LORT of Call

Community theater goes big-time as a local Shakespeare company joins the national League of Resident Theatres


Photo by Bryan Hainer | Artistic director Dan Decker (seated) with his cast for Hamlet at Sonata Park.

Ratchet up the status, the exposure, the excitement—and the expectations.

“The finest theaters in the United States, except for Broadway, are LORT theaters, and it’s past time for us,” says Michael Gill, chairman and board CEO of the Las Vegas Shakespeare Company (LVSC), whose LORT reference is shorthand for the League of Resident Theatres, the organization representing nonprofit regional theaters nationwide.

Which—in a first for Nevada—is also now home to our Bard-core thespians.

Kudos to the City of Las Vegas for its $45 million capital campaign to renovate downtown’s Reed Whipple Cultural Center as the troupe’s permanent base, starting in September 2014. Polishing the “cultural corridor,” it will be a gorgeous makeover, bumping up LVSC’s audience capacity from Whipple’s 275-seat Studio Theatre, where they perform now, to a shiny new 499-seat venue.

Yet the LORT affiliation is the creative game-changer.

Delivering a full-time, professional company, it allows the investment of time, effort and commitment that volunteer community theater and UNLV/CSN student productions—however dedicated its participants—cannot. Potentially, it can also double as a minor league farm team for Broadway by producing original works.

“LORT creates a level everyone aspires to, and I’m gratified they’ve accepted our request for membership,” Gill says, adding that the company, which came into being in 2008, has signed contracts with every union—Actors’ Equity, the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers, and United Scenic Artists (which also reps lighting and costume designers)—required by LORT.

Officially, that makes them a LORT member now, though they won’t begin producing as a LORT playhouse until 2014.

Narrowing an artistic chasm in town, a LORT company also provides what the otherwise stellar Smith Center for the Performing Arts left unaddressed: an outlet for high-octane straight theater, while The Smith Center emphasizes touring Broadway musicals.

“They do wonderful stuff,” says Dan Decker, artistic director of LVSC, in the midst of a month of weekend performances of Hamlet at local parks. “Every great city has a performing arts center, which is essentially a room for rent. But every great city also has a resident producing company.”

Overseeing 74 affiliates in nearly every major U.S. market, LORT generates more work for professional actors than Broadway and commercial tours combined. Acknowledging their impact, the Tony Awards hand out statuettes for outstanding regional theater. Among LORT’s notable companies: the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Conn., Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, La Jolla Playhouse in California, San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater, Washington, D.C.’s Ford’s Theatre and San Diego’s the Old Globe.

With inclusion in that august company, LVSC separates significantly from Vegas’ uncoordinated community theater scene in which groups rarely share information and resources. Enabling members to network at semiannual meetings, LORT encourages them to swap info on theater development, marketing, education, public relations and technology.

Creating an operating model, LVSC plans on a 40-person full-time staff to handle box office, subscriptions, development and other administrative duties. Crew and cast sizes, including resident performers, will fluctuate based on a show’s needs. Scheduling seasons from September through May, LVSC expects to stage seven to nine shows annually, including Shakespeare, other straight plays, originals, musicals, and holiday and children’s shows. Running four weeks at a time, productions will be performed eight times a week, Broadway-style.

While only three other LORT companies carry the Shakespeare brand in their title—the Alabama Shakespeare Festival (Montgomery), Atlanta’s Georgia Shakespeare and Washington, D.C.’s Shakespeare Theatre Company—Decker says he isn’t worried that patrons not enamored of thee-and-thou theater will dismiss it as all-Bard all the time. “We thought long and hard before we chose the name for the company,” Decker says. “People said you have to have Las Vegas in the name because it’s this intergalactic icon. Well, so is Shakespeare. They don’t typically go together and we thought that instantly recognized cognitive dissonance would work to our benefit. Maybe a third of our season is Shakespeare.”

Members of LORT are categorized by size and income potential from “A” to “D”—and therein lies LVSC’s crucial goal. With its planned 499-seat theater, LVSC is classified a “LORT-B” theater, meaning they must average between $79,000 and $150,000 in weekly box-office receipts over four fiscal years. Per the current contract, actors at that level are paid a minimum weekly salary of $788, plus housing costs and per diems, among numerous operating expenses.

Predictably, Gill and Decker say they’re confident of satisfying LORT’s financial requirements, which seems doable especially if they draw from previously untapped audiences: perhaps theatergoers who bypassed community shows to hold out for pros, plus newly converted theater fans via The Smith Center, enticed to explore beyond musicals.

“No nonprofit theater company can totally break even based on ticket income—the IRS would say, ‘You’re not a not-for-profit,’” Gill says. “We can only generate (up to) 45 percent of our income through ticket revenue. After that we have to do donations and grants and the traditional nonprofit methods to support ourselves.”

Theoretically, LORT theaters are freer to attempt riskier experimental works than commercial theaters thoroughly beholden to ticket sales. Yet some LORTs endure criticism for choosing more traditional fare to jack up ticket sales when donations and grants falter.

“There are lots of theaters known for doing more commercial product,” Gill says. “But by definition, with Dan’s vision, because it’s Shakespeare-based—though it will do lots of everything else—I can’t imagine that will be said about this company.” Adhering to union requirements, LVSC must audition actors in two settings: here in its hometown, and “the closest point of organization city”—in our case, Los Angeles. “There’s a full segment of the actors’ population that thrives going from one LORT theater to another,” Gill says. “A lot of them define success as, ‘I’m a working actor.’ You find work where the good work is being done, and we believe that will be here among other LORT theaters.”

Expect demanding standards, Decker says. “I just heard from someone in the Hamlet cast who said he never saw so many people fired from a show. You have to keep your level up.”

Buoyed by our attributes—it’s Vegas, baby!—this city could gain a casting advantage over other markets, appealing to actors also envisioning Strip opportunities. Conversely, some Strip performers who occasionally moonlight—gratis—in community theater to satisfy artistic urges could flock to paid LVSC gigs if they can shoehorn it into their schedules.

Perhaps most enticing is a LORT theater’s mandate to produce a world-premiere new work every year, making it a potential launching pad for a Broadway show. Notable recent examples have been the development of Jersey Boys at the La Jolla Playhouse, and Memphis at TheatreWorks in Palo Alto, Calif. At the iconic Long Wharf, more than 30 shows advanced to New York, including American Buffalo and Pulitzer winners The Shadow Box, The Gin Game and Wit. “Because of my background, I would reach out to my colleagues and say we’re looking for new content,” says Gill, a veteran Broadway producer who relocated his operations to Las Vegas. “It’s a very viable business model for both the regional theater and the producer to work together to develop a work with Broadway potential. The ticket-buyers know they’re coming to see a new work, and there’s a real romance and excitement about that.”

Excitement—and expectations.

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