The small, independent companies that have often defined the cutting edge of theater in our region have long made a virtue of doing without. For decades, their productions have embraced the essence of drama, frequently without opulent costumes, lavish sets, or theater spaces specifically designed to accommodate them. Minimalism is attractive to many young theater artists, but beneath that aesthetic fig leaf lies an unwelcome economic fact. A lack of money among emerging artists and the absence of informed, effective infrastructure and support from civic institutions and foundations have often forced small groups to stage their works as inexpensively as they can.
As a result, theater companies and artists who cannot afford to rent or buy a place to stage their works remain the largest group in the region's community of practice. In the absence of affordable city-sponsored facilities appropriate for small-scale productions, these artists seek refuge among a few local companies willing to share their venues. When that fails, they resort to streets, parks, and storefronts, or former factories and warehouses, some without electricity or heating.
So when a group of stage artists led by Rachel Klem and Michelle Byars opened Common Ground Theatre in Durham in January 2005, with the express purpose of serving itinerant artists and companies, it was a big deal. Within weeks of opening, Common Ground had booked most of its first year of productions. In 2009, it won an Indies Arts Award for helping to change the face of the performing arts in Durham.
It is doing so again, but, this time, there is no cause for celebration. Last month, executive director Shelby Hahn announced that Common Ground would cease operations after its ninth production of A Trailer Park Christmas closed last weekend.
Then, last week, another development rocked the theater community: Sonorous Road Productions, an intimate venue that also offers production services and classes in filmmaking and theater, announced that it would close its headquarters on Oberlin Road in May. Its building has been sold to N.C. State University, which is seeking to build an office. The fate of the theater, which, for the last year, has been doing for Raleigh what Common Ground did for Durham, remains in doubt, hinging on the availability of an affordable, appropriate place to relocate.
In two months' time, regional theater's largest sector—the one with the fewest options for rehearsal and performance space—faced the loss of one venue and the likelihood of losing another. The community reaction has been swift. The improv comedy scene that regularly used Common Ground for classes and performances was forced to scramble to find other venues, according to Open Mind Improv founder Dan Sipp. And the closing left One Song Productions, a high-school-student-run theater troupe, without a venue for its winter production of A Bright New Boise.
Some companies have become reliant enough on Sonorous Road and Common Ground to be existentially threatened. John Honeycutt, cofounder of South Stream Productions, says Sonorous Road's closing could put the company out of business. The group has had difficulty finding affordable hosts for productions like Time Stands Still, and civic facilities are even more expensive.
The city of Raleigh operates a small-scale theater: the K.D. and Sara Lynn Kennedy Theatre, a 125-seat black box space at the back of Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts. But mandatory individual fees for insurance, in-house production personnel, box office services, security, and sound that most productions need can quickly triple or quadruple the minimum rental rate of $400 per performance. Depending on where South Stream produced its shows, rental fees alone could range from $6,500 to $14,000—two to four times what the company would pay Sonorous Road for an upcoming production of Blackbird.
If Sonorous Road were suddenly removed from the scene, Honeycutt concludes, "I don't know where we would go."
As these developments revealed the fragile underpinnings of the area's vibrant independent scene, they also raised pressing questions. How do regional venues achieve sustainability, and what caused a celebrated place like Common Ground to lose its viability over the long term?