needed to go 'dark' in order to dress rehearse a new play, because the ready availability of the stage allowed us to dress-rehearse during the day. We then maintained our repertory each evening. The maximum use of the stage was therefore enjoyed both for rehearsals and for performances. And for seven days a week, theatre was alive."

You might not have the audience (yet) to justify having a show running or rehearsing seven days a week, but if you could run in rep, as Hall did, you could keep plays around long enough for word of mouth to take hold, performing them occasionally and doing already-established productions on the other nights. And the flexibility allows other things equally valuable to your theater. If you make your space available for rental to other groups for meetings, for instance, you don't have to worry about your set being damaged or being in the way. You could partner with other theater groups in your community, allowing them to perform in your space without worrying about your own scenery getting damaged, thus creating goodwill in your theater community. Do you offer after-school classes? Use the stage.

At the same time, you are cutting costs, creating nonmonetary income represented by the amount of materials—expensive materials like wood—that you don't have to buy. Nor do you have to rent storage to save scenic elements, nor dispose of them when a show closes.  Thus, you are being environmentally and economically friendly to your theater's budget and ethics. It also helps with workload by making sure that your company members don't have to spend hours and hours building scenery in addition to all the other aspects involved with putting up a season of plays. Thus, this approach is physically and personally sustainable as well.

So far, I’ve only been talking about scenic elements, but every other aspect of production can and should be examined in a similar manner.

What are the Key Resources required to make your business model work? A key resource, according to Business Model Generation, can be “physical, financial, intellectual, or human. Key resources can be owned or leased by the company or acquired from key partners.”





And so forth. If you don’t think these through in advance, you will inevitably have to deal with them when you are much busier. Focus on the KEY resources, knowing that the other details are simpler and less important and can be addressed when they arise.

As you consider various items, think not only in terms of short-term costs, but also long-term. For instance, the upfront cost to buy a quality computer and projection equipment if you are going to create your scenic elements electronically may at first seem prohibitive, but when compared to the cost of buying wood, paint, and muslin for each production, you may find that the high-priced projections pay for themselves in a short time.

What items do you need to buy? What items could you lease or borrow?

Also, what costs are fixed (“costs that remain the same despite the volume of goods and services produced”) or variable (“costs that vary proportionally with the volume of goods or services produced”). For example, if you have purchased or leased your theater space, your mortgage or lease payment will be the same each month whether you produce one play or a dozen, but if you are renting somebody else’s space, your costs will vary depending on how many performances you offer. If you are using a permanent stage, like Peter Hall’s at the Old Vic, your scenic costs remain the same no matter how many productions you do.

I know—it’s tiring. But it can also be fun to come up with creative innovations that reduce your costs while simultaneously enhancing your work. I’m sure Peter Hall, who had previously run the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre, both massive institutions with a huge, unionized staff and a very expensive and elaborate production aesthetic that made playing in rotating rep impossible, laughed with glee when he decided on using a permanent stage at the Old Vic! Make it a game between company members—who can come up with the best ideas to save money? Keep up with theater news on websites and newspapers, in magazines like American Theatre, in academic journals (the article about RALPH was in a journal for members of the Association for Theatre in Higher Education), even foreign arts magazines (the UK and European companies can be very inspiring). Always be looking for ideas that you could use to make your theater company sustainable and fulfilling!

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