A new formula for LA theater

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There it was on an excel spreadsheet. A formula that managed to sum it all up and somehow reduce a theater season into a single number. It was a complicated moment of simultaneous clarity and ignorance.

I came across this little of gem of a formula during the first season planning process I got to sit through at the Mark Taper Forum in 1998. This formula, or something like it, is used in countless producing theater companies across the country.

The logic is pretty straightforward. For a theater company that produces its own work (as opposed to a presenting company that ‘books’ in shows made elsewhere), the clearest way to quickly quantify the cost and scope of a season of plays is by measuring the number of actor weeks across every play in that season.  

Think of it this way: let’s say you have a season of six plays. Each show rehearses for four weeks and then performs for six weeks so each show has 10 weeks of work for each actor. For simplicity, let’s say each show has a cast of 4 actors. That means that there are 40 “actor weeks” for each show.  Multiplied across the season’s 6 shows, that would be 240 “TotalActorWeeks.”

Produce enough seasons and a prudent theater company will discover that they can support a certain number of actor weeks across their season.  Basically, they can afford a certain number of actors. Here’s where this formula becomes quick and more than a little ruthless. Once you know how many “TotalActorWeeks” you can afford, you can evaluate a slate of plays and see if they work – at least superficially. You work backwards. Actor weeks divided by number of shows gives you average number of actors per show, etc.

So let’s say your average number of actors per show is five or six per show. If you want to do that big ensemble show with a cast of 10, you’re going to need to find a solo show with only one actor to balance things out. If you’re a subscriber at a regional theater and you see an ensemble of more than 12 onstage, it’s a pretty good bet you won’t be seeing more than two actors onstage for the rest of that season. It’s simple math.

Or is it?

I cannot remember any of the plays we talked about in that season planning meeting where I learned this insidious formula, but I do remember a graph.  Someone had charted the declining number of actor weeks for the theater over the past 30 years. It wasn’t the declining slide that depressed me, it was the sage commentary from Frank Dwyer, a wonderful dramaturg and director.  As we were following the graph down, Frank muttered “There goes Shakespeare . . . there goes Chekhov.”

Hunh? We weren’t talking about plays by either of these writers. What did he mean?

Frank pointed out that as the average number of actors per show declined, we were, in effect, eliminating the work of both Shakespeare and Chekhov. The large ensembles these great works required simply weren’t supportable. You couldn’t make the math work even with nothing but one person shows for the rest of the season.  

It just didn’t pencil out.

“TotalActorWeeks=” is sadly a formula that’s going to become a lot more important for LA’s intimate theaters. If the cost of an actor week goes up by an order of magnitude, it’s going to be hard not to come up with a new equation for small theater. Double casting a show will become untenable. Large casts will demand small casts.  

Let’s just hope we don’t have to say goodbye to Shakespeare and Chekhov.