How are smaller theater companies doing in this recession?

The economic storm has blown countless businesses out of the water.

In every town, a portion of the restaurants and shops has simply shuttered, and even successful services are being cut back. If straightforward commerce is doing that poorly, what's happening to the arts, which in America is not usually on the steadiest of financial footing to begin with?

We wanted to know how theater companies are doing in this climate. On a recent trip to Kansas City, we dropped by the Kansas City Repertory Theatre, which is producing a reconceived version of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's musical Into the Woods, to find out how theater companies in mid-size cities are faring, and what sort of things they're doing to combat lower budgets.

In a lot of ways, the Kansas City Rep is representative of many companies across America. We found out it's doing a lot better than you might think. Its artistic director, Eric Rosen, who spent more than a decade mounting theater in Chicago before moving to KC about 18 months ago, told us that in America's major cities, where space is scarcer, many fledgling outfits have had to give up the ghost.

But in mid-size cities such as Kansas City, where the real estate boom was milder than in the big cities, the pressure isn't killing off companies as quickly, and what's more, the populations are more protective of the fewer artistic outlets they have.In fact, Rosen says, the income for his budget has grown despite the downtown.

How are they managing that? In part, through some creative fund-raising methods, including a program -- borrowed from the world of resident symphonies -- in which donors "adopt" visiting artists. In an effort to up their game, they're also bringing in marquee talent from places such as Chicago and New York, where opportunities have been thinning and producers are less willing to try something risky. The Rep, for example, secured Moisés Kaufman, the Tony-nominated writer and director of Jane Fonda's recent Broadway play 33 Variations and an organizer of the Great Depression-inspired 140-theater Laramie Project event (which he talks about with WalletPop at this link), to re-invent the popular musical Into the Woods.

This Christmas, the rep will angle again for a wider audience by replacing its annual A Christmas Carol event with a new holiday show: a musical version of the popular movie A Christmas Story that, if it catches on, has a chance of being produced nationally, upping both the reputation and the bottom line of the company.

The arts are hardly booming, and they depend, as they have for years in this country, on the assistance of grants and donors. But the report from the Heartland isn't as dire as it might seem when you take consider the empty storefronts in places like New York or Los Angeles.

We talked to Rosen and Kaufman about what's happening to theater artists who are feeling squeezed by the times.
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