Rocketing Through Hard Times
Yellow Tape and other small theatre groups blast past the black hole of the recession
Jonathon Morgan and Amanda Butterfield are the two of the peppiest theatre artists in Austin. You know this because they use the word "awesome" in every other sentence.
"It's gonna be totally awesome!" says Morgan of Yellow Tape Construction Company's upcoming show, Warpstar Sexysquad. He could also be talking about any of their past eight shows, the weather, his glued-to-the-hand iPhone, or pretty much anything. The company's tagline even reads, "A new kind of awesome, one performance at a time."
Yellow Tape's co-artistic directors (and, since October, official married couple) are nothing if not positive. It turns out they have good reason to be.
Yellow Tape has developed at a time when large, established theatre companies across the country have shuttered their doors and declared bankruptcy. The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., has even launched an initiative called "Arts in Crisis," offering free consulting services to any nonprofit performing arts group. These tough times for large arts organizations have led to a broader discussion in American theatre about the future of the theatre as an industry. More than once, a comparison has been made to the dying out of the dinosaurs, with only the small mammals at the periphery able to survive the disaster.
If true, then Yellow Tape may very well prove to be one of those small mammals. "We are in the black," says Morgan. "We were always in the black because our ticket sales have matched or exceeded our expectations. We also do shows that are really fun ... and we work really hard to get people out to see them."
Some of the company's current success, and the success of other local companies, is due to location. Data from other sectors suggest that local nonprofit arts companies that rely on the fortunes of others may be better off than their colleagues elsewhere. Austin ended 2008 with a 5% unemployment rate, below the national average of 7.2%. Austin is still expected to add jobs in 2009, although in numbers far smaller than in recent years.
Yet much of the well-being that local arts companies have enjoyed is also due to the type of organizations that the artists behind them have built. Their aims and their strategies differ, but each has found a way to adapt to circumstances.
Yellow Tape has developed a two-pronged programming focus: dance shows choreographed by Butterfield and original, loud-and-crazy ensemble plays directed by Morgan. Their upcoming Warpstar Sexysquad, a sci-fi adventure in the vein of Sixties-era Star Trek and similarly campy classics, falls into the latter category. Says Morgan, "We wanted to do a science-fiction show, so we wound up with Warpstar Sexysquad, who save the future by saving the past," with the help of Mr. Snuggles, a house cat turned gigantic mutant after a radiation accident. For the first time in Yellow Tape's history, Morgan dons a (very tight) costume and appears onstage as the weapons specialist.
The flavor of the show is silly and ridiculous, and it's also exactly the thing that brings in the younger audiences that so many other theatre companies miss. "We play to a demographic that appreciates a $10 to $15 ticket price," says Morgan. They budget accordingly, with shows that actually play well with moderate production values.
Yellow Tape also has different goals for itself as a company. While most theatre groups try to grow from small to big to bigger, Morgan and Butterfield say they're happy with the company's current size and workload. They don't rely on large grants from the major foundations whose endowments have taken a serious blow in recent months. Their budget isn't large enough that losing 5% of annual donations will drive them under.
"The type of shows we do work well with the company being a nimble organization," says Morgan. "We don't really have the administration and overhead that would lead us to suffer."
Butterfield agrees that remaining part-time artists rather than letting Yellow Tape become a full-time occupation has benefits: "It becomes a whole other angle to what it means to make work, to be an administrator. There's a whole lot of fun making the work this way."
"I'm not opposed to the company getting bigger than it is, but only if it's an organic process," Morgan says.
Yellow Tape is not the only company that appears to be skimming the surface of the recession so far. Hyde Park Theatre, a well-established company with its own venue, set box-office records in both 2007 and 2008, placing it in a strong position as times get tough.
FronteraFest, the annual performance festival that Hyde Park Theatre hosts each January and February, "is doing better box-office business than ever before," reports Artistic Director Ken Webster. "Last year we got more money in private donations than we've ever had before, and we had the most successful fundraiser we've ever had in November."
Ironically, HPT's record-high income from donations was in part due to its landlord raising the monthly rent from $1,250 to $2,500. When faced with the reality of doubled rent, the theatre had to devote more efforts to fundraising or else face losing its location.
Hyde Park is also the happy owner of a mailing list of 5,000 e-mails and 6,000 addresses that the company has been building since before Webster became artistic director. Introducing online ticketing has benefited the company, improving access to tickets. Additionally, HPT has developed a reputation for consistent programming of contemporary plays that play well in its 80-seat space. Audiences know what they're getting when they go to a show.
Webster is cautiously optimistic that Hyde Park Theatre will continue to perform well in the coming months. "It's too early to tell right now because it's only February. As far as the fiscal year goes, we're doing very well, but as far as the calendar year goes, it's still too early to tell if fundraising is going to be affected by the downturn in the economy."
Last summer, Penfold Theatre Company launched its first production, Art, earning strong reviews across the board. It followed up with The Last Five Years in January, which enjoyed both critical and marketing success, filling the house to an average 87% capacity for the run and adding extra seats for the final weekend.
Penfold appears to be off to a good start at a bad time for the arts. The three company members know that they will have to begin fundraising efforts soon, as they negotiate the jump to a full season of programming. Says Penfold co-founder Ryan Crowder, "There's sort of a leap of faith when you say, you know, 'I don't know if the money's going to be there' – but as long as you're doing what you're passionate about, then you have to trust the funding will be there."
The long-term aim for the company has always been to establish itself with its own space in North Austin and the suburbs, a region that as yet has no professional theatres. They have begun talks with the Round Rock Area Arts Council to define Penfold's possible role in the scheduled development of downtown Round Rock.
Will Penfold find an audience so far from Austin? Will Austinites make the trip up there? The hope is that by focusing on a region where the company believes demand is high and supply is low, it can fill an opening and grow so that it will one day be a career for the company members and not just a part-time job.
While news that small, local theatre companies are faring well for the time being is welcome, the reality is that these are not the companies who can afford to hire a staff of full-time union shop hands or a large cast of Equity performers. Small theatres, even those with a reputation for strong work, are typically training grounds for young actors with their sights set elsewhere or an outlet for actors willing to work as part-time performers. Few career artists can afford to work for the necessarily small stipends that these companies pay.
Additionally, not every type of play can fit into the small spaces owned or rented by small companies. (You won't see Hyde Park doing Les Miz any time soon, for a variety of reasons.) Austin's small-theatre scene has so far excelled with programs of original works, regional premieres, or contemporary classics. Yet plays that require a high production value or a generous performance space rarely see production in the region. The reality is that small companies, in Austin and elsewhere, can only do so much.
Yet what those small companies can accomplish is worth noting, especially if they are the ones who can make a profit in bad times. And, if Morgan and Butterfield are right, then everything's gonna be totally awesome.
Warpstar Sexysquad runs Thursday-Saturday, Feb. 19-March 7, 8pm, at the Off Center, 2211 Hidalgo. For more information, visit www.yellowtape.org.