Meredith Hagedorn: “Please don’t start a theatre company !”

Numerous non-profit companies in the San Francisco Bay Area had to close down within the last few years, due to a lack of financial support. The founder of Dragon Productions Theatre Company, tells us why locals and theatre-goers need to wake up and support independent theatre. If it isn’t the right time to start a company, now is the time for artists to join this creative community, and help build a better future for the performing arts in the Bay Area.

Meredith Hagedorn, Source: CBS SF Bay Area
Meredith Hagedorn, Source: CBS SF Bay Area

San Francisco Bay Area is famous around the world for its rich cultural life, and its energetic artistic community. The third largest theatre center in the country, with more than 400 companies, the Bay Area counts more theatre companies per capita than almost any other metropolitan area in the United States. As an actress, Meredith struggled for a few years in Los Angeles before moving to San Francisco. There, she found a supportive community and was able to start her own theatre company. However, she was not the only one to embark on this adventure. In the past fifteen years, the number of nonprofit theatre companies in the United States has doubled while audiences and funding have considerably shrunk. This seems to have affected greatly the field as well as the next generation of artists…

It is 9 am in San Francisco. 6 pm in Paris. Meredith appears on my laptop screen. Smiley, energetic, just as I had imagined her. Despite her busy schedule and her 10 am appointment with the “Dragon’s team”, she takes her time, and seems genuinely happy to share her experiences. As an actress, Meredith’s goal was to create more opportunities for herself and for others. That is how she started producing theatre. “I didn’t want to wait around for other people to provide me opportunities.” Dragon Productions Theatre Company is about to start its 15th season. “It’s been a wild drive”, she insists. The company, which moved from Palo Alto to Redwood City in 2013, has grown beyond a vehicle for the actress. Producing nine shows a year, Meredith loves providing opportunities for young talents and professional actors in the Bay. Although she still performs and directs once a year, she now is the executive artistic director. “It took us a long time to get a good support staff. I’ve been wearing a lot of hats for a lot of years and I’m just starting to take off some of those hats and just be the artistic director.” Being the main ambassador of the company, in the community and network, is not such an easy life. This involves attending a lot of meetings: “mixers, panel discussions and even schools.” Meredith is also in charge of choosing the season of shows her company will be producing, building an audience, as well as an actors and designers database.

Dragon Productions Theatre Company, Source: Goldstar
Dragon Productions Theatre Company, Source: Goldstar

Fighting to keep non-profit companies alive in the Bay Area

The Bay Area is number one in the country in terms of professional theater companies. However, many companies are suffering financially, and it has become extremely difficult for non-profit companies to sustain themselves and find donors. One of the most important non-profit company in the Bay Area, the San Jose Repertory Theatre, closed last June due to a lack of local financial support. The company’s board of trustees made their decision to discontinue and file for bankruptcy liquidation, after failing to convince the community to contribute funds. The theater could not maintain itself on cash flow from the box office alone, and required donations from wealthy backers in order to stay alive. Individual patrons, who had supported the theater financially in the past, told the company that they had turned to other causes, such as assisting the homeless, while others believed that the Repertory group was not sustainable. Some of the Silicon Valley technology companies, which were also approached for donations, explained that their focus was on projects involving science, technology and mathematics, the so-called STEM areas, and not the theatrical arts.

San Jose Repertory Theatre, Source: Razoo
San Jose Repertory Theatre, Source: Razoo

Money represents a big challenge for non-profit companies like Dragon Productions. “I do feel the misconceptions of people thinking how much money there is here so that the Arts surely benefit from it as well.” There is indeed a lot of “money” in the Bay, but it belongs to the tech community. With companies like Facebook or Google, there is a young generation of millionaires in the area, more interested in investing in science or math innovations than in the Arts. Meredith insists “the financial side is always a hustle.” As the owner of a non-profit company, she has to keep finding donors, subscribers and grant money. With 35% of the operating budget coming from ticket revenue, the biggest income comes from individual donations. Dragon Productions has its own theatre facility, and Meredith rents it out as much as possible. The company also offers theatre classes. Unfortunately, grant money represents only a small percent and it is becoming harder and harder to find funding

Independent theatre versus mainstream productions

Over the years, the Bay Area has become a launchpad for Broadway, giving birth to hits such as « Wicked, » « Memphis, » « American Idiot » and « Legally Blonde ». Major houses from the American Conservatory Theater, Berkeley Repertory Theatre or TheatreWorks have come to national prominence. “The glamour of such companies can blind theatergoers. There are a lot of great small companies out there. They may never win an award, but they regularly deliver unforgettable works of art”, insists Meredith. Small companies can offer affordable theater, and a different and more intimate experience. This is the case with Dragon Theatre, but also The San Francisco Playhouse, The Magic Theatre, The Aurora Theatre Company  or The Marsh, among others.

