Professional Theatre Structures in the U.S. (Part 3 – On the Road & Professional Theatre in an Educational Environment)

On the Road

Obviously, not all theatre takes place in New York City or regional theatres. Another major market for theatre is touring and “out of town” productions. The following section breaks down some of the ways in which theatre is presented on the road, both through presenting new works and touring of pre-established shows. Unlike the theatres we have looked at to this point, most theatres in this section are not producing houses (theatres that produce their own shows), but rather what is known as a road house. A road house (sometimes referred to as a receiving house) is a theatre does not produce its own repertoire, but instead presents touring productions.

The Tryout

New York and London theatre audiences and critics are incredibly savvy and have demanding expectations of theatrical performances. As such, it is often in the producers’ best interest to “work out the kinks” outside of the city before presenting the show on Broadway or the West End, especially with millions of dollars of the investors’ backing to consider. This is the purpose of the Tryout (sometimes called the out-of-town tryout), a staging of a play or musical in a venue outside of the New York or London market in order to identify and work through potential problem spots in the production before bringing it to Broadway or the West End. This assures the producers that the production will be in a better position to receive favorable reviews once it reaches its primary market, without having to present it before local press. It also gives a chance for the show to begin to develop a following and the widely sought after “buzz factor” that is so important in today’s social media-driven society. The Shubert Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut is an excellent example of a theatre that regularly presents tryouts. Historically, U.S. tryouts have been presented in major metropolitan areas such as Philadelphia, Boston, Los Angeles, or Seattle, though this is becoming less of a hard-and-fast rule of late. UK out of town tryouts often happen in Manchester.

Touring: The Broadway National Tour

These days, it is fairly common for a large percentage of Broadway productions to present a national tour following the close of the show, or even during the Broadway run if the show is particularly successful. The Broadway National Tour is a remounting of the original production featuring revised versions of the original Broadway designs and direction in order to fit into touring spaces. This tour travels to major cities across the country. If a production is particularly popular, there might be several different touring companies on the road, presenting in different parts of the country simultaneously. Typically, the tour follows a fast-paced schedule and presents for a short window in one city before heading onto the next. For popular shows, it is also common to see the company have a sit down, a longer or open-ended residency for an extended period of time. It is most often the case that the original creative team for a Broadway production are contractually granted a “right of first refusal” for any tours or subsequent productions of the show using the director or any of the original producers, so it is commonly the case that the designers for the Broadway National Tour are the original designers for the Broadway production. This leads to an interesting possibility of re-designing certain elements of the production to work for a tour while keeping the experience similar for touring audiences. 

A major Broadway tour might use as many as 20 semi-trucks full of equipment. As each truck adds another level of costs, square footage of production elements becomes an important consideration. Since projection equipment can take up quite a bit less square footage in a truck than traditional scenery, some tours have made the move to replace certain scenic elements of the original design with projection, in order to get the original feel while not using as many trucks. This new approach allows tours going to smaller venues to have a much more authentic “Broadway feel” than older touring models. It also gives designers a chance to revisit their initial choices made on the Broadway show and utilize technology that might not have been available at the time of the original design. For instance, for the Broadway production of Dear Evan Hansen, projection designer Peter Nigrini created a design with a combination of projectors and LCD video monitors to create a world that essentially exists inside of the Internet. For the national tour, Nigrini used a newer variety of LCD displays than those on Broadway. By this point, the old screens had been used on the Broadway production for around two years. When the producer saw the noticeable difference in resolution by the newer gear on tour, she decided to upgrade the gear at the Music Box Theatre to match what was being used on tour. While this is something of a rarity, it is a good example of how the national tour and Broadway shows can be interconnected.

Touring: Bus and Truck

Smaller cities and venues may have touring productions that come to town, but for shorter periods of time than the national tour. These bus and truck tours, so-called because of the fact that actors would travel by bus, rather than by air, and the scenery and equipment arrive on a truck. These tours feature greatly reduced design elements in order to aid in a fast load-in and strike, accommodating smaller venues and tight schedules. In contrast to the national tour, which typically stays at one venue for a longer period of time and might even have a sit-down, the bus and truck tours are commonly in towns for a shorter period of time, like a weekend or two. In some instances, there might be a week split between two cities or even a “one night only” performance. 

