Saturday, February 9, 2008

Looking at LORT, Crunching the Numbers

Posted by Bruce Miller
Over the last six years, there’s been a lot of fervent discussion about whether Barksdale should become a LORT theatre. Quite a few folks have been involved in these discussions, and all opinions are welcome.

LORT stands for the League of Resident Theatres, which is a membership organization comprised of the nation’s leading professional theatre companies. LORT exists for many reasons, but one of the most important is to represent the 76 member theatres in collective bargaining with the three artist unions: AEA for actors and stage managers, SSDC for directors and choreographers, and USA for designers.

It takes money to operate as a LORT theatre. To super-generalize, LORT regulations require higher ratios of union (AEA) actors than Barksdale uses currently. This would make it more difficult, at least philosophically, to hire non-union locals.

Those ratios are one big issue. Barksdale has a long standing commitment to Richmond-based theatre artists. Money is another.

TheatreVirginia was a LORT theatre. TheatreVirginia went out of business in 2002. There are lots of reasons why, but a fundamental reason was that as ticket sales and funding failed to grow, TVA could no longer meet the expenses of its LORT obligations.

The STYLE report card implied that Richmond’s current lack of a LORT theatre was one of the reasons for actors moving on to larger markets. As I've mentioned earlier, I'm not convinced that artists are leaving at a greater rate than before, and I'm even less certain that the lack of a LORT theatre is the reason for the departure of the ones who are choosing to move on. But we're very open to everyone's input as we continue to analyze the pros and cons of such a major decision.

The global view is this. I think there are at least ten metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs) that are larger than Richmond and don’t have a LORT theatre: Sacramento, CA (#26), Orlando, FL (#27), San Antonio, TX (#29), Las Vegas, NV (#31), Columbus, OH (#32), Charlotte, NC (#36), Austin, TX (#37), Nashville, TN (#39), Jacksonville, FL (#40) and Memphis, TN (#41).

And there are plenty of great theatres that we all know and love that aren’t LORT. In Chicago, of the 55 AEA theatres, only three are LORT. And the 52 that are not include Steppenwolf, Victory Gardens, Chicago Shakespeare and Lookingglass. Closer to home, neither Signature Theatre in NoVA nor Wooly Mammoth and Studio in D. C. work under LORT contracts.

Barksdale Theatre at Willow Lawn’s current SPT contract allows for a higher ratio of non-union locals (the union uses the term non-professionals). Currently our seasonal contract requires that we issue AEA contracts to 60% of all cast members and 100% of all stage managers, with a cap of six AEA actors required for shows with casts of ten or more.

So what does LORT really mean? Well, for one thing, it gives you a seat at the adult table in terms of national standing. As Dave Timberline mentioned, David Leong at VCU would love to see us join LORT, because it would add more prestige to the resumes of his students who work with us.

You would not be off the mark to say that, in terms of “professionalism” and "national standing," SPT is one notch below LORT, and one or more notches above several of the other options that are out there. Barksdale Theatre at Willow Lawn is Richmond’s only SPT. Prior to 2001, Barksdale used AEA actors only in rare instances and employed them under Guest Artist agreements. Barksdale at Hanover Tavern still uses Guest Artist agreeements.

There are currently 76 major professional theatres that are members of LORT. Of these, 61 are located in MSAs larger than Richmond/Petersburg. One, the Actors Theatre of Louisville, is located in the 42nd largest MSA, only slightly larger than Richmond/Petersburg, the 43rd largest MSA (if you separate Washington D. C. and Baltimore into two MSAs). Fourteen are located in MSAs smaller than Richmond/Petersburg.

These 14 professional theatres, listed in order of the size of their MSAs, are:

Goodspeed Musicals in East Haddam, CT, the 44th largest MSA;
Hartford Stage Company in Hartford, CT, also in the 44th largest MSA;
Studio Arena Theatre in Buffalo, NY, the 46th largest MSA;
Geva Theatre Company in Rochester, NY, the 49th largest MSA;
PlayMakers Repertory Theatre in Chapel Hill, NC, the 51st largest MSA;
Capital Repertory Theatre in Albany, NY, the 57th largest MSA;
Clarence Brown Theatre Company in Knoxville, TN, the 77th largest MSA;
Arkansas Repertory Theatre in Little Rock, AR, the 79th largest MSA;
Syracuse Stage in Syracuse, NY, the 80th largest MSA;
Portland Stage Company in Portland, ME, the 97th largest MSA;
McCarter Theatre in Princeton, NJ, the 134th largest MSA;
Alabama Shakespeare Festival in Montgomery, AL, the 135th largest MSA;
Barter Theatre in Abingdon, VA, the 152nd largest MSA; and
Berkshire Theatre Festival in Stockbridge, MA, the 301st largest MSA.

