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Cleveland area theaters adjust to shifting industry and rising costs

Audience members are in silhouette looking at the stage, which is blurred.
Cleveland-area theaters are all experiencing rising costs as they forge ahead with new seasons in an industry still reckoning with pandemic challenges as well as pre-existing ones.

Behind-the-scenes creativity at area theaters extends well beyond the construction of set pieces and costumes to budget management.

The new reality for producing live theater is paying more for labor and materials.

Across the country, rising costs are a top concern for theaters, according to survey results from the national organization Theatre Communications Group.

“Labor and materials are affected very much by inflation,” said Teresa Eyring, executive director of Theatre Communications Group. “There's also just an increasing need to make salaries and wages more competitive perhaps than they have been, because there's been an enormous amount of transition in the theater field.”

With theatrical seasons now in full swing, many Cleveland-area theater directors are upbeat about how things are going despite the challenges of rising costs, unpredictable audiences and some reductions in programming. While it is too soon to say exactly how major shifts in the industry will shake out, change is already taking shape in the local theater community.

Paying staff more

When theaters closed during the pandemic, some workers took jobs in other fields and haven’t returned. Theaters are now having trouble filling some roles, such as part-time technical staff. Many productions are adding understudies in case actors fall ill.

At the same time, the pandemic also illuminated pay disparities and unhealthy norms in the industry, like working excessive hours.

“The field is reconciling, and we're becoming more humane,” said Raymond Bobgan, executive artistic director at Cleveland Public Theatre in the Gordon Square Arts District. “At the same time, that means it might take more people to do the same job as before, and now I have to pay people at a higher rate.”

Staff costs have increased 30 percent at Cleveland Public Theatre and artistic programming has decreased 30 percent, Bobgan estimated.

An actor sits on a stage in the spotlight at Cleveland Public Theatre
Steve Wagner
Cleveland Public Theatre
This fall, Cleveland Public Theatre has seen "stronger than expected attendance," according to Raymond Bobgan, CPT's executive artistic director. Its latest production, seen above, is "Our Lady of Common Sorrows."

Cleveland Public Theatre’s avant-garde and community-focused work is also affected by national theaters reducing programming that supports new plays and artists. Bobgan cited the cancellations of Humana Fest and the Under the Radar Festival as examples.

“We're seeing what is being reduced when big theaters are cutting their budgets: New play development, avant-garde work, work that's deeply connected to community, because it doesn't make sense financially,” he said.

Dobama Theatre in Cleveland Heights is still premiering new plays on its mainstage, but the theater is producing one less show a season. Dobama Artistic Director Nathan Motta said the move from six shows to five is more sustainable and aligns with the changes the theater made to create a better working environment.

“We did a lot of soul searching during the pandemic and looked at our production model,” Motta said. “We added a week of rehearsal [for shows], and we went to five days of rehearsal per week rather than six.”

While theater leaders in the region said they feel good about raising pay for artists, the increased costs in labor are coupled with higher costs of materials, such as wood and paint. With audience numbers still not quite to pre-pandemic levels, theaters are also looking beyond tickets to offset the rises in production costs. Strategies range from seeking new corporate and grant support to increasing the number of ways to earn revenue, such as through rentals or other programming.

Welcoming back audiences

Great Lakes Theater opened its season with “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812,” a lively, but not particularly well-known musical, and audience numbers exceeded expectations.

“We, this season, are seeing a real change in the momentum of audiences coming back,” said Charles Fee, producing artistic director at Great Lakes Theater, which presents classical theater at Cleveland’s Hanna Theatre in Playhouse Square and shares the cost of its shows with organizations in Idaho and Lake Tahoe.

While Great Lakes’ audience levels are still about 10 percent behind where they were pre-pandemic, ticket price increases have brought revenues higher, Fee said.

But most show attendance comes from single-ticket sales, which are very difficult to predict.

“People are buying much, much later than they used to,” he said, adding that they often don’t know how many people will be in the audience a week before a performance.

Several area theaters report they are bringing in new people to shows, an encouraging sign for growing audiences.

“We're seeing a more diverse audience coming into the theater. We're seeing a younger audience coming into the theater,” Fee said.

The challenge is how to engage those patrons as many theaters have seen subscriptions decline, said Tony Sias, president and CEO of Karamu House, the nation’s oldest Black theater organization.