Professional Theatre in an Educational Environment 

While we have covered many different aspects of professional theatre, there are also many theatre artists who regularly work in educational theatre, as well. When hearing the term educational theatre, many might assume that those involved are either students or educators, but there are actually a large number of designers and stagehands who work in academic environments. Many university theatre programs have or can gain access to gear like computers, software, and projectors, making university theatre programs some of the early adopters of projection design, outside of commercial theatre or larger regional theatres. When looking at the theatres attached to academic programs, there are a number of different models. Some theatre programs have a professional theatre on campus that serves as a training laboratory for students to work alongside professional theatre artists. Currently, there are 13 U.S. universities operating professional theatres associated with LORT. Often, these programs have a professional company in which the faculty are dual appointments with the university and the professional company. Students have the opportunity to work on LORT productions during their time at the university, and possibly work towards gaining their union membership along the way, as is often the case with acting students becoming Actors Equity Membership Candidates (EMC). Still other university programs have not-for-profit, professional theatres connected in some way to their theatre programs without operating under a LORT contract.  Finally, a large number of theatre programs produce their own seasons in theatre spaces on campus as a co-curricular extension of their theoretical training. In all of these different models, faculty members serve in artistic roles themselves, as well as possibly mentoring students through the creative process. In addition to faculty and students, guest artists are frequently hired in to fill out the production roles needed for the season.

Thanks for checking out this short series on professional theatre structures in the U.S. I hope it’s been informative and useful! Make sure to like and follow for more posts like this one on entertainment design and technology.

Professional Theatre Structures in the U.S. (Part 2 – Regional Theatre)

Even though the average person likely thinks of Broadway when talking about the theatre, in truth, Broadway makes up a very small percentage of the professional theatre being produced in the US every year (for our purposes, professional theatre refers to a theatre in which everyone is paid for their work, typically employing actors who are members of the Actors Equity Association). Regional Theatre is the term used to describe professional theatre produced in cities across the country, particularly those outside of New York City. Most regional theatres are not-for-profit, and can be either full union, or a hybrid (using Equity actors and non-union designers, for instance). The term regional theatre can mean different things, depending on the particular organization. There are a number of larger organizations that operate under a not-for-profit model, employing a large staff of local artists, as well as guest-artists from out of town. This level of regional theatre is often referred to as a Resident Theatre.These theatres run a season of shows and own their own theatres or, in some case, campuses. Many such theatres may have more than one theatre space associated with their company. The programming at these theatres varies wildly, based on the mission of the theatre and its organizational leadership. 

What is a LORT Theatre?

The regional theatre movement began in the 1940s and continued on well into the 1960s. At its core, the movement was a response of theatre artists to the Broadway establishment. These visionaries wanted to create professional homes for theatre in communities across the country, bringing high quality professional theatre to local communities, while offering local artists an opportunity to learn, and advance their craft without having to move to New York. In addition, many of the artists of this time period saw the commercial theatre model as antithetical to the ways in which good theatre should be created. They wanted to create local collectives of artists to create new dramatic works, not depend on the commercial Broadway model of theatre that they saw as dividing, rather than uniting artists. The first theatres at the heart of the regional movement were founded from the mid-40s to mid-50s (Alley Theatre in Houston, the Mummer’s Theatre in Oklahoma City, Arena Stage in Washington DC, the Actor’s Workshop in San Francisco, the Milwaukee Repertory Company, the Front Theatre in Memphis, and the Charles Playhouse in Boston). By the mid 1960s, there was a large enough collective of regional theatres that a group was founded to represent these regional theatres, called The League of Resident Theatres (LORT). There were 26 member theatres at its founding, and today there are around 75 theatres that make up the membership. The primary benefit of LORT was to create a collective bargaining group for negotiating with Actor’s Equity Association, the union representing professional actors and stage managers. Over the years, the objectives of the organization have expanded, but labor relations and collective bargaining remains one of its primary purposes. Today, LORT theatres are divided into stage categories (A+, A, B+, B, C, and D). These tiers are determined by box office sales number from the previous four fiscal years before contract negotiation. For some unions, LORT C stages are divided into two categories based on seating size. “A+” stages are LORT stages that are Tony-eligible. 

