The cast of Hairspray performs at the Playhouse San Antonio.
The cast of Hairspray performs at the Playhouse San Antonio. Credit: Courtesy / danscape

On June 20, the Playhouse San Antonio announced it was embarking on the first phase of a specialized transition program established by the Actors Equity Association (AEA) to become nationally recognized as a Small Professional Theater (SPT).

The Rivard Report recently spoke with George Green, the Playhouse’s CEO and artistic director, to get more details about the advantages of the SPT status and what it means to the theater community in San Antonio.

Rivard Report: What’s the significance of the national designation the Playhouse is pursuing? 

George Green: Simply put, we’re setting a higher standard for our local performers. The SPT contract is massively flexible and built to cater to organizations and markets of our size that don’t yet have professional equity theaters. There are three to four organizations in San Antonio that have been moving toward the SPT model, which involves paying performers living wages. The Playhouse, the Classic Theatre, and the Magik Theatre, in my opinion, are three that are sitting on top of that movement.

By way of explanation, when a local performer is hired for a production at an SPT theater, they are offered an equity contract and they have the opportunity to join the union or not. One of the biggest misconceptions is that once your theater becomes an equity house, everyone has to be equity to work there. That’s not the case under this specific model, so it’s much more flexible. No one ever has to get a union card.

As a performer, you are going to be paid at that level and we are going to be held to a standard based on that contract, assuring that you are working the correct amount of hours, not being overworked, and not being asked to do things beyond the scope of a performer’s duty. You’ll receive appropriate compensation as well as health benefits and pension. You can work under that contract and never join the union, but we would be held accountable to treat you as if you are a union member.

RR: What about audiences? What will this mean for them?

GG: Hopefully in time, we’ll be able to create an actual theater industry in San Antonio. I’d love nothing more than to see a theater corridor running through Texas — from Dallas to Austin to San Antonio to Houston. If you look at the cities in Texas that have true professional theater, we’re the one spot that’s missing, and that needs to change. I hope that other theaters in town follow suit and continue to grow in this direction.

One of the key messages that I’ve been hearing from folks living in Houston or Austin is, “I’m from San Antonio. I graduated from Taft, McCollum, or NESA. I left because there wasn’t work for me – literal, industry work.” So that’s what I want our audiences to see — local talent staying home and flourishing. The SPT designation means that performers who want to pursue professional, paying careers will no longer need to leave us for cities like Minneapolis or Chicago, and our theater community will benefit as a result.

I myself left San Antonio in 1989. I knew I wanted to be an actor, but I didn’t understand the culture of it yet. I was lost. I wondered, “How can I earn my living doing what I love, working on the stage?” With the initiation of SPT, perhaps young performers who are growing up right now will start to see how it’s supposed to work. “Oh, this is a place I can thrive [in],” they’ll think. “This is how much I can work when I’m here. This allows me to devote myself to my craft and shows how dedicated the community is to me right here in San Antonio.”

George Green addresses the cast of Urinetown at the Playhouse San Antonio.
The San Antonio Playhouse CEO and Artistic Director George Green addresses the cast of Urinetown at the Playhouse. Credit: Courtesy / danscape

That culture is what I hope will inspire them. Right now, young locals are relying on wonderful high school theater departments to teach them, but there’s got to be something beyond that. There’s actually got to be an industry, and that’s what the Playhouse San Antonio is trying to create. I can’t reiterate enough that we’re not doing this merely for the Playhouse. We’re trying to spur the creation of an actual theater industry in the seventh-largest city in the nation, where it hasn’t ever existed.

That’s what I believe audiences will eventually see. Now, just because we’re going toward Small Professional Theater status doesn’t mean suddenly that everything is going to be blockbuster Broadway quality. I believe we’re at that level already. What you should be seeing is a gradual change in professionalism and a change in the culture that reflects the industry being created here.

I would love to see the Playhouse be the big brother of San Antonio professional theater and see four or five other organizations like the Classic and the Magik be at the cusp of a true theater industry in town. That’s going to take 15 to 20 years. I think we can lead the way over the next five or 10 years, but it won’t happen overnight. It requires due diligence and fortitude.

