professional theatre

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!