Are freelance theater professions disappearing?

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Answered by: James8621, An Expert in the Regional Theater Category
Slowly and steadily, the various freelance theater professions that have provided an artistic life for their practitioners are vanishing, and reason is the disappearance of the mid-size professional theater.

In city after city, as arts money became scarce, the political clout of the major institutions successfully put pressure on the funding community to practice triage and let the mid-size theaters die, so resources could go to the big flagship theaters. This was a disaster for the free-lance artist, who, after graduating from working in the tiny no-pay fringe theaters, had usually cobbled together a local career working at the two local big theaters and the ten mid-size ones that paid, though modestly. With the mid-size theaters closing, the only recourse for those pursuing freelance theater professions was to travel the country and work in all the big theaters. There was no longer a local ladder to climb.

Those artists who had the contacts and resume to make the jump to a national career did so, but a whole generation of developing artists not yet ready for Hartford Stage or Dallas Theater Center was pushed out. While there was still time toi find another professional avenue, they left the theater altogether. As local talent pools dried up, the flagship theaters found they had to pay for travel and housing to get someone qualified. So, with their budgets shrinking, they gradually transitioned to using local artists who had family or teaching obligations and couldn't travel, or simply didn't have the artistic skill to become a travelling journeyman.

Standards were lowered. Complicated and difficult set, costume, sound and music designs were avoided because the veterans who knew how to pull off the nearly impossible tasks involved had either been forced out of the business or had moved to a city that was not yet letting it's mid-size theaters die.

These migrants all arrived in, say, Chicago and suddenly the local top gun is being undercut by the newcomers at the mid-size theaters that were providing bread and butter, so he or she gets pushed out of business. The big theaters give up on the local pool and start hiring out of New York. As triage spreads, the artists who migrated hoping to find a foothold find no mid size theaters where they can strut their stuff, so they move on or give up.

Finally, the truly tragic result of all this is the decline of the variety and quality of the American theater, and, not surprisingly, the dwindling of the audience

Over time, a free-lance theater career has become a sideline rather than a primary profession. Without the mid-size professional theaters, many artist who had been making a meager living in the theater were no longer able to, so they quit, got teaching jobs, or went to law school, and the years of experience and skill they developed was retired. Without a clear profession to enter into, fewer promising artists pursue theater, and opt for films, video, music and other creative careers.

As the theater loses talent, the quality of the work declines. As the community loses talent, it becomes more expensive to import the necessary personnel, and the process snowballs. So the answer to the question we posed is: Yes, freelance theater professions are dying, and the theater will die along with it if the mid-size professional theater is allowed to languish.

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