I want to see San Antonio eventually look like a Minneapolis, a Chicago or a Houston from an artistic standpoint, with a professional community that embraces all the arts. That will serve to raise the culture of our city and give businesses and Millennials a reason to say, “That’s a place I want to work and live.”

RR: What are the potential theatergoers doing now?

GG: People drive from San Antonio to Austin and Houston to see live theater. Changing the perception of quality right here in our city is our first challenge. In my opinion, we’re already at that high level of quality and people need to know it. The caliber of talent in our city is insane. No matter what theater I go to, I always see something that impresses me, and I think, “This is happening right here in San Antonio.”

We need to create a perception that goes beyond our borders, that makes people from other cities say, “I want to go to San Antonio and see a show.” We need to bring in people who don’t just want to tour the River Walk, see the Spurs, or go to Sea World. We want them to come here and see four or five shows, too. That’s what they do in other cities.

Say you’re attending a conference in Philadelphia. You might be sitting in your hotel room and thinking, “I wonder if there’s a good show playing.” People don’t do that when they come to a conference in San Antonio, and we have to change that. We have to create that culture in the next five to 10 years so that our city reaches the point where visitors contribute to economic development in the arts, not just the restaurants and attractions. Let them do both.

RR: What other initiatives or collaborations are you embarking on to expand theater’s influence in our community?

GG: We’ve partnered with some companies that need some help to grow, such as the Marcsmen and Teatro Audaz. We’ve taken them under our wing and served as mentors, even if just temporarily, to give them the opportunity to get their 501(c)(3) nonprofit status, for example.

We are also working with larger organizations. We are getting ready to announce an event as a co-production, [which will] be held at the McNay in the winter of 2018. We’re partnering with the Empire Theatre to hold our annual gala there in August. That’s taking off huge, and I’d like to have the opportunity to do more things at the Empire.

The Playhouse San Antonio, which opened in 1912, is expected to see major changes over the next few years under its new CEO and Artistic Director George Green. Photo by Edmond Ortiz.
The Playhouse San Antonio is located at 800 W. Ashby Place. Credit: Edmond Ortiz for the San Antonio Report

Of course, we were gifted that generous land donation from the Aleman family last May and now have to think about the educational programming that we want to incorporate and reinvigorate.

We also do community outreach. We’re at the Pride Parade. We sing at children’s hospitals and at retirement centers. We have a huge outreach program with Thrive, which is the LGBTQ side of Haven for Hope. It’s a 10-week program that just started back up last week. We have theater folks such as Tim Hedgepeth, David Nanny, and Omar Leos, who are all from the educational side and have created a curriculum specific to that program.

RR: What’s your ultimate goal for the Playhouse?

GG: To always remain collaborative. We aspire to raise the bar of theatrical quality in our city and bring prestige to the industry. What do I aspire to? I love the 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle. That is an incredible organization. Its model is a big goal for us and that can only happen when big donors come around and say, “Here’s five million dollars. Go build another facility.” We’re a long way away from that, but to be at that level some day would be amazing.

We do so many other things collaboratively, and we’re going to continue to look for partnerships. We have our video monitor for the community in the theater. When people walk through our doors, they can see that there are performing arts opportunities throughout our city. We’re going to be installing other monitors around town, hopefully at places like the Tobin, the McNay and the Majestic.

We’re also putting a theater directory in our programs, and we’re working on another big project that we hope the other theaters will jump on board with. It’s not going to cost them anything, and it’s going to be a wonderful marketing opportunity.

We want to continue to spearhead things and grow rapidly so that we can continue to raise the tide for the entire community. The Playhouse San Antonio has always been a trailblazer. That’s how we started in 1912, when there wasn’t any theater here. We were the ones who started paying people larger wages, and we were the first to start staging bigger musicals. The Playhouse has always been at the forefront of what our city needs.

The Playhouse San Antonio will be hosting a free discussion about the Small Professional Theatre transition at 6:30 p.m. on Monday, July 10. Green will explain the process and answer questions. The Playhouse is located at 800 W. Ashby Place.

Kurt Gardner is a cultural critic and digital marketing professional. He reviews film, theater, and music for Blogcritics, ArtBeatLA and ArtSceneSA.