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Independent Shakespeare Co tires of turning people away

April 6, 2010

What to do? Your shows are so popular that too many people want to see them. The City of Los Angeles then shuts down your venue. This convergence leads the Independent Shakespeare Co (ISC) to construct a new outdoor theatre space in LA’s Griffith Park. That’s right. Construct.

I didn’t quite understand that at first. When I asked ISC Board member David Melville whether he had a picture of the new digs, he wrote, “Well, we don’t have any photos of the stage, as we haven’t built it yet. We need to bring everything in: stage, lighting, storage, backstage facilities. It’s part of what makes it such a large undertaking.”

And, by the way, ISC doesn’t charge for tickets. “We get a handful of government and foundation grants and some sponsorship from about five local neighborhood councils,” according to Melville,  “but the bulk of our support comes from  thousands of small individual donations made by the public throughout the year. It’s a bit like Public Radio only on a much smaller scale.”

As KPCC’s morning host, I can attest.

Melville adds, “We are a small outfit, comparatively speaking. The bulk of our budget goes to artist’s salaries and benefits (we are an AEA company). We spend virtually nothing on marketing and we have a very lean administration which helps us to weather the bad economy.”
So the challenge of not only moving, but also building a theatre space, is understandably daunting. First, ISC will relocate from Barnsdall Park, along North Vermont, to Griffth Park, near I-5. This could affect attendance as new neighborhoods will have to learn of ISC’s existence. Second, the diverse audience demographic may shift as well.
Unlike many theatre events, ISC claims it historically has attracted an uncharacteristically youthful and diverse theater audience: in 2009 its audience was 49% non-Caucasion, 68% under 35 years old (19% under 18), and 61% earning under $50,000 a year. And in raw numbers 12,000 people attended ISC productions last year. The move to Griffith Park will allow up to 700 attendees per night.
“I think the ethnic & cultural diversity in the audience is at least in part because we have ethnic and cultural diversity on stage,” Melville notes, “and because we have made an effort to reach out to a variety of communities (a few years ago we did staged readings of some Cervantes plays in both English and Spanish, for example).”
Not charging admission, Melville says, is paramount. “Economically speaking, of course, a free program is within the grasp of lower & middle income people, particularly families. And this also in part explains the presence of young people: parents might flinch at buying their 13 year old (or six year old) a $50  ticket (or $65, or what they are charging at some of our venerable LA theaters)  to see a classic play. But because our performances are free and in an informal setting, it’s much easier to take a risk and bring a child to see adult theater. I guess that’s a large part of the under-thirty set, as well. It’s just too much money for most people to make traditional theater-going part of their lives.
“That said,” he adds,  “there are plenty of free theater  opportunities (particularly Shakespeare) in LA; ours, in general, are much better-attended than most, so being free isn’t the whole answer. Mainly, I guess it rests on two things: first, we insist on making the audience’s experience one of feeling welcome and included. Second, our productions are of extremely high quality played by a wide spectrum of actors who share extraordinary skill in interpreting classical plays.”
The move to Griffith Park is no assurance of success for a company that relies heavily on private donations. “It’s a make or break moment for us, there is no going back,” says Melville.
This year’s festival includes OTHELLO (July 9 – August 1) & MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING (August 6 – 29) by William Shakespeare. Tickets or more details here.
(Photos by Peter Alton)

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