LORT Theatres typically employ a production staff including positions like scenic carpenters, painters, electricians, sound engineers, costume shop staff, and stagehands. At this point, it is still quite rare to see a professional theatre with a dedicated projections department. Typically, we see projection as a subset of the electrics or sound departments, particularly at the lower tier LORT houses.

FYI: LORT Theatres on Broadway

Even though regional theatres were originally created as an alternative to Broadway theatres, over time a small number of Broadway houses have joined LORT. Lincoln Center Theater, and Manhattan Theatre Club, Roundabout Theatre Company, and, most recently, Second Stage Theater are the LORT member theatres who operate on Broadway under a LORT A+ contract. This puts the theatres in the unique position of having one foot in Broadway and the other in regional theatre. Due to the LORT collective bargaining agreements with theatrical unions, these theatres adhere to a different set of rules than other Broadway and LORT houses, particularly as it relates to wages and personnel. For instance, if one receives billing as a designer for a production, they are required to be a member of United Scenic Artists. This is not the case for a typical LORT production (though, once a designer has worked three LORT contracts, they are expected to join the union before taking a fourth contract). The A+ contract includes rules for hiring assistant and associate designers, including the required rates. In addition, all crew working on a Broadway show must be IATSE stagehands. These various union structures necessitate understanding the rules for what can and cannot be done, as a designer. For instance, while it may be totally acceptable in some regional theatres for the designer to program on a lighting console or media server, it would be a serious infraction to do this in a Broadway house, as this responsibility is relegated to the IATSE stagehands.

Small Professional Theatres

Though there are a good number of LORT theatres, the division of regional theatres with the largest numbers across the country is Small Professional Theatres (sometimes known as SPT, due to their contract name with Actor’s Equity). The SPT contract is a national agreement used in theatres with fewer than 350 seats in areas outside of New York and Chicago. Unlike LORT theatres, many small professional theatres have a small support staff, particularly as it relates to design and technical positions. This means that stagehands, electricians, painters, etc. are often brought in on an “as-needed” basis, and are not full-time employees.

One important distinction between LORT and SPT theatres is the question of union affiliations. While an SPT may be referred to as a “union theatre,” the union in question is Actor’s Equity Association, which is only for actors and stage managers. There is no requirement of union membership for designers, nor typically any collective bargaining between SPTs and United Scenic Artists. If a union designer takes a job at an SPT, it is a “project only” agreement which means the producer agrees to pay into the designer’s USA pension and welfare, but offers no collectively bargained rights or protections. It is common to find that Small Professional Theatres pay designers at a rate considerably lower than that offered at LORT theatres.

LOA and Other Categories

While it is true that LORT and SPT theaters make up the majority of Equity contracts, there are dozens of other categories negotiated through Actor’s Equity, often through different regional affiliations or based on the type of organization (i.e. Chicago Area Theatres, LA Theatres, Disney World, Casino, Outdoor Drama, etc.). Another type of contract, the Letter of Agreement (or LOA) is an agreement which is negotiated between Equity and an independent theater that does not belong to a collective bargaining group. This theatre typically signs an agreement to be bound by the baseline terms of one of Equity’s multi-employer agreements, with some level of modifications that are individually negotiated. As with other Equity contracts, it is important to recognize that the majority of these negotiated guidelines refer to contracts with actors and not with designers or stagehands.

Check back soon for the final installment in this series covering Broadway tryouts, touring, and professional theatre in academic environments!

