Local theaters struggle to keep a roof over their heads
It’s been 55 years since Paul Simon asked, “Is the theater really dead?” in his 1967 song “The Dangling Conversation.” Talk to several figures in Las Vegas’ legitimate-stage scene and you get an image of a patient who’s not terminal but very definitely on life support. “Theater itself is difficult to produce, because there’s a lot of moving parts,” explains Ann-Marie Pereth, artistic director of A Public Fit. “That in itself is a difficult to task to accomplish without being in the middle of inflation and still participating in a pandemic.” “Before the pandemic, it was struggling, but we were finding a foothold,” says Kate St. Pierre, artistic director of The Lab LV. “Since then, I find that theatre is always here, but the audiences are even more sparse. It’s challenging to get an audience, always has been. Right now, my theater company, we’re not currently producing. I don’t see the numbers.”
For some producers, the pandemic catalyzed an existential crisis in the artform itself. Majestic Repertory Theatre artistic director Troy Heard says the problem is global. “Audiences just aren’t coming back,” he says. “But it speaks to something larger. People have decided it’s not worth it. It’s a huge investment for what may have been not a lot of good theater. It’s not just live theater. Look at movie theaters. They’re on the verge of extinction. Let’s face it, 90 percent of the plays these (live) theaters do are either sitcoms or dramas you can see on HBO or stream on Netflix.” He’s pushing back with controversial offerings like Angry F@gs. “They’re hungry for that,” Heard says. “At least that’s on the edge.”
Las Vegas Theatre Company (formerly Cockroach) impresario Darren Weller concurs. “There’s a stasis or an apathy that grew during COVID,” he says. “That’s part of the hurdle. It’s harder for people to decide to leave the comforts of their home, and that may be a bigger problem than any sort of contagious disease.”
The theater community’s ingenuity was tested by COVID-19 and by the necessity of still producing when their spaces were either closed or foreclosed. St. Pierre has ventured into a variety of alternative means of production, including Area 51, a Joe Schoenmann-penned radio trilogy being produced in conjunction with KNPR. She’s also mounting Enchant, a Christmas spectacle for Resorts World Las Vegas. After spending the lockdown year concentrating on streaming small projects, Weller tried one 2021 stage production, Witch, but it was a financial disaster, so he buckled down to grant-writing.
“Troy did an amazing job down at Majestic of finding ways to make work for small audiences, work that happened outside his space, and found a way to keep producing and really was an inspiration to everyone,” Weller says. Super Summer Theatre tiptoed back into production in 2021 with a handful of performances before resuming a full season last summer. Las Vegas Little Theatre tried to coax audiences back via online theater but LVLT President Walter Niejadlik says it didn’t gain traction.
Were the current predicament a stage show, it would be called Rent. It’s an impresario’s bottom line, and the success of the Arts District has seen levies skyrocket, threatening a theatrical diaspora. Already A Public Fit has fallen victim. This season, Pereth’s vagabond troupe performs a makeshift season divided between the Clark County Public Library, Super Summer Theatre’s studio space on Valley View, and the Cheyenne campus of the College of Southern Nevada. Calling current Arts District rents “astronomical,” Pereth quantifies the problem: “In order to lease a space that was half the size of our usual space, it was $11,000-$12,000 a month, and that’s not affordable for artists.”
Heard’s landlord was, he says, “an angel” and abated his 2020 impost. Weller’s is subsidizing 40 percent of his rental fees, but it’s still a pinch. Weller asks, “What happens to the Arts District when it’s untenable for artists to exist there? … So I guess we’re asking for a bigger slice of the pie and some acknowledgement that we’ve been paying rent in the Arts District for over 10 years now.”
Even outside the Arts District, rent is an issue. Super Summer Theatre Chairperson Christy Miller constantly uses the word “lucky” to describe her venue’s voyage through the pandemic. It required draining literal rainy day money — funds normally used to cover inclement weather at outdoor Spring Mountain Ranch. Venue co-owner Heller Cos. also “have been just super-helpful in helping us find ways to grants and other things that we may not have been aware were out there,” Miller says.
Niejadlik’s landlord gave him a deferral on rent while LVLT was dark. “Unfortunately we have had to increase our ticket prices and have had to discontinue some discounts to offset the lower audiences and higher rent and production costs,” even with a diminished slate of shows, he says.
A sore spot is public funding or — more precisely — the lack of same. A particular bone of contention is $700,000 in stimulus money that was up for grabs during the pandemic. Heard, Pereth and Weller all vied for some of it (with the latter two making it to the second round of consideration), only to see the whole enchilada awarded to the City of Las Vegas. Ironically, the bulk is now being regranted, so theater bosses are girding their loins for another shot at underwriting.
“We have a long history in Nevada of not allocating money to the arts,” St. Pierre says. “Our focus has always been on heads in beds. It really took 2020 and the shutdown of everything for our state, and the people that are running it, to see how many people are employed by experiential design and by entertainment.”
“There was $131 million in (American Rescue Plan Act) funds that the city had,” Weller says. “$700,000 went to arts and culture organizations, $125,000 went to the Neon Museum, and then $600,000 went to an art grants program (through the department of Parks, Recreation & Cultural Affairs), which they will be regranting. But that’s a tiny percentage of the total amount of money. It’s 0.5% that’s devoted to arts and culture. I understand that they have a lot of needs and a lot of demands. But that tells a story about what the city chooses to invest in.”
Pereth also chafes at a paucity of media coverage. “We don’t have an established journal that reviews all the theatrical productions in town to help get the word out about what’s happening in the Downtown or local theater scene,” she says. “Also there’s a lot of noise in this city in terms of sports and entertainment on the Strip, and a lot of funding is put in place to support those ideas and not to support local artists.”
Miller, for one, is an optimist: “You just don’t realize how much (theater is) a part of your soul until you just don’t have it. There’s a huge chunk of your heart that’s missing food.” Weller concurs, adding, “I’m excited about the possibilities, and hope I have the stamina to push through what is probably the next couple of years of being able to build a sustainable future for theater in Vegas.” ✦