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Local Theaters Holding Their Own Against Economy

BY ALEXIA UNDERWOOD //

In a time of economic strife and hardship, laughter appears to be prevailing.

The house was packed at the Contra Costa Civic Theater in El Cerrito for Saturday night’s performance of Greater Tuna, a “comedy with Tex Appeal.”

Theater-goers laughed and guffawed the night away at Jaston Williams, Joe Sears and Ed Howard’s comedic play about small-town life in Texas. Directed by Mark Manske, the comedy showcased two actors – Joe Fitzgerald and Kyle Nash – who each play 10 characters, contrasting an impressive variety of costumes, voices and physical mannerisms.

The crowd was mostly middle-aged, and seemed more than willing to put their woes aside for an evening of outlandish accents and caricatures. “Wow, that was really funny,” an audience member commented to her partner as they walked out the doors at the end of the show.

The performing arts, traditionally an under-funded and vulnerable member of the entertainment sector, have not yet experienced the funding cuts that other industries have, according to several East Bay performing arts venues.

“Our season ticket sales have held pretty steady this year,” said Alex Ray, house manager on Saturday evening as audience members streamed around him to purchase snacks and drinks during the 15-minute intermission. “Attendance is actually up a bit from last year.”

Brit Johnson, the theater’s general manager, agreed. When asked if the down-turn in the economy had affected attendance, he responded, “It hasn’t. We actually think it may be a boon. They talk about ‘staycations’ – I call it ‘stayculture,’” Johnson said, referring to the national trend of people opting to stay home and save money rather than travel for the holidays.

Another reason could be timing. “Season tickets were sold in July and August – before things got horrible,” Johnson said. Season ticket sales actually went up this year, from about 9,004 to 9,036 – a slight increase, but still an increase – in a time when few organizations or businesses are seeing any hope at all.

Theaters don’t appear to be scaling back their production schedules, either. Nine, a musical, will open in the first week of February. Johnson also said that the theater was planning a 50th anniversary kick-off event on April 25.

“We’re actually experiencing record ticket sales right now,” said Terence Keane, director of public relations for the Berkeley Repertory Theater. Several recent shows have been extended by a week or two, and Yellowjackets, a recent production, exceeded its ticket goal.

“In terms of ticket sales, we are building on a very successful several years of increased sales,” he said. “It’s kind of bucking a national trend.”

The national trend is one of cutting back, as Americans prepare for an uncertain economic future.

Keane attributed the increase in ticket sales to the quality of the productions as well as the local appeal of certain production choices, such as Yellowjackets, a play set at Berkeley High and written by a Berkeley High graduate, Iatamar Moses. However, half of the theater’s budget comes from endowments and donations – other sources that may still be affected by the economy.

“Naturally, in this economic climate, we‘re very anxious about how this will come together,” he said. “We’re holding our breath here…to see what happens.”

Mark Gilbert, director of the Julia Morgan Center for the Arts which hosts performing arts groups said that they were in the process of transforming into a performing arts center for children and youth.

“Historically, activities for kids and youth tend to be a little more recession proof than adult’s activities,” Gilbert said. He thought that parents would rather sacrifice their own entertainment than their children’s, when money is tighter than usual.

“I would expect we would be less affected,” Gilbert said, “but we’ll see.”

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