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Pictured: Donovan Session as drag star Courtney Berringers in Urbanite Theatre's production of "At The Wake of a Dead Drag Queen." Photo by Dylan Jon Wade Cox.

Urbanite Theatre Wants To Change The Way Theater is Made

By Phil Lederer
A spectre is haunting theater. (And, for perhaps the first time, it’s not “communists.”)

No, this phantasm is the poltergeist spawn of the collision between an audience that wants its theater cheap and a people who can’t help but try to give it to them anyway.

For too long, an accepted truth amongst theater professionals has been that exploitation and overwork are simply par for the course. Don’t complain about 15-hour days and no weekends. Quit whinging about low pay and high stress. Smile, bow, wave and be grateful for the opportunity to be near the stage at all, because there are a hundred hungry people looking to take your spot and don’t you know you’re lucky to be here?

Or as Urbanite co-founder Brendan Ragan put it: “Sometimes we’re all so thankful for that opportunity, that we overlook the conditions that we work in.”

After all, the show must go on...
Staring down the launch of its 2021-22 season, Ragan and fellow Urbanite Theatre co-founder Summer Dawn Wallace tasked themselves with upending that paradigm and showing the theater world that even expensive art doesn’t have to come at the expense of the artists involved.

Before the pandemic, staging a play at Urbanite Theatre looked “a lot like production at virtually every other theater in America,” Ragan admits, by which he means the long hours and the understanding that everyone suffers together and no one gets rich but the show goes on.

A modern theater show requires an ever-expanding list of trained artists and technicians—from actors and directors to stage managers, costumers, lighting designers and prop masters—who all need to be paid for their time. As a result, producers like Urbanite Theatre find themselves increasingly caught between an economic rock and the proverbial hard place. “The result,” says Ragan, “is you try to get as much done in as short a window as humanly possible.”

The operative word being “humanly,” because that’s where the wiggle room is. “You can’t change opening night,” says Ragan. “People are coming; tickets are sold.”

So in the face of an unyielding calendar, the pre-pandemic process at Urbanite involved the typical exploration of what was humanly possible.

50-hour workweeks were “totally expected,” says Ragan, as was working full-steam for months without a weekend. And then, as opening day approached with everyone running ragged on adrenaline, caffeine, nicotine, and who knows what else, there were tech days—affectionately dubbed “10 out of 12s” by the theater community, because the actors are typically onstage for 10 hours out of a 12-hour workday that can really go as long as 15 hours for crew. “They almost live at the theater for several days,” says Ragan, “because you’re cramming a lot in.”
As a theater owner, Ragan says, it can be too easy to look the other way. By the time one show ends, the theater is already well invested in the next. And it’s too easy to rationalize the burnout and exhaustion among the cast and crew as temporary sacrifices for a single show, as isolated sprints that don’t merit a second thought. “Well, that fails to consider that these folks obviously need to put together a living with other shows,” he says. “Theater artists and their work do not exist in a vacuum."

Instead, their work exists in something more akin to a highly pressurized Russian nesting doll of overstuffed schedules, trying to book as many shows as they can, while understanding that each show will be its own operation in labor exploitation and just one leg in an unending marathon. That’s the norm, says Ragan.

“But that’s not necessarily the only way to put a show together,” he says.
Urbanite took a different approach with its past season, revamping its production processes to prioritize the welfare of the people making the art—those onstage and those behind the scenes.

A five-day workweek was instituted, so that cast and crew would have downtime each week to recharge. The minimum wage was raised, including for interns and apprentices, and the wage gap between union and non-union actors was closed. The production cycle was expanded to accommodate freelancing crew, and the tech runs and dress rehearsals were given more time on the schedule. “So instead of living at the theater for two to three straight days, “says Ragan, “we can work in a more sensible manner over four or five days."

Of course, this all amounts to adding a whole week or more to the production schedule for each show, which also means at least an additional week’s worth of expenses each cycle. And in an environment where arts organizations and nonprofits are already stretching their budgets and begging for more, Ragan admits it’s a risk—but a worthy one.

“If you look at the changes simply as price tags, it’s hard,” he says. “We looked at it philosophically: your product is better, the people who make it will want to return, your culture will improve. And that will lead to greater overall organizational health."

