The small, independent companies that have often defined the cutting edge of theater in our region have long made a virtue of doing without. For decades, their productions have embraced the essence of drama, frequently without opulent costumes, lavish sets, or theater spaces specifically designed to accommodate them. Minimalism is attractive to many young theater artists, but beneath that aesthetic fig leaf lies an unwelcome economic fact. A lack of money among emerging artists and the absence of informed, effective infrastructure and support from civic institutions and foundations have often forced small groups to stage their works as inexpensively as they can.

As a result, theater companies and artists who cannot afford to rent or buy a place to stage their works remain the largest group in the region’s community of practice. In the absence of affordable city-sponsored facilities appropriate for small-scale productions, these artists seek refuge among a few local companies willing to share their venues. When that fails, they resort to streets, parks, and storefronts, or former factories and warehouses, some without electricity or heating.

So when a group of stage artists led by Rachel Klem and Michelle Byars opened Common Ground Theatre in Durham in January 2005, with the express purpose of serving itinerant artists and companies, it was a big deal. Within weeks of opening, Common Ground had booked most of its first year of productions. In 2009, it won an Indies Arts Award for helping to change the face of the performing arts in Durham.

It is doing so again, but, this time, there is no cause for celebration. Last month, executive director Shelby Hahn announced that Common Ground would cease operations after its ninth production of A Trailer Park Christmas closed last weekend.

Then, last week, another development rocked the theater community: Sonorous Road Productions, an intimate venue that also offers production services and classes in filmmaking and theater, announced that it would close its headquarters on Oberlin Road in May. Its building has been sold to N.C. State University, which is seeking to build an office. The fate of the theater, which, for the last year, has been doing for Raleigh what Common Ground did for Durham, remains in doubt, hinging on the availability of an affordable, appropriate place to relocate.

In two months’ time, regional theater’s largest sectorthe one with the fewest options for rehearsal and performance spacefaced the loss of one venue and the likelihood of losing another. The community reaction has been swift. The improv comedy scene that regularly used Common Ground for classes and performances was forced to scramble to find other venues, according to Open Mind Improv founder Dan Sipp. And the closing left One Song Productions, a high-school-student-run theater troupe, without a venue for its winter production of A Bright New Boise.

Some companies have become reliant enough on Sonorous Road and Common Ground to be existentially threatened. John Honeycutt, cofounder of South Stream Productions, says Sonorous Road’s closing could put the company out of business. The group has had difficulty finding affordable hosts for productions like Time Stands Still, and civic facilities are even more expensive.

The city of Raleigh operates a small-scale theater: the K.D. and Sara Lynn Kennedy Theatre, a 125-seat black box space at the back of Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts. But mandatory individual fees for insurance, in-house production personnel, box office services, security, and sound that most productions need can quickly triple or quadruple the minimum rental rate of $400 per performance. Depending on where South Stream produced its shows, rental fees alone could range from $6,500 to $14,000two to four times what the company would pay Sonorous Road for an upcoming production of Blackbird.

If Sonorous Road were suddenly removed from the scene, Honeycutt concludes, “I don’t know where we would go.”

As these developments revealed the fragile underpinnings of the area’s vibrant independent scene, they also raised pressing questions. How do regional venues achieve sustainability, and what caused a celebrated place like Common Ground to lose its viability over the long term?


Many factors in Common Ground’s failure weren’t the theater’s fault. For one, the itinerant theater sector shrank during and after the economic downturn circa 2008. After the scene “ballooned to maximum density ten to twelve years ago,” according to Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern artistic director Jaybird O’Berski, notable groups including Both Hands Theatre, Common Wealth Endeavors, Flying Machine Theatre, Party Girl Productions, and Ghost and Spice Productions, the original anchor company at Common Ground, ceased operations, one by one.

Surviving companies also reduced their seasons and, in recent years, increasingly chose to stage their shows in other venues, first in Durham, then in Raleigh. Because of its location, Common Ground had always been vulnerable to such shifts. Founder and board member Rachel Klem recalls that there was “a moratorium on space in downtown Durham” when she went looking for an affordable, appropriate site for her venue in 2004. “Everyone was still waiting for the boom to happen,” she says.

The only viable spot she found was hardly ideal: a warehouse space on a side street in a nondescript industrial/rural neighborhood five miles north of downtown, just before Hillsborough Road becomes U.S. Route 70. It was not, and never would be, a compelling nightspot for young audiences.

