My theatregoing partner didn’t like it—but I kind of did. We certainly both remember it well. It was in a small, sweaty black box on Vermont Ave. in Los Angeles in the early ’90s, and actors were singing right into our faces. Only we couldn’t see them. They had entered in a blackout and were snarling a full-chorus rendition of “The Ballad of Mack the Knife” at us, behind us, all around us. This was not the usual (and probably not the strictly licensed) opening of The Threepenny Opera, but it certainly qualified as a strong choice. What came next was inevitable but nevertheless shocking: The lights popped on, and there they were, inches from our seats, visages contorted in smears of spit and makeup, Grosz gargoyles come to life. It was so intense it struck us both as funny, at least in retrospect.
Theatre’s indeterminate intimacy—the sense that we’re sharing the same air as the performers, in an unrepeatable moment in time—is its most powerful and addictive property. That’s part of why, though I enjoy a good spectacle as much as the next Big Apple Circus fan, a part of me still feels most at home in a theatre small enough for the ensemble to surround me, small enough to see their expressions and the seams of their costumes without opera glasses. My long years covering L.A.’s 99-seat theatre scene were formative in this respect, from the Matrix Theatre to Pacific Resident Theatre, from the Actors’ Gang to the Evidence Room. And long before the Menier Chocolate Factory “discovered” how well Sondheim’s musicals can work in intimate settings, I was seeing definitive productions of his canon in tight, unamplified quarters at East West Players, Actors Co-op, West Coast Ensemble, and the Colony Theatre. To this day I still relish a house that’s only a few rows deep, from the Bushwick Starr in Brooklyn to Magic Theatre in San Francisco.
But size isn’t just about seating. It rests on and implies an economic arrangement in which less money is changing hands, from the box office to the artists’ bank accounts. All that great work I was so fortunate to witness on tiny stages in L.A.? No one was making much of anything putting it on (except the landlords), in part due to the town’s uniquely liberal Equity code, which allowed actors to work with the smallest of stipends and protections. If the nonprofit world ostensibly offers an alternative to the rigors of the market economy, small nonprofit theatres offer extreme case studies in scarcity, pluck, intangible riches, uncertain sustainability, and looming burnout—or, as one story in these pages puts it, of making the most with the least.
This issue includes our annual season preview and Top 10 Most-Produced Plays list, culled from 385 of Theatre Communications Group’s member theatres. While that membership includes nearly all of the nation’s largest theatres, you may be surprised to learn that more than half of TCG’s members have a budget of $1 million or less. So in a series of articles that begins on p. 22, we’ve undertaken a sustained exploration of the unique blessings and challenges of making theatre in tight spaces on even tighter budgets. Good things may come in small packages, but here we take another look at the packaging.