‘Less with less’: Theatre arts department faces uncertainty after budget cut

The+Stephen+Foster+Memorial+houses+two+Pitt+Stages+performance+spaces+%E2%80%94+the+Charity+Randall+Theatre+and+the+Henry+Heymann+Theatre.

TPN File Photo

The Stephen Foster Memorial houses two Pitt Stages performance spaces — the Charity Randall Theatre and the Henry Heymann Theatre.

By Sophie Earwood, For The Pitt News

As the curtains reopen on Pitt theater productions after no in-person shows for more than a year, the theatre arts department is facing a new challenge. Its production budget has been cut significantly, according to Ashley Martin, the department’s operations manager.

“It’s my understanding that our production budget had been cut [at] around 50%,” Martin said. “But other budgetary items including something I’m trying to work through right now, ASL interpreting, which is funded by the dean’s office, that was cut at 65%.”

Many leaders in the department — which has 52 major and 82 minor students — are worried about the future of the program given the lack of money. Some have even sent letters to Kathleen Blee, dean of the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences and College of General Studies, to try and advocate for more funding.

A Pitt spokesperson said the theatre program’s budget cuts were due to University-wide budget reductions.

“Pitt Stages operating budget has been reduced as a result of decisions made by the Dean’s Office in response to University-wide permanent budget reductions taken during the last two fiscal years (FY21 and 22). These reductions were not related to COVID,” they said.

Pitt has adjusted its budget throughout the pandemic, including two cuts in the 2020-21 budget — a permanent one at roughly 3.7% and a temporary one at around 5%. Pitt restored the 5% temporary budget cut this year, but officials said a 1% permanent cut was applied this year to “balance the budget while continuing to support compensation increases for faculty and staff, as well as other key initiatives.”

Martin also said the funding cuts reduce the program’s ability to provide certain services, such as ASL interpreting for shows. Pitt cut the theatre department’s funding for ASL interpreting by 65%, she said.

“We typically would have five shows with one night of ASL interpreted offerings for audiences,” Martin said. “We’ve had to cut four of those, so four of our five shows this semester won’t have those services available.”

Martin said the budget cuts also limit the amount of training, in areas such as set design and lighting, that the department can give students.

“Our general production and operations are challenging,” Martin said. “We’ve had to minimize sets so students learning to design sets and to build sets are working with many less materials, and working under conditions that aren’t necessarily going to give them the best training and opportunity to be competitive in a marketplace.”

Shamus Bonner — a junior theatre arts major and chair of Pitt’s USITT chapter, a technical theater organization — said the cuts to the production budget significantly decrease the opportunities made available to theatre students, and limit the practical resources they have access to.

“The budget goes entirely to our productions,” Bonner said. “The only thing that is affected by that budget is the budget that we have for sets, and costumes, and lighting, and sound, and the ability to hire outside artists to come direct the shows [and] design the shows. Which is a big learning opportunity for a lot of people here because it gives us the chance to work with people who aren’t just our professors.”

Martin also said she believes the program will most likely be smaller going forward, as a result of the funding cuts.

“Smaller. It looks smaller,” Martin said. “We do less with less … what it really means is that we’re able to give less opportunities to students.”

During the pandemic, Bonner said holding shows virtually made it difficult for students to get hands-on production experience.

“That was really difficult, since for a lot of tech students in particular you don’t get the same opportunities to work with lighting and sound and everything like that,” Bonner said.

Annmarie Duggan, the acting department chair, said it was difficult to get the productions up and running again after being closed for over a year.

“Our spaces were dormant for 18 months,” Duggan said. “Which in itself causes challenges as we gear back up.”

Now as classes return to in-person instruction this semester, Martin said the budget cuts directly affect the quality and accessibility of classes and credits in the department, which students in the theatre program are required to take to graduate.

“The slowness and re-hiring and re-posting positions is a huge challenge when we’re expected to meet the same number of educational course requirements which includes our production,” Martin said. “Our production, a lot of students are taking those for credit … everybody is stretched very thin to make what is still possible, possible, for students.” 

Bonner also said the cuts to the budget will ultimately reduce the production capacity of the department.

“Smaller shows, possibly even fewer shows per year,” he said. “There is just a certain amount of money that needs to get allocated to each one.”

Duggan said she remains hopeful about the prospects for Pitt Stages productions in the future.

“The bottom line [is] we just have to think smaller than we were before the pandemic and find creative ways to solve problems and to create our work,” Duggan said. “If [the] budget [does] not return to pre-pandemic levels, [we] will need to evaluate the scope we can produce on with the resources we have.”

Going forward, Duggan plans to re-evaluate and adjust the department’s operations under the budget cuts, and also hopes that the theatre program will receive more appreciation for its space in the community.

“If these cuts stay, we will need to rethink the model we work under,” Duggan said. “The Arts are an important part of any institution of higher education. Theatre Arts at Pitt is a small but mighty department. I hope that will be seen and appreciated as funding becomes available.”

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