Shubert Theater New Haven opened in 1914 and became known as “the birthplace of the nation’s greatest hits,” where the creative development and world premieres of “Oklahoma!” took place. and “A Streetcar Named Desire” among others.
But over time, pre-Broadway development shifted to other venues, and the Shubert — along with a handful of other performing arts centers in Connecticut — has become a destination for a different kind of musical and theatrical development that’s happening in the theater world is known as “Teching.”
When a successful Broadway production is ready to take their show to the streets, producers need a place to prepare for the tour. It takes about two to four weeks. Stagehands and production designers take up residence in a theater, where they reconstruct the set, design lights and sound, adjust costumes, and craft the staging before packing it into trucks and hitting the streets.
“They will be coming to our theater, bringing over 75 people, staying at local hotels and living in our community while they set up the show on our stage for the first time,” said Anthony McDonald, executive director of the Shubert. “It’s a big production, but it also brings many benefits, not just for the theater but for the community as a whole.”
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That’s the argument leading performing artists are bringing to lawmakers in this session, where they are urging lawmakers to approve a tax break for traveling theater productions that choose to have their shows at one of Connecticut’s six major city theaters.” technicize” – Hartford’s Bushnell, Shubert in New Haven, Waterbury’s Palace Theatre, Palace Theater in Stamford, Torrington’s Warner Theater and Garde Arts Center in New London.
The state’s major performing arts centers are still struggling to recover from the pandemic. Attendance at Bushnell, Shubert, Waterbury Palace and Stamford Palace theaters overall fell 46% last year compared to the 2018-19 season, amounting to millions of dollars in lost revenue, theater managers said.
The fact that a Broadway touring company takes up residence for several weeks and pays venue rent and wages to the local stagehands union provides financial stability to theaters and their employees, they said. Touring shows are only stopping by for a weekend, and theater directors say it’s difficult to predict attendance numbers as the pandemic continues to keep many guests away.
“We can’t stop doing what we’re doing. That’s not the answer — especially now that the office buildings are virtually empty,” McDonald said. “What else brings people downtown? It’s the theatres.”
The stage is set
The theater industry’s slow recovery from COVID makes passage of the tax credit urgent. But leading performers also point to a growing number of states offering similar incentives — and the competition created for Connecticut.
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Rhode Island and New York have offered tax breaks for music and theater productions for several years. The producers also mentioned Illinois and Louisiana, among others. Last year, Maryland, home of Broadway touring companies Troika Entertainment and NETworks, granted a 25% tax credit on state theatrical production costs.
“A lot of businesses are making their way to Rhode Island, driving across the state of Connecticut to take advantage of these tax credits,” said Frank Tavera, executive director of the Waterbury Palace Theater, which hosted tech residencies for touring the “South Pacific” and “An American in Paris” last year.
If Connecticut could offer a loan, Tavera said, “it would be a boon for the state, number one, and it would be a boon for the venues as well because we would be able to compete.”
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Leading Massachusetts performing artists are making similar arguments to their legislature, potentially creating even more competition in the region. The pilot program proposed by Gov. Maura Healey would be available for pre-tour and pre-Broadway productions costing $100,000 or more. The incentive would be capped at $5 million per year.
“More states are coming on board, and the more the better for us,” said Angela Rowles, Troika’s chief executive officer and a vocal supporter of Maryland’s recently passed theater tax credit. Troika produces five to ten touring shows a year, each costing between $3 million and $6 million. “Obviously, because the spending is so high, it’s an incentive for us to go to a state that offers a return,” she said.
Tours spend about half of their total costs during class time, Rowles said, on hotels, meals, laundry, shopping, staff and rent. “I feel like any kind of tax incentive pays off by enticing us to come,” she said. “We’ll definitely spend the money.”
Tom Quarter, an award-winning Broadway producer and executive chairman of the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford, led efforts in New York to enact a theater tax credit almost a decade ago. “We took our cue from Rhode Island,” he said.
But as a part-time Connecticut resident for the past 22 years, Viertel said he’s frustrated that the state hasn’t made a similar effort until now. “These are proven successful programs and can benefit many places that otherwise struggle for economic activity,” he said.
Both Rowles and Viertel said Connecticut’s large theaters have a locational advantage. Producers, actors, designers – even the set construction workshops, customers and warehouses – are usually within a few hours by train or car.
“It’s so close to New York,” Rowles said.
The game plan
Connecticut lawmakers are still working out the details of the proposed pre-tour theater production tax credit, House Bill 6505, and have not yet held a public hearing.
In a year when Gov. Ned Lamont is pushing for spending controls despite a record surplus, lawmakers may have to choose their battles.
Last month, the Trade Committee heard hours of public testimony from a variety of arts, culture and tourism organizations lobbying lawmakers to increase government support and accountability for their sectors. The Connecticut Performing Arts Center Coalition, which represents the state’s six legacy municipal theaters, was among those testifying on this bill HB 6692.
The pre-tour production tax incentive, on the other hand, is far more targeted. And since it’s a tax credit retrospectively calculated as a percentage of a production company’s government spending, it’s not technically considered government spending from an accounting perspective. That’s important to the governor because state spending is subject to Lamont’s spending ceiling. Numerous programs are competing for limited funding below this cap this year.
Jim Shea, chief executive of the local stage workers’ union, International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Local 74, said the production ahead of the tour would support hundreds of workers and their families.
“I hope the state really looks at this and says, ‘Why not?’” Shea said. “The state is in the black. You should just say ‘yes’.”
Nonetheless, providing tax credits to the creative industries, particularly film and television, has historically come under fire from lawmakers and advocacy groups. McDonald said he wanted to carefully differentiate this new proposal from the existing film and digital media production tax credit, which some state leaders now want to phase out, limit or reduce amid questions about their true economic impact.
Film and media production can happen anywhere, McDonald said, but Connecticut’s six legacy theaters have been in existence for nearly a century or more. “We were where Broadway first came from,” he said. “Now we’re just trying to get some of that back.”