Professional Theatre Structures in the United States (Part 1)

Every country has its own professional theatre structure and slightly different approaches to the presenting live theatre. Typically speaking, what constitutes professional is being paid for your time, talent, and expertise. Beyond that, though, there are a number of different tiers to what might be considered professional theatre in the U.S. From commercial theatre, to not-for-profit, Broadway, LORT, and beyond, each professional theatre structure operates under a slightly different set of rules and expectations. In this and subsequent posts, we will address many of the distinctions between these different levels of professional theatre and how they compare to one another.

Commercial vs. Not-for-Profit Theatre

One of the most important distinctions between the American theatre scene and that found in other countries is the fact that there is no National Theatre. Unlike many other countries, where theatre is funded to some degree by the state, American professional theatre is largely a private endeavor, separated into different divisions of commercial and not-for-profit theatres.

In the commercial theatre model, shows are produced by a group of investors brought together for the specific purpose of producing a play or musical. Commercial theatre runs are typically open-ended, and can run for decades on end, provided that ticket sales hold up. The producers often rent the performance space for the show, rather than owning it outright. Additionally, stagehands and support personnel are hired in for running the show. Most Broadway shows, touring productions, and legitimate theatre in Las Vegas operate as commercial theatre ventures. 

Not-for-profit theatre, on the other hand, operates quite differently. For starters, most not-for-profit theatres produce a series of plays in a season and present closed runs on productions. Unlike commercial theatre, most not-for-profits own and maintain their own theatre space (or sometimes multiple spaces). As such, they employ a staff of management, technical, and artistic personnel. Since funding may come from a variety of sources, they also do not depend on ticket sales to as great of a degree as commercial ventures.  

While it is true most Broadway shows are commercial ventures, there are some not-for-profits running and operating their own Broadway theatres, such as Lincoln Center Theatre, Roundabout Theatre Company, Manhattan Theatre Club, and Second Stage Theater. These companies operate a regular subscription series and have a different collective bargaining contract negotiation with all of the unions that dictates what rules they must follow, wages, and more. Many of these companies also own or lease Off-Broadway spaces, in addition to their Broadway homes.

New York City Theatre Structure

There is no doubt that New York City is the cultural center of new commercial theatre produced in the US. In many ways, New York theatre operates by a set of rules unique to itself and those who have not worked there may not be familiar with the structure and nomenclature. The following section covers many of the terms connected to the NYC theatre structure and breaks down the different categories of theatres found in NYC professional theatre. 


It is a common misconception that professional theatre happening on the island of Manhattan is Broadway theatre. In truth, Broadway theatre is defined by some fairly rigid parameters based on geographic location and the number of seats in the auditorium. The geographic area, known as “the Broadway Box,” runs from 6th Avenue on the east (Ave. of the Americas) to 9th Avenue on the west, and from 40th Street on the south to 50thstreet on the north. In addition to this area, Lincoln Center Theatre is also included as a Broadway house. In order to qualify as a Broadway theatre, the venue must seat at least 500 people. Numbers of Broadway theatres have fluctuated over the years, due to new spaces being built, remodeled, or repurposed. Currently, there are 41 Broadway theatres, seventeen owned by the Shubert organization, six by Jujamcyn Theatres, and nine by the Nederlander Organization. Other Broadway theatres are either independently owned, owned and operated by not-for-profits, or leased from the City of New York by Disney Theatrical Group. 

Most of these theatres operating inside the Broadway Box are commercially managed, and operate as rental spaces using a “four walls and a curtain” contract. This means that a new production renting the theatre gets the theatre space, itself, and a grand drape included in the rental (though this is often never used). Beyond that, everything else is brought in as a rental – including rigging, scenery, lighting, projection equipment, etc. As these productions are open-ended, the space will be rented for as long as ticket sales remain good, or until other financial or logistical concerns necessitate closing. As mentioned before, commercial theatre is backed by a group of financial investors that funds the costs to get the show up and running. In an ideal world, the production will go on to recoup the funds laid out by the investors, at which point a production is considered profitable. Typically, the theatre owners are not involved with developing new productions, though they might be part of the group of investors for a given production. Most Broadway theatres are members of an organization called The Broadway League, a trade organization who generally promotes Broadway theatre and negotiates contracts with unions and guilds. In addition, the League helps administer the Tony Awards, since only productions mounted in Broadway theatres are eligible to receive the awards.

