Local theaters stay relevant in tough times

Times are tough and budgets are tight, but while most New England theaters are making concessions toward more fiscally conservative programming, they are also still determined to present groundbreaking theater that keeps them relevant.

With regional houses facing freezes, cutbacks and layoffs — and smaller production budgets — theater execs and artistic directors are hustling for ways to give their season some bang.

Many are going about it through special funding beyond their communities, increased partnerships with other theaters and calling in special favors from marquee scribes and thesps.

Despite scaled-back resources, Yale Repertory Theater in New Haven is putting its muscle behind the musical “Pop!,” about the shooting of Andy Warhol. Directed by Mark Brokaw, “Pop!” is being produced with special funding — $2.85 million over three years — from the Minnesota-based Robina Foundation to develop new tuners .

“We would not have the wherewithal to do this show without that help,” says Victoria Nolan, managing director of Yale Rep, whose season includes another high-profile show, the preem of Rinne Groff’s “Compulsion.” That play is creating buzz not because of its scale or scope but because of the talents involved: Public Theater a.d. Oskar Eustis helming a new play starring Mandy Patinkin about a man obsessed with bringing the Anne Frank story to American audiences. (The show will later play Berkeley Repertory Theater and Gotham’s Public.)

Nolan says despite declines in contributed income, Yale Rep and many other theaters are experiencing increases at the box office.

Hartford Stage is coming off two of the biggest hits in its history: a stage adaptation of “To Kill a Mockingbird” with Matthew Modine, and a transfer of the Broadway production of Horton Foote’s “Dividing the Estate.”

“If you present things of size, scope and quality, you will draw audiences,” Hartford a.d. Michael Wilson says.

He is about to test that theory by staging the theater’s most ambitious endeavor: the three-part, nine-play, nine-hour, 22-actor “The Orphans Home Cycle,” an adaptation Foote completed before his death in March. A co-production with Off Broadway’s Signature Theater Company, the show will cost the Hartford venue more than $1.5 million.

“You have to be careful about how much you contract,” says Wilson of the natural tendency to scale back in lean times. “If you retrench too much, you may lose your audience.”

Diane Paulus started her first season as a.d. at Cambridge, Mass., American Repertory Theater by shaking up the schedule, venues and programming.

“What pops through is the work that takes risks,” Paulus says. “I don’t say this lightly, but in these economic times, you’ve got to give people more bang for the buck and a reason to pull out the few dollars they have to buy a ticket.”

Paulus says the economic crisis had created an environment for new business and artistic models for theaters. “We can’t keep doing business as usual.”

Paulus’ first two shows of the season haven’t even taken place in her main theater. A revival of her Off Broadway hit, “The Donkey Show” is at a theater space converted to a disco, and the U.S. debut of Brit theater company Punchdrunk’s “Sleep No More” is being presented in an abandoned school in a neighboring town.

Over at Boston’s Huntington Theater Company, a.d. Peter DuBois is bringing Paula Vogel’s sprawling “A Civil War Christmas” to his theater, working with Boston U. and community groups. It’s not just the scope of the piece but the quality of the artist DuBois feels is fundamental to Huntington’s survival.

“Sometimes it’s just about getting on the phone and calling people you know and rally around their art,” DuBois says. Besides Pulitzer winnerVogel, he is bringing works by Gina Gionfriddo (“Becky Shaw”) and David Grimm (“The Miracle at Naples”) to the lineup.

New Haven’s Long Wharf Theater preemed Vogel’s play at the height of the financial crisis last year, thanks to special funding from commercial producer Chase Mishkin. This season, with its budget slashed one-sixth to $5 million, Long Wharf is not taking on big-budget projects.

However, artistic director Gordon Edelstein has tapped into his special relationship with South African playwright Athol Fugard. The scribe’s “Coming Home” preemed at the theater in January, and Fugard has since delivered a new play, “Have You Seen Us?” bowing late November. Edelstein scored a double coup by securing star power for the production in Sam Waterston.

“We still want to make some noise,” Edelstein says. “Sometimes that has to do with money, but not always. You search for plays and artists of extraordinary quality to make theater that has an impact. You can’t be seen as just treading water.”

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