By any standard, Echo Theater Company is an unqualified success. It is a proven small-stage, hit-making machine whose artistic reach, commitment to new work and lush, bang-for-your-buck production values rival — and often exceed — those of L.A.'s big regional houses.
And Echo has been on a roll lately. Its crowd-pleasing critical hits have included 2013's A Family Thing, Gary Lennon's lacerating comedy of the grotesque about a family of fratricidal brothers, and February's Firemen, Tommy Smith's dark, deliriously perverse drama about a torrid affair between a junior high school secretary and an adolescent student.
The company also just ended 18 years of itinerancy by landing a prime residency at the Atwater Crossing complex.
Echo's current production, Backyard, Mickey Birnbaum's new suburban slugfest about backyard wrestling, opened May 31.
But how exactly does one define "success" financially in L.A.'s 99-seat theater universe? In its 18-year existence, Echo has shown black ink on only two shows — A Family Thing and 2007's Anon, Kate Robin's scabrous sex-addiction satire. Never mind turning a profit — a smash hit for Echo is any show that even remotely approaches the ballpark of breaking even.
Take Firemen as an example: "It was a hit," producing artistic director Chris Fields says flatly. "People stood up. People cheered. People loved it." The show, which ended up costing $17,000 to mount (Echo has produced shows for as little as $12,000 and as much as $35,000), also racked up a not-so-tidy $3,000 shortfall at the box office, despite extending its run twice.
"It was about 45 percent sold," explains Drew Dalzell, the company's managing artistic director. "My aim is to shoot for 40 percent sold. I want to break even at 40 percent — that's what I have to write [budgets] at. And then if we can get a show that sells at 50 or 60 or 70 percent, great."
Both Anon and A Family Thing, Fields says, sold in the 70 percent range — something he attributes to good word-of-mouth and the accessibility of the texts, but even more to the zeal of their casts when it came to pushing out the word via social media.
In Anon's case, it didn't hurt that there were 24 actors (Fields double-cast the supporting roles to accommodate ensemble members' television commitments).
Echo shows, like most small-stage productions, play for a standard six-week, 18-performance run. Firemen's extensions raised that to 10 weeks and 30 performances. For a typical Echo run, first-weekend houses are always golden, a fact attributable to the excitement and publicity surrounding any opening, the company's reputation and the support of other company members. (Echo's Atwater space seats up to 99, with tickets priced at $25.) Opening night typically is a full house — most of that comps, with only about 20 percent paid tickets. The second and third nights will average about 50 percent sold.
The second weekend, however, is generally a disaster. "The reviews aren't out yet," Dalzell says. "It's everything you can do to fight to get 20 percent of the house on those weekends. By the following weekend, good reviews and word-of-mouth will begin to turn that around.
"By that third weekend, you need to make the decision whether or not you're extending," he adds. "So you're barely into the weekend of, 'Are we even going to have an audience?' and you have to then make the decision [of whether] the audience is good enough to extend another weekend."
That's just the nature of the beast," Fields shrugs. "Unless you run a show for, you know, 20 weeks, or unless you, like, sell 75 percent capacity, you're not going to make money off it."
The 99-seat theaters are not intended as a for-profit business plans — Echo is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. Union rules require that productions extending beyond 80 performances move to a full Equity contract, which requires higher wages. But in a place such as L.A., that's like laying down the law for stage productions on the moon.
Dalzell says the red ink from any Echo show automatically becomes a fundraising goal to be made up in donations or grants or even movie studio development deals.
But against that precariousness is an artistic ethos that places a premium on recruiting — and paying for — top stage managers and production design talent.
"I don't like building theater on the backs of people that can afford it the least," Dalzell says. "I've been a working designer in L.A. for too many years. And nine times out of 10, when I was a starting designer, every single credit card I had was maxed out. You're asking the wrong person to carry that."
While neither Dalzell nor Fields will quote individual fees for the Firemen creative team, they say it accounted for $8,000 of the budget. Of that, the stage manager comes out on top at the Echo, Fields says, "because to support the production, you have to have a good stage manager in rehearsal.
"Ultimately," Fields adds, "what you want to be is the company that everybody wants to come see and that everybody wants to work with. And that's based on really treating people in a way that's consistent with their talents. You want to get paid for your time."
THE COSTS OF A PLAY
Echo Theater Company managing artistic director Drew Dalzell offered some preliminary numbers on the company's Firemen, which ran earlier this year for 30 performances over 10 weeks (including two two-week extensions):
Production budget: $14,000 originally; actual costs ended up around $17,000.
Gross ticket sales: $14,000
Net profit: –$3,000
Some of the costs:
Playwright: $1,000 against 7 percent of gross ticket sales. This means that $1,000 is guaranteed, but if 7 percent of the gross becomes more than that — which happens if the gross surpasses about $14,000 — the fee instead becomes 7 percent of the gross.
Production team: $8,000. That includes two producers, director, scenic designer, lighting designer, sound designer, costumer, stage manager and casting director. One of the producers and Dalzell, who also was the sound designer, donated back $2,000 in fees. An additional $800 was split by the designers for the extension.
Five actors: $1,410 total, or $282 per actor. That complies with Actors' Equity's mandated stipends for L.A. theaters with 99 seats or less.
Press agent: $2,000. The company has a monthly contract with a press agent but counts it as a $2,000 line item for each show.
Still photographer: $250
Set: $750 originally, then raised to just under $2,000.
Two electricians: $100. Lighting designer Matt Richter donated equipment rental.
Programs: $500 originally, but printing issues drove the final cost closer to $800.
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Front of house: About $75 (it's almost all volunteer)
Stage manager supplies: $100
Note: As part of the Echo's new residency at the Atwater Village Theater, the rent is part of the company's year-round general expenses, as opposed to a per-show cost. The residency saves the company a considerably amount on rent; before the residency, the per-show rental would run about $9,000.
Echo Theater Company's world premiere of Backyard by Mickey Birnbaum runs through July 13.