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May 24, 2007

Responding to Budget Cuts

Bridgette Redman

When Lansing, Michigan's resident professional theater company, BoarsHead, faced the loss of state budget money, donor money from the death of a patron, and other unexpected revenue losses, it was forced to change its season mid-year. Their final show originally featured a guest director and a larger cast. Instead, that show was replaced with a one-man show called Underneath the Lintel and was directed in-house by the Artistic Director.

The resulting show is a fascinating one that certainly stands up to the rest of the season's offerings. While it was brought in as a cost-saving measure, it is still an outstanding production.

What's interesting, though, is the number of people calling in for reservations who then decide not to reserve when they learn that the show has changed. Given that neither show was particularly well-known or famous, it surprises me that so many people would decide not to come.

Perhaps it is the reservations about a one-hander. While many one-person shows can be entertaining, they are also hit or miss as they rely so heavily on the talents of one actor--an actor who then has no one to feed off. It's a type of show that audiences are likely to see a whole lot more of as arts budgets tighten and theaters are forced to look everywhere they can to save a dollar.

Down the road from BoarsHead, Williamston Theatre has been forced to cut short the run of its final show in the season. Money that they were promised was frozen along with all other arts money in the state.

Given the ongoing budget crisis in Michigan and in other states--and the general mood of the populace which is a hostility toward any taxes--arts organizations may need to start finding ways to survive without public money.

Posted by Bridgette Redman at May 24, 2007 11:51 AM

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Interesting post, Bridgette (especially for me, since I'm a Michigan native now living elsewhere). It disappoints me to hear that many audience members canceled once they learned of the change in show -- while I know many one-person (or small-cast) shows are driven by economic reasons, I've found that there's no correlation between the size of the cast and the quality of the show.

Madison Repertory Theatre did a fantastic production of "I Am My Own Wife" (Jan. 2006, if memory serves me) and University Theatre at the University of Wisconsin-Madison did a fabulous production of "Master Class" in summer '06 (not a one person show, of course, but the actress playing Maria Callas must carry about 90% of the show, as you know). And then I've seen large-cast shows that were lackluster.

And aside from the whole issue of quality, it's too bad that those audience members couldn't rally around a theater in trouble, rather than bail. While I wouldn't pay to see a show I really wasn't interested in, more and more (as I get older and have a bit more discretionary income) I feel like paying to see a show is a way of "voting" with my dollar to show what I value. It's not just about entertainment, but about wanting to sustain local creative culture.

Posted by: Jennifer A. Smith at May 24, 2007 2:13 PM