Jeanmarie Simpson.

I served on a theater panel for the National Endowment for the Arts. When Greg Reiner, the NEA’s director of theater and musical theater, was getting the panelists up to speed, he shared the NEA’s deep concern about the lack of professional theater in two states: North Dakota and Nevada.

That makes sense for North Dakota. The population is small, largely rural, etc. Nevada, though? Our population is more than 3 million, and we are within easy driving distance of the Bay Area and Los Angeles.

For the last 40 years, I have harped on this string. I’m sure the people who know me are sick of hearing about it, but isn’t it time we got serious about having resident professional theaters in our beautiful, culturally rich state?

In Northern Nevada, we have several indie theaters in addition to institutions like the Reno Little Theater (87 years of programming) and Brüka (30 years of programming), not to mention the Brewery Arts Center and Piper’s Opera House.

Most area actors, directors, designers, stage managers, prop and set makers, costume makers, box-office personnel and concessionaires are volunteers. We have master directors, singers who blow us away, and actors who amaze us with their depth and detail, but Northern Nevada theater-makers spend the lion’s share of their budgets on rent and utilities. Are Reno theater-goers aware that the performers who pour their hearts out on those stages also worked 40-hour weeks at what we call “regular jobs”?

Paid, professional theater artists and technicians elsewhere have 40-hour theater work weeks rather than rehearsing after work. In addition to living wages, they also have health insurance, a pension and worker’s compensation. As performers, they can put the bulk of their time and energy into polishing their performances. Their work contributes significantly to the artistic landscape of the country. Nevada’s children deserve to live in such a culture.

Imagine your jaw-droppingly talented neighbor staying in town rather than moving to New York, Chicago, Seattle, San Francisco, Denver or Dallas, or dedicating their time to their craft rather than selling insurance during the day and volunteering at night.

Society is in a liminal phase—a post-pandemic era, and a Black Lives Matter era that thankfully has shattered the status quo in myriad ways, especially in entertainment and the arts. For the first time ever, the Actors’ Equity Association, the union of American actors and stage managers, has open enrollment. Hundreds of regional theater artists can join through May 1.

Are Reno theater-goers aware that the performers who pour their hearts out on those stages also worked 40-hour weeks at what we call “regular jobs”?

Meanwhile, the Lear Theater stands empty. What’s wrong with this picture? In 1994, when the Lear Theater conversation began, the region’s theater artists were excluded from all but a few crumb-throwing exercises. Rather than pulling together the community, the now long-dead Theater Coalition set us up in competition with each other.

I submit that we are ready to pull together and be the change we need to see. We can and must evolve, with professional theater as a dazzling touchstone at the heart of our priceless, exquisite region.

Jeanmarie Simpson trained in Toronto in the 1970s. Over the past four decades, she has directed, written and performed in hundreds of professional plays in regional theaters, stock companies and tours in 53 countries worldwide. She moved to Nevada in 1978 and founded the Nevada Shakespeare Company in 1989. She is a member of the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society and the Dramatists Guild of America. She is a retired (vested and pensioned) member of Actors’ Equity Association and Screen Actors Guild/AFTRA.

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