In an effort to compare apples to apples, we’ve been looking at these 15 professional theatres to see how they are able to afford LORT membership in communities similar to or smaller than Richmond/Petersburg. I encourage you to investigate these theatres yourself and join in our strategic planning.

More to come.

--Bruce Miller


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the explaination, Bruce.

I'm not convinced that ticket prices and decreased corporate funding was the main reason for TVA's demise. The VMFA gave them several years' notice before taking their rented space back. Various artistic directors couldn't get a committed future action plan together.

Anyway, it would indeed be interesting to see what a LORT theatre would bring to the arts community. Maybe Barksdale could be LORT, Theatre IV/Empire stays as is, and strong-actors/directors who are not equity could return to renting and producing under the Theatre Gym banner?

Let other theatres crop up to give more work opportunities to local non-union artists. I'd rather see Barksdale get better and better - with all available talent - then simply serve to supply employment to our local talent.

Thank you.

Anonymous said...

As an audience member, I have to say that I think you have a good mix of locals and out-of-towners. I grew up attending shows at Arena Stage, and they had a core company of resident actors and designers, all of whom were local professionals, whose work we saw over and over again in roles of different sizes and shape. It was fun to watch Robert Prosky, Richard Bauer, Halo Wines, Dianne Weiss, Casey Biggs, Howard Witt and all the others play a diversity of roles. And when they moved on and found success on Broadway and in Hollywood, it was fun to cheer them on as they pursued their new national oppotunities.

Personally, I didn't care much for TheatreVirginia because almost all of their actors were unknown to the audience and lived out of town. It would be one thing if these out-of-town actors had knocked our socks off, but in most instances they didn't. They were OK, but, in my opinion, our local professionals were and are better.

Give me Scott Wichman, Joe Pabst, Dave Bridgewater, Joy Williams, Robin O'Neill, Erin Thomas, Irene Ziegler, Joe Inscoe, Jan Guarino, Audra Honaker, Brett Ambler, Deborah Wagner, Katrina Lewis, Robin Arthur, Matthew Costello, Jackie Jones, d l hopkins, Jill Bari Steinberg, Rick Brandt, John Hagadorn, Ford Flannagan, and all the others any day of the week.

At TheatreVirginia, when our locals were cast, it was almost always in tiny roles. I like seeing them in starring roles. They're almost always GREAT.

What's the point of being a regional theatre if you bring almost everyone in from out of town. You might as well be Broadway Under the Stars, and we all now how well that turned out.

I love Barksdale and I think you do a great job of finding the right mix of local actors and NYC actors. I liked it when you brought in the black actor in Full Monty, the older actor in Deathtrap (forgive me for not remembering their names), the handsome young black man in Intimate Apparel, Dan Ruth in Brooklyn Boy, Kathy Halenda in Mame, Cinderella and Rapunzel's Prince in Into the Woods, etc. I'm really looking forward to seeing Duke Lafoon in Doubt. Now you seem to import maybe one lead out of four, and give our local stars a shot about three times out of four. Our maybe its four out of five. That's about the same ratio that Arena had in its glory years.

If you become LORT, I hope you won't change your commitment to a good mix of local professional artists. As Barksdale grows, it should always continue to be your responsibility to provide opportunities to local actors.

Thanks for all your hard work.

--A Fan

Robinitaface said...

I think "A Fan" has just polished Richmond's Badge of Honor. If I'm not mistaken, many of those actors listed in their comment are Richmonders who returned for the shows named.

Scott Wichmann said...

As an AEA actor, I am certainly biased in favor of any contract that brings a larger paycheck my way. However, the current financial realities may not make it feasible for Barksdale to become a full-fledged LORT theatre, at least not yet.

And yet, the simple fact that we're even discussing LORT status speaks volumes about the strides Barksdale has made in the six-plus years since its almost total collapse in 2001.

