Published in KPBS On Air Magazine December 1992

Ralph Elias is pondering the Big Questions: “Can one head up a small, non-profit theater company and still be an artist?   And is it possible, even after twenty years at it, to be an artist and make a living?”

Elias has been artistic director of the Bowery Theatre for the past 4 1/2 years.   In that time, he’s changed the name, location, affiliation, Equity status and financial and artistic reputation of the company. Now known as Blackfriars Theatre, performing at the Kingston Playhouse, with support from the Kingston Hotel, the company has won acclaim in national publications (notably Daily Variety), and is the smallest theater with an Actors Equity contract west of the Mississippi. “It may be the smallest operation of its kind in the country,” says Elias.

And it’s just gotten smaller. As San Diego theater audiences and contributions dwindle, Elias has been forced to restructure his company. There’s been a drastic cut in salaries — (“in staff, not artists,” Elias is quick to point out), a one-third overall budget reduction (from $225,000 to $150,000), and a decision not to schedule a complete season of plays. Elias’ wife, Allison Brennan, is no longer development director, though she continues writing grants for the company gratis. The salary of the artistic director is one-quarter what it was last year, and he’s lost his teaching position at USIU, since the entire theater department at the college is being dismantled. Last year, Elias worked 78 hours a week, and he wound up bed-ridden for six weeks.   This year, he’s worried about making his car payments.

“I hope this doesn’t come off as too leaden or desperate,” Elias says solemnly, contemplating the interview. “But the situation “is” pretty desperate.” Desperation, to twist a phrase, may be the mother of invention.   In what he’s calling “a transitional year,” Elias is taking yet another new tack.   He’s formed a core company of local, high-profile actors and designers, people he’s comfortable with, confident in, has worked with before. In return for their regular Equity or non-Equity salary, and plays selected to highlight their particular talents, each will make a commitment to the theater, providing additional services such as program layout or grant-writing.

“It’s a remarkable group in a remarkable situation,” Elias says.   “But it won’t last forever.   It’s a stopgap measure to keep the theater alive. This is a company format with a little more leeway. We’ll continue in this format and continue to refine it. Or it won’t work and the theater will be defunct.”

The limited leeway of the past was a tight season schedule that prohibited extension of highly acclaimed productions such as “Teibele and Her Demon”, “Italian-American Reconciliation” and, more recently, “The Puppetmaster of Lodz” and “Abundance”. The less successful acts of desperation led to commercial and/or critical disasters such as “Getting Around”, “Jesse and the Bandit Queen”, the second installment of the “Laughing Buddha Wholistic Radio Hour” and even “Speed-the-Plow”, for which, Elias confesses, “I should’ve been directing, not acting.”  

“Desperation can get you off track,” Elias admits. “In all of those cases, I compromised or was backed into a choice, or pressured to complete a season.” Now he’s made a positive choice, moving his new company into a high-energy production of Oscar Wilde’s comic masterpiece, “The Importance of Being Earnest”. “I wanted to do a play that was really relevant to the election season, but would also be a great holiday show. I needed to draw the audience in, and sometimes comedy is better for that. Of all the plays I read, this struck me as the most relevant piece we could do, especially in terms of the spoof of hypocrisy in the ruling/leisure class. The characters are obsessed with money, status and propriety. It’s very, very funny. Audiences will recognize and love it. Actors always long to do it. It was a rare situation:   I had the perfect people for the play.”

Many of the names and faces are quite familiar to San Diego theatergoers, and most have won awards for their work with Elias and elsewhere:    scenic designer Beeb Salzer, composer/sound designer Lawrence Czoka, J.A. Roth (lighting), Stacey Rae (costumes) and actors Philip Charles Sneed (as Jack Worthing), Allison Brennan (Lady Bracknell), Rebecca Nachison (Miss Prism), Ron Choularton (Rev. Chasuble), Erin Kelly (back from Off-Off Broadway success just to play Gwendolyn) and Ralph Elias (Algernon), who also directs.

With no subscription base, the production and the theater are dependent on critical reviews and word of mouth. “We’re uniquely vulnerable to reviews: the Times, Reader, Union-Tribune, in that order,” says Elias.   “We’ve got to do extremely well or we’re in trouble. It’s what we call ‘hit or shit’. That’s always been our situation, but it’s more acute now.

“So why can I put up with all this stuff?” Elias asks, returning to the Big Questions. “Because when I see excellent, talented performers and designers like this in a classic play, it’s more exciting to me than anything… We’re in a desperate situation, but I feel very clear, very at peace with the course we’re taking right now.”

©1992 Patté Productions Inc.