Not playing around
A local theater owner facing bankruptcy challenges The Sacramento Bee’s theater coverage
“I always believed the end point of my career would be having a small professional theater company,” Jackie Schultz said, her voice heavy with emotion. She never expected to face that end just months after turning her Studio Theatre into an official Equity production house.
In a recent phone interview, Schultz described her dire financial situation: two employees let go, overdue rent and insurance bills, her home mortgaged to the hilt, and personal and business bank accounts empty. After 12 years at the helm of Sacramento’s only female-owned playhouse, sustained largely by the long-running success of Six Women with Brain Death, Schultz wonders whether she’ll be open another month.
“Theater is a dying art,” she said, “but at the same time there are all these crazy people, like me, who think it’s an amazing form of communication and sharing human experience. So I’ll die, I’ll go bankrupt, because I can’t stop that passion from needing expression. But I’ll tell you, I’m not going down without a fight.”
Schultz’s opening punch took the form of a protest outside The Sacramento Bee on August 18, which drew TV news crews and more than 30 chanting demonstrators, including costumed actors, California Stage artistic director Ray Tater and SacActors.com producer Evan Nossoff. In an open letter circulated via e-mail, Schultz called for more voices in the paper’s theater criticism; an online comment feature for public response at www.sacticket.com; and greater coverage for the League of Sacramento Theatres, of which Schultz is a board member.
“The Sacramento Bee has practically a monopoly in this town,” Schultz wrote. Though Schultz acknowledged that other local papers, including SN&R and the suburban Village Life chain, regularly publish reviews, she said her own audience chiefly uses the Bee to decide where to see theater.
After Bee theater critic Marcus Crowder’s two-star review of the Southern-fried musical Pump Boys and Dinettes on July 27, the Studio Theatre’s phones stopped ringing. “The review came out, and it was like a death knell,” Schultz recalled. “I never expected to go down so fast.”
Though Schultz hoped the protest would bring attention to her theater’s plight, she admitted that even if the Bee honored her suggestions, it wouldn’t save her business. “At this point, that’s not the purpose,” she said. “The purpose of the march is to let the owners of the Bee know that they’ve got a problem with their paper. … For a long time, and it’s gotten worse over the last few years, it’s all Marcus all the time. How can one man truthfully know the heart of every company?”
“The Bee’s theater coverage has not changed,” Crowder told SN&R in a phone interview. “That’s misinformation. The theater scene has changed dramatically; there are many more professional and community theaters. There is less coverage to go around because there are more people to cover.”
With theaters competing for attention, Schultz fears the Studio Theatre’s light comedies, targeted at women, will never appeal to Crowder’s tastes.
“Whether it’s my taste or not, at the end of the day, you still have to do good work,” Crowder said. “The work she’s done lately has not been strong. For a long time she ran on a play with a strong review. Suddenly, when she doesn’t get reviews that she can market, The Sacramento Bee’s coverage is a huge problem.”
On the afternoon of Schultz’s march, The Sacramento Bee issued an official “Statement Regarding Theatre Coverage.” “Our first responsibility is to our readers, who expect us to offer a fair-minded and honest appraisal of every production we review,” it read. “We understand that the Studio Theatre is disappointed by the Bee’s review of Pump Boys and Dinettes and we are aware of the financial struggles faced by small theater companies. Nonetheless, we cannot allow that to shape our coverage.”
On Monday, Studio Theatre ticket sales had picked up a bit, but Schultz attributed this more to her telemarketing efforts than to the protest. She was happy the Bee had recently started offering an online comment feature, though in a brief article acknowledging the protest, the paper called the change unrelated.
Regardless of her theater’s fate, Schultz vowed to continue pressing the larger issue of theater coverage in Sacramento. “There are a lot of issues, and it’s not going away,” she said. “If nothing changes, the smaller companies who are coming up won’t see the light of day.”