New York City is known for having a large number of trade unions. This is especially true in Broadway theatres. The union rules for Broadway houses are very different from other venues, even those located in New York City. While there are numerous unions and guilds involved in almost every level of producing a Broadway show, the primary unions involved with theatrical artists and technicians (IATSE, United Scenic Artists, Dramatists Guild of America, Actor’s Equity Association, and Stage Directors and Choreographers Society) all engage in the process of collective bargaining with the Broadway League to create the rules to which all Broadway productions must adhere. These affect a wide range of elements, such as wage scale, work hours, the number of and type of personnel required, royalties, and much more. Except in rare instances, all personnel working on Broadway are members of some type of theatrical union. 


Off-Broadway refers to theatres outside of the Broadway Box on the island of Manhattan, and having more than 100, but less that 499 seats. The Off-Broadway movement began in the 1950s as a response to the cost and commercialism associated with Broadway theatre at the time. The goal was to provide a more affordable venue intended to foster creativity and allow for more experimental productions than those found on Broadway, though in recent years this trend has not remained consistent. Off-Broadway theatres are a blend of commercial and not-for-profit management and are members of the Off-Broadway League, an organization founded in 1959 to “foster theatrical productions produced in Off-Broadway theatres, to assist in the voluntary exchange of information among its members, and to serve as the collective voice of its membership in pursuit of these goals.” Like the Broadway League, the Off-Broadway League negotiates agreements with theatrical unions and guilds, establishing the rules for working in an Off-Broadway house. A number of commercially successful Broadway productions like HairLittle Shop of HorrorsRent, Dear Evan HansonAvenue Q, and Hamilton started their lives Off-Broadway before transferring to Broadway. While not eligible for the Tony Awards, Off-Broadway productions are eligible for a wide range of awards, such as the Obie Awards, the Lucille Lortel Award, the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award, the Outer Critics Circle Award, the Drama Desk Award, and the Drama League Award. There are roughly 40 Off-Broadway theatres operating in New York right now, though the numbers tend to fluctuate with more regularity than the Broadway houses. 

Off-Off Broadway

If Off-Broadway was a response of the commercialism in Broadway theatre, then Off-Off-Broadway took that notion one step farther as a complete rejection of commercialism and an embrace of experimentation and “art for art’s sake.”  At the time of its creation, many artists believed that Off-Broadway had lost its edge and had made itself into a “Broadway light” model, eliminating experimentation and, instead, simply focusing on productions that were considered unsuitable for commercial theatre. The first of these was The Living Theatre, to be followed by such groups as LaMaMa, Theatre Genesis, and New York Theatre Ensemble. As expected, these productions have much less stringent rule structures and are often non-union structure. If a union designer were to work on these productions, the contract is a “project only” agreement, which guarantees that the producers will pay into their pension and welfare, but offers no collectively bargained rights or protections.

Check back soon for upcoming posts covering regional theatre structures, touring, and professional theatre in academic environments!

QLab as an Accessibility Design Tool

Much Ado About Nothing

Much Ado About Nothing presented at Eastern Michigan University Theatre, 2019.                    Scenic Design: Jeromy Hopgood, Lighting Design: Becca Bedell, Costume Design: Melanie Schuessler Bond, Projection Design: Rachel Tuba, Sound Design: Brian Scruggs, Accessibility Design: Elena Sanchez Flys

It’s no secret that the arts, and live performance in particular, have long struggled with the notion of providing accessibility for patrons with disabilities. Recently, the Eastern Michigan University Theatre program took steps towards providing a more inclusive theatergoing experience with the help of Elena Sanchez Flys, an assistant professor of Arts Administration with a passion for accessibility design.

