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!