‘Less with less’: theater arts department faces uncertainty after budget cut


As the curtains reopen on Pitt theater productions after more than a year without an in-person performance, the theater arts department faces a new challenge. Its production budget has been drastically reduced, according to Ashley Martin, the department’s operations manager.

“I understand that our production budget has been reduced [at] about 50%, ”Martin said. “But other budget items, including something I’m trying to work on right now, ASL interpretation, which is funded by the dean’s office, which has been reduced to 65%.”

Many leaders of the department – which has 52 major students and 82 minor students – are worried about the future of the program given the lack of money. Some even sent letters to Kathleen Blee, dean of the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences and the College of General Studies, to try to advocate for more funding.

A spokesperson for Pitt said the budget cuts to the theater program were due to university-wide budget cuts.

“Pitt Stages’ operating budget has been reduced as a result of decisions made by the Dean’s office in response to ongoing University-wide budget cuts made over the past two fiscal years (FY21 and 22). These reductions were not related to COVID, ”they said.

Pitt adjusted his budget throughout the pandemic, including two cuts in the 2020-2021 budget – one permanent at around 3.7% and one temporary at around 5%. Pitt reinstated the temporary 5% budget cut this year, but officials noted a permanent 1% cut was applied this year to “balance the budget while continuing to support pay increases for faculty and staff, as well as other key initiatives.”

Martin also said the funding cuts reduced the ability of the program to provide certain services, such as ASL interpretation for shows. Pitt cut the theater department’s funding for ASL performance by 65%, she said.

“We would typically have five shows with one night of offers performed in ASL for the public,” Martin said. “We had to cut four, so four of our five shows this semester won’t have those services available.”

Martin said the budget cuts also limit the amount of training, in areas such as set design and lighting, the department can give students.

“Our overall production and operations are tough,” Martin said. “We had to minimize the sets so that the students who learn to design sets and build sets work with much less materials and work in conditions that won’t necessarily give them the best training and the best opportunity to be competitive. in a market. “

Shamus Bonner – a major junior in the performing arts and president of Pitt’s USITT chapter, a technical theater organization – said cuts to the production budget dramatically decrease the opportunities for theater students and limit the practical resources they can access.

“The budget goes entirely to our productions,” Bonner said. “The only thing that is affected by this budget is the budget we have for sets, costumes, lighting and sound, and the ability to hire outside artists to come and direct the shows. [and] design the shows. Which is a great learning opportunity for a lot of people here as it gives us the chance to work with people who are not just our teachers.

Martin also said she believes the program will most likely be smaller in the future, due to funding cuts.

“Smaller. It looks smaller,” Martin said. “We’re doing less with less… what that really means is we’re able to give students fewer opportunities.”

During the pandemic, Bonner said hold shows virtually made it difficult for students to gain hands-on production experience.

“It was really tough, because for a lot of tech students in particular, you don’t have the same opportunities to work with lighting and sound and everything,” Bonner said.

Annmarie Duggan, the acting chair of the department, said it was difficult to get productions back on track after being shut down for more than a year.

“Our spaces have been inactive for 18 months,” said Duggan. “Which in itself poses challenges as we prepare. “

Now that classes return to in-person instruction this semester, Martin said the budget cuts directly affect the quality and accessibility of classes and credits in the department, which students in the theater program must take to earn their degree. diploma.

“Slowness and rehiring and reassigning positions is a huge challenge as we are supposed to meet the same number of training course requirements, which includes our production,” said Martin. “Our production, a lot of students take it for credit… everyone is stretched very thin to make what is still possible, possible, for the students.”

Bonner also said the budget cuts will ultimately reduce the department’s production capacity.

“Smaller shows, maybe even fewer shows per year,” he said. “There is just a certain amount of money that needs to be allocated to everyone.”

Duggan said she was hopeful about the prospects for Pitt Stages productions in the future.

“The bottom line [is] we just have to think smaller than before the pandemic and find creative ways to problem solve and create our work, ”said Duggan. “Yes [the] budget [does] not return to pre-pandemic levels, [we] will have to assess the scope on which we can produce with the resources at our disposal. “

Going forward, Duggan plans to reassess and adjust the operations of the department as part of budget cuts, and also hopes that the theater program will be appreciated more for its space in the community.

“If these cuts stay, we’ll have to rethink the model we’re working on,” Duggan said. “The arts are an important part of any higher education institution. Theater Arts at Pitt is a small but powerful department. Hope this will be seen and appreciated as funding becomes available.

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