As the 2008-09 theater season rolled through the fall and into the winter, Todd Olson kept seeing distress signals in the news, in e-mails and on arts Web sites.
As many as a dozen well-established theaters have closed in the past few months, including Milwaukee Shakespeare, Carousel Dinner Theatre in Akron, Ohio, and American Music Theatre of San Jose in California.
But Olson, producing artistic director of American Stage in St. Petersburg, was having the opposite experience at his theater. "So far we're having the best season we've had in our 30 years," he said, citing the holiday show, A Tuna Christmas, as the company's biggest hit ever.
Curious, Olson asked around the Tampa Bay theater community and found that three other companies — Jobsite Theater, Gorilla Theatre and Stageworks — were also enjoying strong seasons amid the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.
Jobsite, which performs in the 99-seat Shimberg Playhouse of Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, had its best attendance ever with Steve Martin's Picasso at the Lapin Agile. The company has been able to add its first salaried staff member, producing artistic director David Jenkins.
Stageworks sold out its annual gala, raising $54,000 toward construction of its new home planned in Tampa's Channel District. Attendance has been up 35 percent to productions of The Chosen by Chaim Potok and A Body of Water by Lee Blessing.
At Gorilla, performances were added to meet demand for tickets to Six Degrees of Separation by John Guare in the 47-seat theater. "We're packed all the time," managing director Bridget Bean said. "My theory is that our tickets are more affordable than other entertainment." Gorilla tickets range from $10 to $25, typical for local theaters.
American Stage, Stageworks, Gorilla and Jobsite are small professional theaters. American Stage has the largest annual budget, about $1.4 million. Their success suggests that theaters with relatively low overheads may have a better chance to weather the downturn.
"The smaller theaters are pretty lean to begin with," said Chris Shuff, director of management programs for Theatre Communications Group, a national organization of theaters. "They don't have the big union contracts. They don't have the big facility costs." In a survey of members, it found that 56 percent of respondents were projecting ticket sales below expectations for the season. However, Shuff added, "the smaller companies are the outliers, with only 33 percent projecting sales below expectations."
Olson concurs that the smallness of American Stage, which seats 140, may be a key to its bucking the troubled economy. Even August Wilson's King Hedley II, a difficult, somber play, is doing well at the theater. "I think seeing a powerful play like King Hedley II in our intimate space could be a reason for the audience growth," he said.
American Stage has not been free of financial woes. The company eliminated two staff positions, reduced its education budget and revised its contract with Actors Equity to cut pay to actors and stage managers. On the plus side of the ledger, a new series of late-night productions of edgier plays like The Vagina Monologues has sold 6,000 tickets.
Some larger theaters in the Tampa Bay area are also holding their own. In Sarasota, Asolo Repertory Theatre, the largest nonprofit theater in the state with a budget of $7.3 million, had a hit with the musical Barnum. Overall, "Our single-ticket sales and subscriptions are down a little, but we're not running scared," spokeswoman Julia Guzman said.
Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center's Broadway series is doing well, despite ticket prices of up to about $80. The revival of A Chorus Line grossed $1.1 million for eight performances in January. "Even in down times, people still need positive, uplifting experiences, and they find that in the theater," TBPAC president Judy Lisi said.
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716.