“Theatergoers are really into this a la carte experience,” he said, adding that people may be visiting multiple theaters rather than subscribing to one.

COVID-19 still a challenge

Madeline Calais-King as Mary Shelley in Cleveland Play House's production of "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein."
Roger Mastroianni
Cleveland Play House
Madeline Calais-King as Mary Shelley in Cleveland Play House's production of "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein." Cast and crew masked during rehearsals for the show to prevent illness, said Rachel Fink, CPH's managing director.

While area theaters have been ramping back up their offerings with the help of pandemic relief funds after the full shutdown of theater in 2020, productions remain vulnerable to COVID cases.

“COVID hasn’t gone away,” said Rachel Fink, the new managing director of Cleveland Play House.

Since Fink started last July, CPH has had COVID cases among cast or crew working on three different productions. She said they were able to cover roles with understudies and other fill-ins without canceling shows, and in an effort to prevent more illnesses, masks were a regular part of rehearsals for CPH’s latest production, “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.”

“We evaluate on a show-by-show basis of what the protocols are that we need to follow,” Fink said. “I think that's just going to be our norm for right now.”

Occasionally, there are still COVID cancellations, which recently happened with “Cat’s-Paw,” a four-person play at the Beck Center for the Arts in Lakewood.

“It's not a show that we were able to have understudies for,” said Beck Center Artistic Director Scott Spence. “So, we had to scrap three performances and try and get as many people into the last two weekends as possible.”

Education a bright spot

In addition to theatrical productions, area theaters provide educational programming, and several organizations said participation is back to pre-pandemic levels.

Cleveland Play House and Dobama Theatre increased their education programming in schools during the pandemic. In addition to the educational benefits for students, the programs pay teaching artists and can expose families to area theaters.

“The more that people can connect with what we do and see it as important, hopefully the more support and attendance that it translates into,” said Dobama’s Nathan Motta.

A student draws a picture of Spiderman
Beck Center for the Arts
Education programs at the Beck Center for the Arts in Lakewood are back to pre-pandemic levels of participation, said Beck Center CEO and President Cindy Einhouse.

While many educational programs went virtual during the pandemic, learning has shifted mostly back in person.

Once people were offered a choice between virtual and in-person education at the Beck Center, CEO Cindy Einhouse said the preference was for in-person learning. About two thirds of the organization’s revenue comes from education programs.

Both the Beck Center and Karamu House have also been updating their facilities with capital improvements, improving ADA access and spaces for education among other changes.

Karamu House is currently reimagining its education programming, which expanded virtually during the pandemic reaching people well beyond Northeast Ohio. The shift back to in-person learning hasn’t yet matched pre-pandemic levels.

“We are in a new space,” Sias said. “We need to better understand what that space is, redefine it and respond to it.”

That includes planning a new training program for behind-the-scenes technical work, which can address some of the issues theaters are currently experiencing filling those roles.

“We're going to work with our production team and other production individuals in the community to train a workforce,” Sias said.

The goal is to start offering training for high schoolers over the summer and then training for adults in fall 2024.

“We as a community have an opportunity to come together and have conversations in ways that we have not had historically with any frequency as an industry and as a community.”
Tony Sias, Karamu House

Looking forward

As theaters continue to adjust to new realities, there could be more partnerships between area theaters.

For instance, Karamu is presenting “Black Nativity” again in collaboration with Cleveland Play House at the Allen Theatre in Playhouse Square this December. The organizations partnered last year when CPH had to cancel its holiday production.

“We as a community have an opportunity to come together and have conversations in ways that we have not had historically with any frequency as an industry and as a community,” Sias said. “I would hope that we would seize the opportunity to see how we talk about shared resources and nontraditional ways of supporting each other that help reduce cost and that increase access across the board.”

Another example of partnership could be sharing scene shops, said CPH’s Rachel Fink. While she is not sure yet if that would work in Cleveland, she said the idea was raised recently at a conference she attended as part of a national professional theater group, the League of Resident Theatres.

Theaters in Cleveland have strong community and foundation support, which could help them navigate the changes in the industry better than other regions. Making the case for local, state and federal support will also continue in Cleveland and beyond.

“Theater is going to survive,” said Cleveland Public Theatre’s Raymond Bobgan. “The question is, what theater will we have in 20 years? In 10 years?”

Carrie Wise is the deputy editor of arts and culture at Ideastream Public Media.