San Antonio's Theater Scene is Long on Space, Short on Productions

If you think there is little to no serious theater in San Antonio, you’re not alone. Even business travelers dining at Bohanan’s must notice that the marquees of the venerable Majestic and Empire theaters most often announce comedy or music shows. If a play is listed, it’s likely a touring musical, such as The Addams Family, which appeared this month at the Majestic. Nearby, the opulent Aztec Theatre is shuttered; a sign on the door advertises it is available for event rentals.

If drama — other than the political sort at City Hall — ever graced downtown stages, there’s little record of it. The Charline McCombs Empire Theatre was built in 1916 as a vaudeville house, and then became a movie theater. The Majestic Theatre arrived in 1929, courtesy of the Interstate Theatres film chain. Eventually, both theaters were shuttered and since renovations brought them back to life in 1989, a variety of performances, including the San Antonio Symphony’s season at the Majestic, have been offered. But precious little serious theater, of the artistic quality demanded off Broadway, has been seen.

Bereft of a central theater district, San Antonio is instead home to more than two dozen small companies spread almost invisibly about the city — the majority would most appropriately be described as community theater. Though our city is yet to found an Actors Equity house guaranteeing professional level performances and actors’ pay, some companies, like the Classic Theatre of San Antonio and AtticRep muster remarkable performances, many recognized by The Alamo Theater Arts Council’s annual awards.

In the past, a favored destination for those seeking innovative, experimental work was the Blue Star Arts Complex where productions at the Overtime Theater and the Sterling Houston Theater at Jump-Start have attracted devoted, if small audiences. But, a little over a year ago the Overtime left Southtown, a casualty of new construction at the complex, and last month the arts community was shocked to hear that Jump-Start’s lease would not be renewed.

Though the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts, being built within the gutted façade of the old Municipal Auditorium, promises a resurgence of artistic endeavor based on a few lucky tenants when it opens in fall of 2014, San Antonio’s theater community now seems under duress. But is theater being incrementally whittled away before it can mature to a professional level, or are changes in our local economy offering the possibility for a renaissance?

As the Current went to press on Monday, April 15, for our April 17 issue, we barely had time to insert news we confirmed that day: Jump-Start’s lease would not be renewed at the Blue Star Arts Complex. Since then, James Lifshutz, principal of the company that owns the property, signed papers with Jump-Start that allow them to stay through January, 2014, past the end of their lease in September. Even with the extra time, the transition won’t be easy for the theater company, one of the first tenants of the nearly 30-year-old arts complex. At present, neither Jump-Start, Classic Theatre, nor Celebration Circle — the third nonprofit sharing the space — know where they ultimately will land.

“Right now, we are just trying to respond to all the leads,” said Dino Foxx, public relations officer for Jump-Start, and one of the company’s principal artists. “We were really overwhelmed with the support that we’ve received. Not only did we hear from every local theater company in regards to their support, but folks are willing to help,” he said. Not surprisingly, Overtime Theater, which went through a similar, if much more rapid, edging out, was the first to respond with offers to make space for Jump-Start’s season, if no other venue is found.

Many have spoken harshly against Lifshutz, condemning him for making life difficult for artists at the complex with higher rents accompanying renovations that brought in new restaurants, including the recently arrived Halcyon and Stella Public House, with two more building out this summer — and have accused him of abandoning theater altogether.

“Not so,” Lifshutz told the Current recently. “My intent is to keep it [the Jump-Start space] a theater space for theater, music, and lectures,” he said. Asked if another resident theater company might be allowed to move in after the completion of new renovations planned to begin in early 2014, he responded that he was, “just starting down this path, so I don’t have any answers yet. I’m not even sure what the questions are.” But, he emphasized, “I think San Antonio, from my layman’s perspective, has a lot of theatrical talent. I don’t know what it would take to take it to the next level. It’s not considered a theater town. Why not? Is it because we don’t have a theater district?”

It will take a year or more to learn if theater continues at Blue Star, and even longer before performing arts shine on the stages of the Tobin Center. Envisioned as the new home for the Symphony and other performing arts groups, it’s uncertain if local theater companies will have a chance to perform there, or whether the new facility will be reserved for high-dollar outfits such as the new Opera San Antonio, which will preview its aspirations May 23 in a concert at the Majestic Theatre. One small theater has, however, already been added to the roster of Tobin resident companies.

