theatre

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. 

Broadway

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

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.

qlab1

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.

CART

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!

Someone Else’s Shoes

Old shoes

 

It seems like every year we see more and more public schools cutting funding for arts, eliminating programs, and generally marginalizing the role of the arts in education. Without getting into a nasty political debate that is likely to lead nowhere, I think it is fair to say that politicians of all stripes from the Federal to the local level have been guilty of this, on some level. When looking at a basic cost/benefit analysis, I can even understand why it seems like an investment in arts programs is hard to justify – especially in the midst of the Great Recession.

As an educator, I get so tired of the perennial exercise in justifying the worth of the arts in our educational system. One positive that comes from this is that it affords me a regular opportunity to examine the worth of what I do. Every artist, if you’re being honest with yourself, has had those moments where you stop and really wonder if what you’re doing is impacting the world in any way. I have found that theatre artists are often guilty of this, due in no small part to the pervasive mentality that we are “just putting on a show.” While it is true that we work in the entertainment industry and, therefore, spend the majority of our time doing the whole entertainment thing, I think there is an important aspect to our work that is often overlooked – empathy.

Fundamentally, the role of theatre is to enable the artists and audience members to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. To be successful, an actor has to take on the mantle of another human being – to see through their eyes and respond to the world in a way that might not jive with the actor’s own inclinations. Designers and technicians collaborate with dozens of different people in an attempt to tell the story in the most effective manner. Often, they must abandon their own ideas along the way to make room for the end-product. Audience members get a glimpse into the inner workings of  character in a way that is impossible in the real world. At face value, this might not seem as important as scientists creating vaccines for deadly diseases or engineers designing nano machines. I would argue, though, that empathy has become the single most important commodity in the world today and we owe it to ourselves as a society to foster it whenever and wherever we can.

A look at the news on any given day can be an unsettling glimpse into the reality of our polarized world. On any topic it seems that there are two camps, us and them. Moderates and independents seem to be a dwindling thing of the past, replaced with folks on both ends of the spectrum unwilling to see the other side’s perspective and, worse, vilifying anyone with a differing opinion. Compromise is considered weakness. In the United States, we have seen this mentality taken to the horrifying destinations: cyber-bullying, character defamation, and even mass shootings. In this environment, a little empathy can go a long way. Any exercise in seeing the world through someone else’s eyes is a welcome medicine to treat this ailment.

That’s where we come full circle. The change that we want to see in the world must include art. The arts have a magical ability to break down walls and build bridges between camps. It has always been so. When we stop to consider how our education system will shape the world of tomorrow, let’s not forget that the arts aren’t simply electives – they are one of the last great tools we have at our disposal to instill a sense of empathy, bring our society closer together, and see the world through someone else’s eyes. For all of you artists out there, those goosebumps you’re feeling are completely appropriate. In a society where we all too often feel powerless, you are the ones with the ace up your sleeve. Get out there and save the world.

 

Beginnings

Welcome to the first installment of my new blog on topics related to Entertainment Design & Technology. My name is Jeromy Hopgood, a theatrical designer and university professor. For me, the times that we live in are exciting ones. Technology is rapidly evolving to create new opportunities for designers to be better storytellers and, as such, we are constantly challenged to adapt or find ourselves behind the curve.

One of the things I like the most about working in the entertainment industry is the collaborative nature of the job. We all better ourselves by working in groups and interacting with other designers / technicians / directors / actors / managers, etc. My motivation for writing this blog is to extend that collaboration from small groups and out into larger circles of this increasingly interconnected digital world. I like to share my experiences and interests with other folks and assume you will do the same. I hope to get just as much out of this experience (or more) than what I put into it.  My goal is to update on a regular basis about topics related to the entertainment design & technology industry, most often in the areas of scenery, lighting, sound, and integrated media  / projections. I will try to vary the content as much as possible featuring techniques, new products, and as much media as I can manage (since everyone likes pretty pictures).

I hope you enjoy what you find here and, if you do, pass it along to someone else who might be interested. I’m always looking for someone new to bounce ideas off of (and hopefully get some new ones in return).