With so many actors leaving for financial reasons, the Bay has become a dwindling talent pool, making it difficult for these small companies who struggle to find good actors, directors or designers. Meredith emphasizes the importance to stay different and offer something new. With Dragon productions, she has made it her mission to stay off the beaten paths, trying to tell stories that aren’t being told everywhere. “You are not going to see big Broadway musicals or Shakespeare plays on the Dragon stage.”

The small theatre provides an intimate viewing experience for the audience. “It’s like a production in your living room, you are a part of it.” The company also puts on contemporary, less known works from well-known playwrights. Among the shows due in 2015: Show People (February 27-March 22), from the Academy Award-nominated writer and director Paul Weitz (About a boy and In Good Company). The play revolves around Jerry and Marnie, faded Broadway stars. They are hired by Tom, a rich young technology entrepreneur, to pretend to be his parents in order to impress his girlfriend Nathalie, a brilliant violinist and daughter of a brilliant physicist. This comedy of falsified identities satirizes the “indomitable theatricality of theatre folk.” But Meredith underlies the importance of offering an eclectic program. If contemporary plays make up most of the Dragon’s seasons of shows, she also likes to include literary adaptations. She recently directed an adaptation of the horror novel, “The Woman in Black”, which ran until last November. This was an opportunity for theatergoers, to experience this classic in a refreshingly new and more intimate way.

“The Woman in Black”, Source: Dragon Productions
“The Woman in Black”, Source: Dragon Productions

A message to young and struggling actors

The Bay Area has the fourth largest concentration of Equity actors, and it is also a hotbed of playwrights, some of them nationally-acclaimed. However, most performance artists in the Bay Area have a hard time making a living, and 90 percent of the Bay Area’s Equity actors are frequently unemployed. “It takes a lot of tenacity”, explains Meredith. When she moved here, she was struggling to make it as an actress. Willing to dive in right away, she found out about Theatre Bay Area. “It represents the best resource for bringing people from the theatre community together in the Bay. Artists are feeling more connected to each other and they can have access to a lot of useful information such as auditions taking place in their area.” This allowed Meredith to start auditioning right away and reach out to artistic directors and artists in the Bay. TBA’s most prominent programs include Theatre Bay Area Magazine (the central source for information on the Bay Area’s theatre community, reaching 10,000 readers), the TBA website which contains one of the most comprehensive theatre listings available, re-granting programs for local theatre artists, and advocacy for the theatre community on the local, state and national level.

However, despite the support available, Meredith insists that since she arrived, 15 years ago, things have changed in the theatre business. “I see a lot of young actors, coming out of college, and they move to the Bay thinking about starting their own theatre companies. I would tell them: please don’t do that! Reach out to the theatre companies that already exist and try to get your foot in the door.” For Meredith, the Bay is a land of opportunities for people willing to learn and offer something new. Theatre companies are constantly in need of volunteer staff, which can be a way to learn and see free shows.

Promoting theatre-going in the Bay Area

Theatre Bay Area is today the largest regional theatre service organization in North America and its aim is to unite, strengthen and promote the theatre community in the Bay Area. TBA aims to build a culture of theater-going in the Bay Area while providing support services to the theater community. TBA’s website is a “space dedicated to all things theater in the Bay Area”, according to Meredith, offering many awards and grant opportunities, a job bank, audition listings, a talent database, and a comprehensive calendar of current productions. TBA also sponsors the annual Will Glickman Award, given to the best play to premiere in the Bay Area each year. The award is named in honor of Bay Area playwright and screenwriter Will Glickman. Despite all this activity, the Bay Area is lacking in the habit of theater-going. “If there’s no one in the audience, there’s no theater.” However, according to Meredith, going to the theater can be a “bargain” in the Bay, where a vast array of theater companies are nonprofit, which means that patrons usually pay only half the cost of their seats, with the other half covered by grants.

A tight-knit creative community

Meredith recalls when she was an actress in Los Angeles: “It was really hard to make it as an actress because everyone was or everyone was trying to make it in the show business. It feels like you are in a vacuum, everybody is focusing on their own career, but nobody is really supporting each other as much.” When she moved here, she felt a stronger sense of community. “It definitely feels more supportive here. We couldn’t get this far without the help of other people, sharing information and learning from each other.” As an executive art director, Meredith feels blessed to do what she does and wants to keep offering opportunities to new artists in the Bay. Despite the difficulties, Dragon Productions has been able to grow throughout the years and now has a staff of seven people who all get salaries. “Every step of the way has been a leap of faith.  At the beginning I would go: I want to hire this person, I want to pay them. Do we have the money? Not really. We’ll just have to find it then. And we’ve been able to figure it out every step of the way.”

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