Season Planning — An Economics Lesson

February 25, 2010

By Ed Sobel, >case Associate Artistic Director

First, please accept my thanks to all who have posted comments and suggestions thus far. As promised, I am going to respond to some of these, with an eye toward illustrating some of the process and issues we face when putting together the season.

One of our season planners was kind enough to suggest the Jez Butterworth play Jerusalem. Jez Butterworth is a British writer who, at the ripe old age of 25, became the toast of London theater when the Royal Court produced his play Mojo back in 1995. He then devoted time to making the movie of that play, and several other movies (The Birthday Girl with Nicole Kidman, e.g) and it was seven years before he returned to writing plays including The Night Heron, and now Jerusalem. Jerusalem, like Mojo, has created quite a stir in London, and is scheduled to have a commercial run there shortly. So, as our planner noted, there are likely to be some issues with obtaining performance rights, a subject I will tackle in another post.

One thing that is noteworthy about Jerusalem, is that it requires 14 actors. Think back for a moment to consider when you last saw a play (not a musical, but a play) with 14 actors in it. I’m guessing you either just had a flash-back to college, or perhaps some other non-professional theater experience. In professional theater in America, it is now an extremely rare experience.

Here’s why, and its not exactly shocking: actors cost money. By collective bargaining agreement with the actors union (Actors Equity Association , or “AEA” or “Equity” for short) all actors are guaranteed a set minimum weekly salary, along with certain other rights, work rules, and benefits. At Arden the minimum weekly salary in the Haas is $696, but that is only part of the cost. Like the rest of America, not-for-profit theaters are also struggling with rising health care and other benefit costs. For each AEA actor, in addition to salary, Arden pays over $200 per week in benefits. So, every AEA actor costs over $900 per week. When you start to calculate in all the other costs to producing a play (stage managers and crew, box office staff, directors and designers, playwright royalties, sets/lights/costumes construction labor and materials and on and on) you begin to see both why most theaters operate as not-for-profit entities, and are reluctant these days to do large cast shows.

Or at least, most theaters must consider what in the trade is called “actor weeks”. Even at the Arden, where we have chosen to prioritize having actors on-stage over other production costs like the set, over a whole season we can afford on average 500 actor weeks encompassing seven shows. So if Jerusalem takes up 140 (14 actors x 10 weeks – i.e. four weeks of rehearsal and six weeks of performance) that means our other six shows can only use 360. Two of those six are for family audiences, which on average eat up another 150 actor weeks. So we could do Jerusalem, if that were a high enough priority for the theater, but it means we are going to have to do four smaller cast (five actors or fewer) shows in our subscription season to compensate.

The larger issue here, and one that is truly troubling, is the way in which over the last 30 years, playwrights have adapted to the demands of this new economy. They write smaller plays. The result has been a gradual diminishing of the scale of plays seen on American stages. That has lead to a gradual shrinking of the scale of the ideas they contain. It has made our modern theater the purveyor of internal psychological introspection for a small segment of our culture, rather than the dynamic arena for wide public discourse it might be.

Now, I don’t mean to say that one can’t say something profound about the world with 3 or 4 actors. (Waiting for Godot, afterall, only requires 5). But just as there are beautiful sonatas and quartets yet we would be loathe to give up the full symphony, so too do we need plays that are able to show us the world through a variety of simultaneous cultures, points of view, classes, and experiences.

So, will you see Jerusalem on our season? Probably not. But you will see several larger- than-average size plays, in our effort to swim against a very heavy tide.

4 Responses

  1. Jeremy Gable says:

    As the poster who suggested “Jerusalem”, this was a great blog entry, and an insightful look at the season planning process. I’ve heard a lot lately about how the cast size of new plays needs to be shorter for economic reasons, and your insights into its effect on the American theater scene in general are all too true.

    While I am sad that I will not be seeing “Jerusalem” this season, I was aware from the start that, with rights and cast-size issues, it was more wishful thinking on my part.

  2. Aaron B says:

    Just curious, how does operating as a nonprofit help the bottom line in terms of production costs? I mean, you still operate in the black, right?

    Also, I’m sure it didn’t have 14 actors, but when you mentioned shows with large casts I thought of “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” at the Arden (2006).

  3. Ed Sobel says:

    Aaron – Thanks for your question — the germane(if slightly reductive) difference between commercial and not-for-profit in this context is that as a not-for-profit entity, Arden’s business model calls for a balanced budget at the end of the season: our income is equal to our expenses. In the commercial model, it is intended that income exceeds expenses, thus yeilding a profit.

  4. […] Machinal – requires at least 10-12 actors (the original Broadway cast from 1928 lists 22).  See my earlier post about “actor weeks”. […]

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