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When in Seattle a few weeks ago, I reconnected with two former Albuquerqueans, Patti Cohenour and Michael Blum. Patti, of course, has starred on Broadway and many other stages. Michael was a stalwart of Albuquerque theater for 25 years before moving to Seattle four years ago.
Patti is already at work on a production of Grey Gardens, opening for a lengthy run in Seattle in the spring. Michael had just spent two nights auditioning for different theaters in the area. He was quick to note that there was a lot of theater in Seattle. “Since it’s always raining, people might as well go see a show,” he opined.
Our Albuquerque Theatre Guild notes that “More theatrical performances take place every weekend here in Albuquerque than in any other U.S. city of its size,” which is great news for audiences, but more actors in Seattle get paid.
I know it’s very difficult for theater companies here to pay their actors, and I know there are now a handful of companies that do offer money to their actors. Fusion Theater, Mother Road and Duke City Rep pay the artists who bring their productions to life. Other companies offer small stipends to the actors. Most ask them to perform for free.
Performing arts organizations also don’t get the support they need. Rule of thumb in the performing arts is that you need at least 20% of your income to come through donations and getting to 40-50% will let your board breathe much easier. A solid fundraising effort allows you to recover from lean years. A significant level of donations also supports the artistic merits of a company. If the company always has to earn its money at the box office, they’ll only do the safe productions, the ones they can rely on to generate income. If they do that, we get cheated out of the possibility of seeing our companies doing some adventurous, truly artistic work instead of lots of retreads of familiar titles. That's not always true, but it happens more often than it should.
Some will tell you that artists need to starve to do their best work, that they need to live on that edge. I can tell you that Grey Gardens is no easy piece to perform and I’m certain that Patti, who earned a comfortable life, will likely deliver a memorable performance. She cares enough about her craft that she's already working on the part.
Support for the performing arts keeps them healthy and gives you and your community more variety and more vitality. What’s more, most of the money you put into locally-based performing arts groups stays here and generates more money for all of us. For every dollar an arts patron spends on tickets, statistics tell us that patron will spend another $1.50 in the local economy.
I know you’re being asked for donations to the various political campaigns right now. With more than a billion dollars being spent in this election, do you really want to pay for another TV ad or campaign mailer? Your money might be better spent on artists and organizations who you know contribute something positive to your life.
Terry S. Davis
Photo: Lisa Viertel and Michael Blum, now of Seattle, in Theater Schmeater’s An Adult Evening of Shel Silverstein