“Nothing else was out there,” O’Berski says. “You couldn’t make an evening of it.” Understandably, when new locations like the Trotter Building, Shadowbox, the Cordoba Center for the Arts, 539 Muze, and the Durham Fruit Company started opening closer to Durham’s nightlife, companies began migrating there. Between 2012 and 2014, Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern staged works including The Wooster Group’s Diary of Anne Frank at the Shadowbox, Our Town at the Trotter Building, and Richie as a pub crawl through the same district. For almost four years, the group showed no work at Common Ground, until it coproduced Black Ops’ September 2015 debut, The Shipment.

This fall, when the group returned to Common Ground with a production of Maccountant, O’Berski says the production made almost a third of what it could have at Manbites Dog Theater, a larger venue that has been an anchor of Durham’s entertainment district since its move to Foster Street in 1998.

Meanwhile, Raleigh groups with venues became increasingly open to guest productions in recent years, and itinerant companies based in the capital no longer needed to drive across the Triangle to produce work. Though Tiny Engine got its start at Common Ground in 2014, it staged its latest play, Creature, at North Raleigh Arts and Creative Theatre. In 2005, Bare Theatre restarted at Common Ground after years of dormancy, but in recent years it has staged summer shows at Raleigh Little Theatre and three productions at Sonorous Road. Its last Common Ground show, Titus Andronicus, took place more than a year ago.

Throughout the region, artistic migration brought productions nearer to where artists actually live, and to established entertainment districts. Both factors disadvantaged a black box theater on the far northwest edge of Durham. In the end, Hahn concludes, Common Ground never had a core audience.

“Even after a successful year of acclaimed shows,” he said, “the audiences didn’t seem to carry through from show to show.”


But other factors in the decline were more within Common Ground’s control. The venue had been critically understaffed for years. When Klem took a job at N.C. State, she ceded management of the space to arts administrator Devra Thomas in January 2013 for reasons that became clearer as she reiterated the job description: answering phone calls and thirty to forty emails a day, looking for next month’s clients, meeting people, giving tours, booking space, checking ticket sales, and “worrying because you’re also doing marketing, press, and publicity.”

But wait, there’s more. Common Ground’s executive director was also responsible for technical direction, writing grants, updating the website, programming, and teaching classes. And there was the building’s daily maintenance: cleaning toilets and caulking holes. The company also had to find and manage helpwhich, without funds to hire anyone, was basically volunteer work.

Hahn found it difficult. “Not many would agree to working for a small stipend or no stipend,” he says. “And when I couldn’t fill any of those positions, it all fell on me.” Plus he was earning very little money. Thomas and Klem both confirmed that they made nowhere near a living wage for a more-than-full-time job; some months there would be no pay at all. The story is common throughout the region’s smaller theater venues. O’Berski says that working in them virtually has to be a labor of love.

“One member of that couple has to have a steady income,” he says, “because the other’s working for mostly nothing.” Michelle Murray Wells, artistic director at Sonorous Road, confirms this.

“I question whether people realize what it takes, not just emotionally but financially,” she says. “I have not gotten a penny for what we’ve done in eighteen months. Sometimes that’s just really hard.”

Insufficient staff and infrastructure lead directly to insufficient grant writing, marketing, and bookings. Those lead to insufficient programming, audiences, and funding, which, in turn, maintains existing inadequacies in infrastructure and staff, continuing the downward spiral.

And, as Trisha Lester, acting president for the North Carolina Center for Nonprofits, notes, without a functional board of directors to secure resources and raise funds for the group, “the quintessential starvation cycle” that many nonprofits experience continues uninterrupted. “Clearly [Common Ground] was not sustainable,” she says.

As a result, says O’Berski, the theater never evolved. “It looks exactly as it did ten years ago,” he says. “The lobby and exterior never got more inviting. It was still a black box theater with limited seating and really limited lighting and technical capability.” So it’s not a shock that Common Ground is closingit’s unbelievable that it lasted for twelve years.

Meanwhile, small theater companies in Raleigh anxiously await the fate of Sonorous Road. Should the group find a workable space, itinerant troupes will be eager to perform there for audiences largely unaware of the sacrifices it takes. Still, none of them will know how long the show can go on.

These issues form a cautionary case study for all of the area’s theater venues. With multiple spaces all but entirely dependent on the continued labor of the director’s spouse, our theatrical ecosystem is treading on eggshells.

“It’s the thing nobody in theater wants to admit,” says Thomas. “The economics of the ecosystem do not work. The numbers in the current model do not add up.”

Changing that broken model, in Thomas’s view, involves adding classes in arts administration to the region’s professional theater programs. It also involves strategic support from foundations, and from city and state governments, to help existing companies develop sustainable infrastructures and venues that are affordable and appropriate. As long as running an independent theater venue is funded mainly by blood, sweat, and tears, the bloodletting will continue.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Fade to Black”