Editor’s Note: This article was produced in collaboration with the Arts & Culture MA concentration at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.
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“It’s only a paper moon, sailing over a cardboard sea,” wrote songwriter Yip Harburg in his paeon to ardor as a form of theater craft. This fall, though, the stages of New York may have moonless nights, as the rising costs of paper and cardboard and other theatrical materials hobble productions across the city.
“You can only build so many shows at one time in the footprint of a scene shop,” explained Stephen Chaikelson in an interview with Hyperallergic. Chaikelson is one of the producers on Broadway’s Death of a Salesman, now playing at the Hudson Theatre. “This fall, for example, there are 19 new shows coming in and that’s just Broadway. That’s a lot of set-building.” Broadway shows are only a portion of New York theatre productions that have been eagerly waiting through a two-year shutdown to come to fruition. But what Chaikelson experienced in bringing this acclaimed drama from London’s West End to the United States was what almost every arts presenter is currently facing: a shortage of supplies and a slew of overwhelmed scene shops.
Chaikelson attributes the issue to, as the Brits would say, the “knock-on effect” of the Covid-19 pandemic shutdown itself and the mass start-up post-shutdown. “Scene shops and lighting and sound shops got rid of a lot of their equipment during the shutdown,” he says. “They sold it or did other things, so there’s literally not enough equipment on the shelves to go around.” This is even more problematic when every company that has closed for two years seems to want to start putting on shows at the same time. Not all those presenters have a Broadway budget, which means the available equipment will often go to the highest bidder, or whoever gets there first.
A survey conducted by the Professional Lighting and Sound Association released in December of 2021 illustrates the global impact that the pandemic has on these aspects heading into 2022. Highlights from this survey, taken by industry members across over 40 countries, include an overwhelming response from 95% of manufacturers experiencing delays in materials such as wood, cables, LCD screens, microchips, steel, and packaging. Most manufacturers are also seeing a cost increase in all these materials across the board that are “several times the rate of inflation.”
Increasing costs and a shortage of materials come to matter even more to noncommercial theaters that do not enjoy as large of a budget. The Crossing the Line festival presented by French Institute Alliance Française (FIAF) came back for its fifteenth year, and this was the first year since the pandemic that they brought all international productions. Typically, they would ship their set pieces from France, but with the price of fuel so hiked up by inflation, the freight was out of their budget. “We decided to rebuild the sets here,” says programming manager Clementine Guinchat. “That’s when we realized the shop situation in New York was so crazy.” It would take her months of sending out requests to shops just for someone to respond, and when they sent quotes, they were often far over budget, leading to months of more searching.
And then there was the issue of rebuilding the sets according to the designer’s vision without access to the original materials, and in this case, the designer remained in France. _jeanne_dark_, one of the re-constructed shows, required a full-stage overlay of flame-resistant white paper that reacted to the color-changing stage lights. “It was impossible to find,” says Guinchat. So they found two options that were close to the original design and flew the designer in two days before the show was loaded into Florence Gould Hall. “That was definitely something that was stressful because when you talk about planning a show a year in advance and bringing it to New York, you feel like everything is possible. You’ll find exactly what you want but it’s not that true this time.”
Somehow, artists are still finding ways to prevail. The Tank, a New York-based nonprofit theater, structured its fall season around dynamic shows with minimal sets. In Simon and his Shoes, a production currently playing at their space, has a set constructed entirely of cardboard shoe boxes. “We try to work with artists who are able to come up with creative solutions to logistical problems,” says artistic director Meghan Finn, who is waiting on two doors that are still on backorder and have been for months. To supplement their ticket sales, the Tank also sells livestream access to their shows, all to concentrate on making sure their staff is adequately compensated.
All these challenges lead to the question: What changes will this economic climate bring about? While minimalist productions have been prominent for a while, will they become a new normal? Is this an opportunity for more innovation in set creation? Or will presenters demand more government subsidization of the arts, like in the UK and France, where funding for large-scale productions is more accessible? These questions will likely take another few years to answer.