Barksdale's TIV-assisted transition in 2001 represented not only a resurgence for a treasured local theatre, but it also gave the organization a new focus and a goal to be another vital AEA theatre in Central VA. As a bi-product of this commitment, I got my Equity card during the 2001 production of 'Fully Committed' at Barksdale. A few months later, I had health insurance for the first time in my adult life.

I was excited about Barksdale's SPT arrangement then (I still am), and I was really looking forward to someday adding Theatre Virginia to my resume. I was also looking forward to the prospect of a six-to-eight-week contract that topped out around $650 a week. Doing one or two shows a year at a healthy TVA would have been a great source of income and a healthy supplement to other work in and out of town.

When TVA closed, that opportunity evaporated, but Barksdale has tirelessly continued to search for ways to maximize growth and provide artists with opportunities to do solid, fresh work and make some money at the same time. The Hanover Tavern restoration, for instance, has opened up a whole new arena for Theatregoers and artists alike.

I think Barksdale should definitely explore the possibility of joining LORT one day. The thought excites me. I constantly hear great stories from folks about the heyday of TVA under Artistic Directors like Tom Markus and Terry Burglar. Actors, Designers and SM's had solid years where they did great work and got paid just enough to breathe a little easier-- Many of these folks bought houses, raised families and could stay here knowing that the economic environment was very favorable to artists.

I think we're on the event horizon of something special here in Richmond. Barksdale will be showcasing 'Guys and Dolls' this summer at the Empire in an effort to showcase their considerable professional skills to their subscribers in a larger downtown venue. They will be assisting subscribers with parking and making the previously dreaded 'Trip Downtown' as smooth as possible while providing many new downtown restaurants with a boost from the nightly theatre crowd. I think this effort represents a kind of litmus test for some of the Barksdale's plans for growth.

I applaud these efforts, and I look forward to doing my part to help Barksdale take things to the next level if it makes sense for the organization to do so!! If LORT is one of Barksdale's goals, I say "GO FOR IT!!"

Anonymous said...

Don't do it, Bruce. It's insanity.

SPT allows the higher wages to people like Mr. Wichmann anyway! Plus, it does so without the prohibitive quotas.

Anonymous said...

"Let other theatres crop up to give more work opportunities to local non-union artists"
What??? Is this person kidding me? The theatres that are here now can just stay afloat!

Bruce, you have an amazing amount of TALENTED non-union people who live in this town who have not gone Equity because it means that they can not work at any of the other theatres in town. We don't have enough roles to go around as it is.

And Scott why not just ask for more money if you need it. They can pay you more then the min (as someone pointed out.)

As for David Leong and VCU...he doesn't care about this city or the theatres in it (does he even attend shows outside of VCU?). He is looking out for #1 and his students only. I guess that's fine, but please don't say that he cares about the theatre community in Richmond. I don't buy it for a second!

Bruce, stay true to your city and your talent pool!

Anonymous said...

I didn't read the STYLE report card, but I'm certainly hearing about it. Even people who are music or visual art people are talking about how the theater critics dissed theater in Richmond. That seems a little hard to believe. Can anyone give the executive summary?

Anonymous said...

The executive summary is this:

STYLE reporter Brent Baldwin gave Richmond’s rental Venues a grade point average of B (2.94),

Valley Haggard gave the Literary Arts an A (3.94),

Becky Shields gave Visual Artists a B+ (3.625),

Paulette Roberts-Pullen gave Richmond’s Galleries a B+ (3.75),

Clarke Bustard gave Classical Music a B (3.18),

Peter McElhinney gave Jazz a B (3.31),

David Timberline gave Actors a C+ (2.94),

Mary Burruss gave Theatre a C- (2.25), and

Lea Marshall gave Dance a B (3.25).

Theatre got the basic one two punch, sadly pulling Richmond Arts overall GPA down to a B-, earning this comment from STYLE’s editors, “Well, Richmond’s not getting into a good college with that average.”

The other art forms are pissed at the theatres now because the overall low grade reinforces the tendency of Richmond funders to throw their money behind stuff brought in from out of town. And theatre arts orgs are pissed because the tanking grades for theatre encourages local funders to throw their support behind the SOBs (symphony, opera, ballet).

One might ask why Richmond’s theatre critics rate their art form so far below all the other art forms? Does theatre in Richmond really suck compared to everything else? No one I knows thinks so. Theatre outsells the other art forms by at least two to one, and Moonlight and Magnolias in Richmond was better than it was Off Broadway.

