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Theaters trim costs to counter economic downturn

Hard times tend to be the norm and not the exception for theaters, especially in a city as culturally indifferent as Atlanta. Individual playhouses may luck into long-running hits or deep-pocketed patrons, but in general, theaters run a neverending race for grant money and ticket buyers.

But business is even tougher than usual because single tickets sales are down. Says Alliance Theatre artistic director Susan Booth, "Attendance is down. To post-9-11 levels? No. Below historical levels pre-9-11? Yes."

Horizon Theatre has taken some drastic measures to offset losses this season. Last fall, it cut short its run of The Spitfire Grill, The Musical, and it recently canceled Runaway Home, one of its two mainstage productions in this summer's New South Play Festival. Instead of Javon Johnson's expensive play, which requires a large cast, Horizon will stage the budget-conscious one-man show, Carlisle Brown's The Fula From America: An African Journey.

Many attribute weak ticket sales to the sluggish economy, as playhouses, like other nonprofit arts organizations, see a ripple effect during the economic downturn. Audiences worried about job security tend to cut back on luxuries like entertainment. Corporations reduce charitable donations. Foundations that rely on stock holdings scale back grants when the market goes south. And government budget shortfalls routinely eat into arts funding.

Raye Varney, managing director of 7 Stages, was startled by the poor turn-out in April for Us, a one-man show by nationally famous -- and frequently nude --performance artist Tim Miller. She says the current situation is even bleaker than the one that followed the 9-11 downturn. "People knew we were doing badly after Sept. 11, so there was a rally of individual giving and support. There was that sense that audiences should support theaters because if they didn't, 'The terrorists win.'"

The economy still hasn't snapped back, but the rally has faded, with the Iraq war kept audiences at home and in front of their TV sets. "If audiences decided to stay away for a while, we might not be here when they come back," warns Varney.

Theater-goers who continue to turn out should expect signs of lower production budgets. Theaters may stage fewer shows: Theatre Gael has announced three productions instead of its usual four. To keep costs down, theaters are more likely to program one- or two-actor shows, or rely on spare, minimal sets instead of lavishly constructed ones. And they're likely to stage more comedies, which have broader mass appeal.

Even when laughing is the last thing they feel like doing.

Standing O

Atlanta actor Thomas Jefferson Byrd has been nominated for a Tony Award for Best Performance by a Featured Actor in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, which played Broadway's Royale Theatre.

A tall, lanky performer with world-weary demeanor, Byrd splits his time as a character actor on film and television and is a major presence on such Atlanta stages as Jomandi, the Alliance Theatre and Theater Emory, which provided his most recent Atlanta role in The Discovery of America. Spike Lee cast Byrd in five of his films, most memorably as a murderous, diseased junkie in Clockers.

We'll have our fingers crossed for Byrd during the Tony Awards ceremony, to be broadcast June 8 at 8 p.m. on CBS, but with slightly mixed feelings. Byrd deserves all the recognition he gets, but his higher profile may mean he'll spend less time on his hometown stages. Hollywood and Broadway's gain could be our loss.

Caliente

When Cuban-born Nilo Cruz won the Pulitzer Prize last month for his play Anna in the Tropics, the honor affirmed the vitality of Spanish language and Latino-themes in American theater.

Latinos have boomed in both America's population and its pop culture, and theaters have increasingly catered to them as a demographic. In recent years, the Alliance has staged two plays about Cuba alone, Jorge Ignacio Cortinas' Sleepwalkers and Cruz's own Two Sisters and a Piano. "Latino outreach" means more opportunities for Spanish-speaking artists, as well as more interest in Latino themes.

The 2003-04 theater season includes several plays by Latino writers, including two from Puerto Rico: Synchronicity Performance Group's References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot by Jose Rivera and 7 Stages' Iphigenia Crash Land Falls on the Neon Shell That Was Her Heart by Caridad Svitch. Aurora Theatre offers a different appeal to the Spanish-speaking demographic with Life is a Dream by 17th-century dramatist Pedro Calderon de la Barca of Spain. Under artistic director Anthony Rodriguez, himself a Cuban-American, Aurora will offer Spanish-language productions of the comedy on special dates.

So if we have to have Ricky Martin, J-Lo and Shakira, artists like Nilo Cruz and Jose Rivera are our compensation.

curt.holman@creativeloafing.com

Off Script is a biweekly column on the Atlanta theater.

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