The effects were felt almost immediately, as Urbanite opened its 2021-22 season with “At The Wake of a Dead Drag Queen” in late October.
Pictured: Shea Petersen as Vicky Versailles in "At The Wake of a Dead Drag Queen." Photo by Dylan Jon Wade Cox.
“Really wonderful,” says actor Shea Petersen of their experience starring as drag queen Vicky Versailles in Urbanite's 2021 production. “We’ve never been treated with so much respect.”

Like many in the theater industry and beyond, the pandemic had put Petersen into something of a state of forced reflection due to downtime, assessing their chosen career path, their environment and their path forward. Petersen didn’t always like what they saw. “We all learned a lot,” they say. “One of the things I learned was that we’re not treated well at all.”

But they had heard good things about Urbanite Theatre and its plans for a new way of producing theater. Even up in Chicago, cast and crew were wondering what was happening down in Sarasota. Petersen was not disappointed.

“It’s beautiful to see a company really care about not only the actors, but the health and safety of the crew as well,” Petersen says. And as a result, they added, everyone involved becomes more invested in the show, more willing to go the extra mile and feeling more like equal partners in pursuit of a shared goal. “Everyone is putting 1000% into this,” they say. “And that makes every day memorable.”

For Ragan’s part, he noticed a shift in the atmosphere of the production from the beginning. “It felt healthier,” he says, “not frantic or stressed.” The weekends available to decompress and refresh allowed the cast and crew to return the following Monday “with clarity and balance,” which led to a better work environment all around.

“We still had hard work to do and we still made discoveries and had our challenges,” Ragan says, “but it was a much different sensibility. Work is still hard, but it makes approaching the work easier.”

And for Petersen, it creates a working environment that a traveling actor looks forward to returning to.

“I have nothing negative to say about Urbanite or Summer or Brendan,” Petersen says. “It has been truly a joy.”
Photo by Dylan Jon Wade Cox.
Urbanite fine-tuned the process as the season progressed, making adjustments where necessary—sometimes surprising ones.

“We may have overcorrected on the first show,” says Ragan, and tech rehearsals may have even been a bit too short. He remembers crew approaching him after the show, willing to put in just a bit of extra time to put their finishing touches on the production. “Super appreciate that I’m not exhausted and dead,” they’d say, “but I could’ve used a little more tech time.” Along the same lines, as the season wore on, it became clear that an occasional six-day workweek made sense. “Necessary,” Ragan says, but only for one or two weeks out of each 11-week cycle.

In the end, Urbanite arrived at a happy medium that allowed for a little bit of crunch time, while still instituting safeguards against burnout and exploitation. As production begins for a new play, the creative team is presented with options for when and how they can execute this crunch time, whether it be through one or two six-day weeks or by having a couple extra-long days but preserving the weekend break. “And people appreciate the autonomy,” says Ragan, “which, in theater, is really hard to come by.”
Pictured: Lea Sevola starred in "Athena." Photo by Dylan Jon Wade Cox.
“This is a huge conversation happening in performance right now,” says Lea Sevola, who starred as the eponymous lead in "Athena," the closing show of Urbanite’s 2021-22 season. As a stage actor, Sevola has criss-crossed the country from the Oregon Cabaret Theatre to the Hangar Theatre in New York and down to Sarasota, and never seen a theater operate like Urbanite.

“My first time working with a theater that has a five-day workweek,” she says. “The idea of having two days off in the theater is unheard of.” And when starring in a fast-paced and physical character drama about fencing and fractured friendships, having a little downtime to recharge and recuperate made all the difference. Physical exhaustion is one thing, she says, “but emotional exhaustion is a big thing in the theater as well.”

And the longer production went on, the more Sevola felt she was witnessing the beginning of something bigger. “It’s been very clear that that decision is an example of a larger culture at Urbanite, to prioritize their artists,” she says. “To make great art and do great work, but also treat people as valuable.”

In the end, she agrees with Ragan and Wallace that it leads to better art. “These people are invested in me,” Sevola says, “so I feel really confident investing myself in them.” And she hopes it can lead to changes in the industry as a whole. “They have a great opportunity to influence the theaters around them,” she says.
Photo by Dylan Jon Wade Cox.
“If we can do it, literally anyone can,” Ragan says, and as Urbanite Theatre readies its 2022-23 season, he shows no sign of compromise.

“I’ve seen how important theater is to people in the industry, because they’ve stuck with it even through the darkest times,” he says. “And if you can’t be good to those people—if you can’t care for the humanity of the person—you’re in the wrong industry.”