But what does it matter what I think. I don’t write for STYLE. Mary Burress said, “It’s sad to think that the most major change (in Richmond theatre) has been that Barksdale and Theatre IV merged, making the Barksdale Theatre the biggest game in town.”
Ouch!! She added, “Smaller, independent companies may be Richmond’s best shot at theater development if a suitable replacement for TheatreVirginia never materializes.” Double Ouch!!!

I don’t know what B Miller did to piss off M Burress, but it must have been something pretty baaaddddd for her to diss B’dale like this in front of all the power brokers. The repercussions sure aren’t going to make B’dale’s life any easier.

Anonymous said...

Richmond funders want to pay for quality. And why shouldn't they? If you start doing quality work, the funding will follow. Right now, CenterStage Foundation and the Modlin Center are out raising big bucks to bring quality theater in from NYC and LA. Above all, that's what local theaters have to compete with. Style made it clear that they don't think local theaters are keeping up with the great shows that can be brought in from elsewhere. That's why all the actors are leaving.

Anonymous said...

You say "one might ask why Richmond's theatre critics rate their art form so far below all the other art forms." WHy not ask them? Richmond's four biggest critics, including Timberline and Burress, will be speaking at tomorrow's Coffee and Conversation at 9:30 am at the Willow Lawn Barksdale. Attendees are encouraged to ask whatever they want. Should be fun.

Scott Wichmann said...

An anonymous poster wrote:

"And Scott why not just ask for more money if you need it. They can pay you more then the min (as someone pointed out.)"

Just because the SPT contract allows for higher weekly wages doesn't mean it is financially feasible for Barksdale to pay AEA actors more than the minimum. It's just not that easy for the theatre to do, and I understand that.

That's why I said that I thought that the 'current financial realities' make it difficult for Barksdale to go LORT right now.

(Plus, the economic road ahead looks bleaker with each passing, dollar-devaluing day, so it isn't like the mystical 'land of LORT' is exactly in sight...)

But, assuming it becomes do-able for BT to do it one day, why exactly does LORT status equal 'insanity'?? Barksdale already has union 'Quotas', and some of the smaller-size shows (that are finacially feasible to produce in this economic climate) restrict non-AEA opportunities anyway!!

Barksdale's about-to-open show (Doubt) and it's previous show (Moonlight & Magnolias) both have casts comprised of four actors. Out of those casts, three from each are AEA members, leaving exactly Two non-union roles available in two consecutive shows. I don't believe that Bruce and Phil are being 'Untrue to their City or their Talent pool' by casting the 60% mandated Equity members (and one out-of-town residing Richmonder, Duke Lafoon) rather than non-union locals.

A LORT designation would give more local Union Actors an opportunity to earn a living wage in the city of Richmond, just like when TVA was in it's prime.

I know, Th-That's... That's just insane!! We can't have that!! NOOOO!!

(Please, allow me to indulge in some sarcasm-- after all, I'm addressing the mysterious members of the 'anonymii ' yet again...)

But seriously-- Speaking as someone who derives his entire income from work in the entertainment business-- why exactly are we afraid of Barksdale mulling over this LORT idea?? First of all, do you have any idea what the SPT minimum pay rate is??

Luckily, I have no kids, no mortgage, and no car payment, so right now I am able to save a little money and have a comfortable existence with what I make-- my needs and wants are few, and I feel very blessed.

BUT-- here's the kicker: what if one day I want to have these things(Kids, Mortgage, brand new car) and still have days like today, where I drive to DC for an audition or two-- without having to ask for time off from another job-- because that's what I do for a living??

Why the fear of more Equity opportunities for local artists and a higher weekly pay rate-- not just for me, but across the board-- for EVERY show, EVERY actor, EVERY time out??

Come on, folks. We'll eventually need a healthy LORT theatre in the city of Richmond. Why not Barksdale-- if and when the time is right?

Without a solid LORT presence in the long run, we may continue to hear people moaning about the number of actors that leave town because they just can't make a living...

Anonymous said...

Um...who reads Style? C'mon, who cares what they write.

Anonymous said...