Convergent Theater Company is not a well-known name in San Antonio, and their plan of action is uncommon, too. Helmed by Anthony Wofford, a 2007 graduate of the Juilliard School, Convergent is a group of young conservatory grads that first met when they attended San Antonio’s Churchill High School. They formed, said Wofford, in 2005 to stage small productions while on break from college. Wofford is vague on the sort of theater he plans to present, emphasizing instead the various sorts of experiences the audience will have as monthly subscribers in a plan inspired, he said, by Netflix.

“Examples of content are performances, weekly welcome parties, social events where audiences and actors get to co-create things in a very socially alive venue,” explained Wofford, who emphasized that he envisions both a local and international subscriber base, with much of the content online.

Though his proposals are focused more on marketing rather than theatrical content, Wofford insists that new tactics are needed to attract an audience. “San Antonio is in dire need of a theater company that transforms the experience of interacting with theater,” he said “That is Convergent’s staple. That is why I call myself the chief experience officer.”

Though his chances of success may seem as vague as Lifshutz’s endeavor to renovate a theater space, Wofford has captured the imagination of leadership at the Tobin.

David Green, interim managing director of the Tobin Center, and former general manager of the San Antonio Symphony, says, “Anthony came and gave me his vision, and it resonated with me. I don’t know if he will be successful, or to what extent. But I don’t want to tell this kid he can’t do it — he might be able to, so let’s let him try.” The take-away if Convergent succeeds is the Holy Grail of theater, which has been increasingly doomed to a graying audience. “If they are successful, it will really help activate that space for young people,” Green claimed.

The aging, and hence dwindling, theater audience is a problem also faced by dance and classical music, both in San Antonio and throughout the country. But in SA, other factors besides audience demographics and the lack of a central district may hinder theater’s health. One factor might be the way theater companies often respond to the financial support offered to the arts by the City’s Department of Culture and Creative Development, which awards grants ranging up to a third of an arts nonprofit’s annual operating budget. Monitored by DCCD on a monthly basis, the grants derived from the City’s Hotel Occupancy Tax must be met with matching funds. This is a factor leading theaters that own or manage their own spaces to book other companies on their stages in order to gain rental income. But this tactic, though it may have the benefit of increasing artistic diversity in a theater, has a down side, too.

Faced with the need to ensure a calendar filled with adequate rental space, theater managers schedule a number of short runs, usually three weekends, of their own productions. Faced with having to pay a booking fee, companies renting do the same. The result is that shows have little time for the public to learn of them. And if, by some chance, they do sell out, there are usually no opportunities to lengthen the run. Even with luck and hard work, there are few chances to expand audience in this system.

Coupled with the obligation to find matching funds for DCCD grants, the demands to serve their communities with a staggering variety of services ranging from visual arts education to dance instruction leaves little theater appearing on the stages of large City-owned arts facilities. The Carver Community Cultural Center, a historical bastion of the East Side, was awarded $327,000 a year in the last fiscal cycle by DCCD, although they do not produce their own work, but rather schedule a season of touring and local productions. The Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center (GCAC) located on the West Side, receiving $332,000 annually, concentrates on self-produced events like CineFestival and the recent Tejano Conjunto Festival, partially held at the historic Guadalupe Theater. A center of teatro in the 1980s, the Guadalupe Theater is now without a resident company, and no longer features TeatroFest, a contemporary Chicano theater festival.

Patty Ortiz, executive director of GCAC, points out that the Guadalupe does underwrite community use of the theater, concentrating on finding outside grants instead of rental fees as matching funds for City grants. “Because GCAC is multi-disciplinary, we feel a commitment to local and international productions,” said Ortiz. “We began last fall with Lisa Cortez and Attagirl Productions’ Detained in the Desert, and also brought in the Spanish-language version of The Vagina Monologues. But the theater is a multi-use space, so it’s juggling times and schedules.” As for those who believe the Guadalupe isn’t opening up enough to local talent, she says, “Apply. Next spring we are looking for local groups to perform.”