This season, two of EMU Theatre’s shows (James and the Giant Peach and Much Ado About Nothing) offered accessibility services such as American Sign Language, audio description, captions, tactile tours and programs in both large print and Braille. In addition, both shows offered sensory friendly performances –  special performances designed to create a safe and welcoming experience for patrons with sensory disabilities such as those on the autism spectrum, as well as people with other sensory sensitivities.

Since EMU is the home of the Entertainment Design & Technology (ED&T) major, a number of productions have student designers and/or technicians working on shows. For the recent production of Shakespeare’s Much Ado, the production team featured students in a number of design roles, such as lighting designer, projection designer, assistant sound designer, and assistant accessibility designer.

Becca Bedell, the lighting designer for the production, was tasked with creating a design that addressed the needs for accessible and sensory-friendly performances. One major component was the use of special “warning lights” for sensory friendly performances. In previous shows, accessibility performers had been positioned onstage and used colored glow sticks to indicate various stimuli (red for loud sounds, yellow for bright lighting / strobes, and blue for actions which might create stimulation). For this performances, Ms. Bedell wanted to replace the glow sticks with lights used to splash color on the side walls of the theatre as indicators. Since the warning light system would not be used for every performance, she decided on creating a separate lighting control system that would be independently controlled by a member of the accessibility design team. To pull this off, I worked with Becca to create a QLab lighting control rig, using QLab running on a MacBook Pro, an ENTTEC OpenDMX Ethernet interface, and a small array of Chauvet Freedom PARs provided by TLS Productions Inc.

QLab proved to be the perfect choice for setting up a lighting control system. QLab 4 added Light Cues to its already formidable array of media and show control options, allowing you to control lighting systems over ArtNET ethernet interfaces or certain varieties of USB/DMX controllers. For our system, we connected an ENTTEC OpenDMX Ethernet interface to the MacBook Pro’s Ethernet port and ran a 5-pin DMX out from the interface into the Freedom PAR’s wireless DMX transmitter. With a quick amount of programming, we were able to add four basic Light Cues to send control signals to the Freedom PAR’s – red, amber, blue, and blackout.


The QLab workspace featured four Light Cues, each programmed for a specific function of turning on a specific color of light, or triggering a systemwide blackout.

This lighting system would be operated by a crew member positioned in the theater’s trap room, watching a live audio/video feed of the performance and following along on a marked script (similar to a traditional stage manager). This person had no previous experience in operating a light board, so we decided to create a user-friendly interface custom made for the show that would require minimal training to operate. Once again, QLab offered a great solution to this problem in the form of its Cue Cart function. A Cue Cart allows the user to create a grid-style interface with buttons to trigger cues in the workspace. We programmed three simple color-coded buttons that allowed the operator to click a button and trigger a colored light (red, amber, or blue). The light would stay on until the operator clicked the blackout button, which was programmed to fade out any light in the workspace. Since all of the Freedom PAR’s were addressed to the same control channel, this meant that the operator could easily control all of the lights in the rig at the single touch of a button.


The Cue Cart made for a simple control interface. The fact that each button was labelled and color-coded allowed even a novice operator to quickly feel confident using the system.

We discussed the pros and cons of having a system in which the cue carts would be connected to a MIDI push-button interface that allowed for a pushing a button to turn on the lights and the light turning off when the button was released, but decided on this approach of lights being on until turned off for fear of the operator accidentally creating a strobe effect by bumping the MIDI buttons. The only downside to the method we settled on was a need to turn off the lights by pressing the blackout button each time, but after a quick discussion with the operator we felt this would be the safer approach.

Technology is always changing and giving us new options for problem solving. Luckily, these changes are allowing us to become more creative in the ways that we build inclusive theatergoing experiences. I would love to hear some of the ways that you’ve been able to use tech to bridge these gaps. As always, feel free to share your thoughts!