Realistically, if any theatre is going to be LORT, it's going to be Barksdale. I can't imagine some upstart company jumping ahead in line, not with the great relationships that Barksdale has made with the city power brokers over the last 50 years. And Barksdale is once again being so smart to keep calm and play all this out carefully, rather than just jumping into the LORT pool because it feels good and makes them look all shiny. We theatre insiders may bicker about this and that, but Barksdale has played "slow and steady wins the race" about as well as that game can be played. For all the right reasons, Miller and Whiteway have earned the respect of all the leading CEOs in town. You think business people haven't noticed that when so many other companies have cashed in their chips these guys have kept on ticking. They're like that bunny with the batteries. Mary Burruss can forget all her pining for a "suitable replacement for TheatreVirginia." They don't come more "suitable" than Barksdale. Pete, Nancy and Muriel must be laughing themselves silly. I know for a fact that Pete was REALLY proud of the way Miller and Whiteway were captaining his ship. And sorry for being anonymous, but like a lot of others, I don't want to have a dog in this race. I just want to comment from the sidelines and then fade into the crowd.

Anonymous said...


Excellent blog posting on LORT. I've never been convinced that LORT is the standard bearer for the public; only in the industry. You are right to be skeptical as the costs of being a LORT theatre are considerable. BARTER THEATRE, in the second smallest MSA is the 10th largest employer (in AEA actor work weeks) of LORT.

Richard Rose
Producing Artistic Director
Barter Theatre

Frank Creasy said...

I'm not acquainted with Mr. Rose like I am with Bruce and Phil, but he gave a great curtain speech before a recent weekend matinee performance I saw of "Driving Miss Daisy." An absolutely wonderful production, and it turned out when I met the leading lady that she and I had a mutual acting acquaintance from many years back. Small world! As an old friend of a Barter board member, I got a behind the scenes look at all the facilities. It was really something to see, the likes of which you won't find in many towns outside of New York or the other very largest metropolitan cities. The scenery shop alone is almost the size of the interior of the Empire Theatre stage in Richmond.

The other thing that really knocked my socks off in visiting the Barter was the number of out of town tour groups coming SOLELY for the purpose of seeing one or more shows that day, or that weekend. No sooner was the matinee of "Daisy" completed than the crew began setting up for the evening performance of "Dracula". One of the repertory actors performing in "Daisy" took a dinner break before going back on stage to perform in "Dracula" that evening.

Safe to say Mr. Rose is understating the fact when he says the costs of being a LORT theatre are "considerable". Barter provides housing in Abingdon for a stable of performers and crew members on top of the costs of each production and the facilities themselves. I can't imagine what that would require in Richmond, or in Abingdon where Barter basically IS the town. A beautiful, upscale resort inn sits directly across the street from Barter's mainstage theater. Abingdon is a destination small town solely because of Barter.

Barksdale Theatre and Theatre IV and doing absolutely incredible work with what is a very modest budget, and as we all know, a pitiful amount of state funding for the arts in the Commonwealth. I'm not decided myself on whether or not LORT is the way to go, but I'd sure love to see some of my theatre friends earn a decent living doing what they do so well in this city. But I'm pretty certain of one thing: Bruce and Phil aren't about to throw the baby out with the bath water. If it's the right thing to do it will happen, and it will happen in such a way that it will be a SUCCESS, or it won't go forward at all. And personally, I take great comfort in knowing that fact.

markasaurus said...

I used to work for Studio Arena in Buffalo, NY- a LORT D theater in a fairly small metro area. I left there five years ago and have watched from a distance as it has gone deeper and deeper into debt, as it is hard to grow the audience with the high ticket prices and massive expenses required to maintain LORT status.

The organization in Buffalo has laid off a huge number of staff and is currently on the verge of bankruptcy. It is extremely expensive to pay the union wages requires for LORT membership. In addition, most LORT theaters employ large numbers of out of town actors, so it isn't a very big draw to keep actors from moving on to larger cities. I think this is inevitable for people who want to grow their careers, which usually means going to New York or Chicago. Look very carefully before deciding to take the enormous financial plunge required to be a LORT Theater.

Anonymous said...

It's not just Studio Arena that is suffering. Charlotte Rep, the LORT theatre that used to operate in Charlotte NC (bigger and financially stronger than Richmond) went belly-up a few years ago as well. With TheatreVirginia going bankrupt, and Charlotte Rep, and now Studio Arena approaching bankruptcy, you're very smart to proceed very cautiously. Going bankrupt wouldn't help anybody. Good luck.

--John Kellerson, NC

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