There is a custom in the theater, this place that is the crossroads of custom and innovation, of the ghost light. The custom says no stage is ever left in total darkness.
So begins the "Ghost Light" speech, an invocation recited at the introduction of every play produced by the Shoestring Shakespeare Company, authored by Laurie Dietrich. The co-founding Company member and artistic director has recently announced the group's changing of the guard and the resulting "dark" (theater term for empty) fall season planned to allow time for reorganization.
After a successful, seven-season run with the self-proclaimed "only classical theater company" in San Antonio, Dietrich and co-founder/managing director/actor/husband John Poole are finalizing a much-needed hiatus from the group, citing creative burnout and a desire to focus on other artistic projects. "Things stagnate if leadership doesn't change," explains Dietrich, who is already busy plunking away at a book proposal.
One of the problems San Antonio's community continually faces is that there are few institutions with true arts administrators: The small theaters, and creative music groups, and virtually all local dance troupes, are made of artists desperate to find an outlet in San Antonio. But no artist can remain behind the footlights, or the curtain, forever. Nobody wants to be the arts administrator and not the artist, long enough to make performing arts in San Antonio stable. Without a city's commitment to the institutions of performing arts and music, ours will always be a fragile world.
A light burns, always, to honor the memories, the ghosts of the moments that were made there. As this light shines alone in the darkness of an emptry theater, so theater itself stands alone, a ritual in a time when rituals are dying.
Shoestring is taking off the fall season (with the excepton of the holiday panto), while the new managing director, actor/attorney Phil Marzec, selects a new executive committee and acclimates himself to the captain's seat. This might be just the wake-up call San Antonio theater patrons need to make them more aware of the delicate bonds that hold our arts scene together. "All of these theaters in town exist with help. They can go away," notes Dietrich of the ongoing need for support. Indeed, support can make or break art institutions in a city with such a tempestuous arts funding history. Small companies like Shoestring and the Firelight Players struggle to build an audience simply to support a venue, since few have their own. Many are comprised of native San Antonians, graduates of the university theater programs here, who want to find work in the city. Once out of college, though, it's not only impossible to get a paying gig in town, it's hard just to find a stage to use, if you want to mount your own Little Rascals-style production. Often these upstarts last only a season or two.
Even larger, more stable organizations hang onto viability in San Antonio by a thin thread: The San Antonio Symphony, 63 years old and 77 members strong, faces recurring budget worries again this season. Spending into the endowment almost torpedoed the Symphony four years ago, but its future seemed assured when a handful of corporate "stake holders" rode into town with white hats, and took permanent seats on the Board. This year seems like déjà vu all over again, as the Symphony tries to staunch the flow of red. Nevertheless, the Symphony has announced a full 2002-03 season, including a POPS! concert we've slated as a "Save the Date" pick.
While the Symphony's woes may be common knowledge, we often forget the beautiful side-effect of their presence. Chamber music groups made up of Symphony professionals offer nearly year-round performances, most of them more intimate and less expensive than a Symphony night at the Majestic Theater.
This is the time of year for many performing arts organizations to rally excitement (and hopefully funds) through season subscriptions. For reasons ranging from funding deficits to poor planning to insecurity about subscription sales, not all art institutions take advantage of the buzz that can develop from preplanning a season. Some major players in the local scene are making San Antonio watch and wait — including the Jump-Start Performance Company. Usually one of the city's most reliable venues for creative and risk-taking theater and dance, Jump-Start hasn't yet committed to a line-up. Still, like Shoestring, just because these groups haven't announced their next seasons, doesn't mean their artistic lights have dimmed.
We invoke that light, that ritual, now. We come together in this oldest of ways, we make the living moment, the sacred circle, and within it we bring you tales, not of time nor place, but of humanity.
"What we don't want to do is seem ungrateful. It was a wonderful thing. We got so much out of the experience," wavers Dietrich. She and Poole have given San Antonio the ghost light tradition and an organization they have birthed and now walk away from. They can be proud of its ability to survive without them.
We light this stage in honor of those who have gone before us. We honor them, and your presence honors us.
For the sake of a healthy future in San Antonio's performing arts, let's hope a lot of patrons do honor this year.