The San Pedro Playhouse, located in a City-owned facility in San Pedro Park, is the oldest continuing theater in San Antonio, having been founded as The Little Theater in 1930. Now known simply as the Playhouse, they receive $138,000 a year from DCCD, pay actors, and forego rentals. Asia Ciaravino, president and CEO, was one of Classic Theatre’s founders, and since she took the helm at the Playhouse, has been making quiet structural changes — one she hopes to implement next year is the ability to extend runs. Like the Guadalupe and the Classic, the Playhouse mounts vigorous grant writing campaigns. Said Ciaravino, “the more you write, the more you receive.”

Jump-Start Performance Co. is also a recipient of a DCCD grant, $201,750 annually. They produce strong, but short-running, shows of their own, though they offer educational programs and are aggressive in bringing in performances by other companies. Now looking at the loss of their space in Southtown next year, the organization is faced with deciding whether they will need to shrink in size, or have opportunities to expand; topics, says Jump-Start’s Foxx, that are under discussion with DCCD and the Center City Development Office, which is exploring available locations within downtown that might be a fit for the theater company.

Some companies of high merit receive very small grants. The Classic receives $23,000 annually in DCCD grants, and plans to perform the first part of their 2013-14 season at the Jump-Start space. It is exploring both the option of remaining with Jump-Start, if an adequate facility for both companies is found, or going out on their own.

AtticRep, one of the few companies with the professional talent needed to forge an Actors Equity house, currently receives only $13,000 in DCCD grants. One of their greatest limits is that they are in residence at Trinity Universty’s Attic Theatre, and must schedule around the demands of students. Rick Frederick, actor, director, and interim managing director of AtticRep, believes his company is ready to go fulltime. At present, all members work day jobs, though actors are paid, and equity members have received waivers to work with the company. The company, however, would have to find a large endowment to move to a facility that could house a fulltime theater company. At present, Trinity gives them their space rent-free.

And some theaters, including the Cameo, Overtime, and Woodlawn theaters, operate with no grants at all. Relying solely on the box office, each maintains its own quarters. Cameo Theatre, located on the East Side near Hemisfair Park, like Woodlawn Theatre, runs a main theater and a second, smaller, space. Both are community theaters, putting out five-week runs for their big houses, producing musicals, and paying their staff. Actors at Cameo, however, receive only stipends, while actors at Woodlawn, at present, forego pay altogether. Both theaters are aggressive marketers, and add late night cabaret shows to their line ups. Woodlawn has recently become nonprofit, and though it will not qualify for grants until it has been so for three years, general manager Greg Hinojosa points to its Academy of Performing Arts, their educational branch, and the progressive work at Woodlawn’s Black Box Theater as signs that the Deco District theater is already on the road to fulfilling expectations of nonprofit performing arts contributions.

But what of the Overtime, forced to leave before the latest construction at the Blue Star Arts Complex? Operating in a new facility near the Pearl they built out with funds from a Kickstarter campaign, they now have two performing spaces and a lobby that is open to the public even during rehearsals. Operating on an entirely volunteer basis, they are getting by, but their success story is not primarily a financial one.

Producing entirely original material by local playwrights such as Scott McDowell, Rob Barron, and Gregg Barrios, the Overtime is a hive of innovation. Rather than using the rental model, Overtime depends on partnerships to fill their two stages. In addition to their own company, Proxy Theatre and short form innovators The Aesthetic of Waste are residents in The Overtime’s complex, once an office building. The Overtime has become its own micro-district for theater. Now, with the required three years under their belt as a nonprofit, they will be getting into the grant game soon. Let’s hope that if they become another contender, they don’t lose the hunger that has kept them alive despite adversity that would have finished a more traditional company.

While it’s still a hardscrabble existence for most local theater companies, opportunities for growth appear to be opening up, somewhat surprisingly. Lainey Berkus, public relations officer for ACE, the for-profit company that manages the Charline McCombs Empire and Majestic Theatres, points out, “When the Symphony moves to the Tobin, we are reaching out to the San Antonio arts community to fill those dates.” Whether the City, which owns the twin theaters, will ever raise the curtain on some sort of support to enable theater arts in San Antonio to take advantage of that promising, but costly opportunity is TBD: to be determined.

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