What Price Idealism, or Who You Gonna Dance With?
Is not gold the measure of genius?—Salvador Dali to Allen Ginsberg (as told by Julian Beck)
One of my all-time favorite play titles is Christopher Durang’s ‘dentity Crisis. It’s minimalist genius: the personal crisis, the dropped “I.” Well, it’s ‘dentity crisis time in the not-for-profit theatre, but this time the “I” that got dropped stands for ideals or, maybe, idealism. It stands for impulse, as in the original one, and individual, as in individual aesthetic, the thing that makes it possible to distinguish one institutional theatre from another, which is now a bit like taste-testing brands of milk. In fact, to read Diane Ragsdale’s air-clearing report on a 2011 confab between producers from America’s commercial and not-for-profit worlds, the “I” fell off somewhere back In the Intersection, that crossroads where the art theatre meets the money one.
The not-for-profit ‘dentity crisis is no news, despite periodic hot flashes of denial and indignation from LORT. What’s news in Ragsdale’s probing, evenhanded, remarkably nuanced summation are the admissions it contains. We overhear many institutional leading lights of this generation—Oskar Eustis (The Public Theater), Mara Isaacs (McCarter), Jim Nicola (New York Theatre Workshop), Molly Smith (Arena Stage), Tony Taccone (Berkeley Rep)—agreeing (in substance, if not details) with the eternal not-for-profit purist Robert Brustein, founder of Yale Rep and the American Repertory Theatre. We watch as they quote at exhilarating length from that constant beacon of the artistic alternative, Arena founder Zelda Fichandler, as Molly Smith sums up Fichandler (by way, I think, of agreement): “Broadway: no.”
We witness the confessions of Gregory Mosher, former artistic director of and, with executive director Bernard Gersten, raiser from the dead of Lazarus-like Lincoln Center Theater circa 1980s. Back in ’88 Mosher famously did battle with then-commercial theatre wunderkind (now ex-NEA chair) Rocco Landesman, after Landesman, in the pages of the New York Times, challenged Mosher and Gersten for chasing success at the expense of the holier grails of the American art theatre (“What Price Success at Lincoln Center?”). Landesman warned then that the “shocking, disturbing, and challenging work so vital to our culture would recede, inevitably, into the back of the repertory.” He chided that “while the middle of the road might be a path to success, the theatre might become a less exciting and ultimately less important place as a result of following that path.” Now we catch Mosher turning to Landesman twenty-three years later (this meeting happens in late 2011), and we hear him say those words that warm the cockles of selfish, truth-loving hearts everywhere: “You were absolutely right.”
Right he was, and it’s no longer just the hard-liners, outsiders, and alter cockers shouting the word from the mountaintops. It’s the heirs of Downtrodden Abbey, or what used to aptly be called the Regional, Resident, Repertory theatre, though none of those original R’s currently apply. It’s the guys—yes, mostly guys, all white, except for the playwrights brought in to diversify the table—it’s the guys on the ground today providing the critique, the ones still mission-crazy after all these years.
A major theme of our sixty-five-year-old not-for-profit boom, dating from roughly the foundings of Margo Jones’s Theatre ’47 and Nina Vance’s Alley Theatre in 1947, is the pushmepullyou relationship with Broadway. Jones, the great imaginer of a theatre in every major city, had affection for Broadway, even as she championed decentralization; most others had less affection for it. Fichandler lost her entire acting company to the Great (now and forever-)White Way when, in 1967, Howard Sackler’s The Great White Hope transferred there. (Did they ever return? No, they never returned.) TGWH started the opportunistic suck that became our theatrical equivalent of the Alaska Pipeline, drilling crude out of the regional ground, pumping it to Broadway, cleaning it up for the marketplace, and selling it to whoever will pay premium, regardless of how the practice (and dependence) degrades the source. The Guthrie team chose chilly Minneapolis in large part because it was so blessedly far from New York. Brustein fought the temptations of Broadway throughout his career as artistic director and critic (mostly for The New Republic). Even in his first season at Yale (1966), before Yale Rep was Yale Rep, he gave up on producing a Broadway-bound play by his friend Jules Feiffer, rather than compromise his fanatical (and, I suspect, then only half-understood because still untested) ideals.*
Let’s begin at the beginning. Here’s Fichandler from a recent speech. Impulse: “We looked at what we had—the hit-or-miss; put-it-up, tear-it-down; make-a-buck, lose-a-buck; discontinuous; artists-indifferent; New York-centered ways of Broadway, and they weren’t tolerable anymore, and it made us angry.” Ideals: “…We must take our gaze and any preoccupation away, away from Broadway, from which we took our leave many years ago. If they want what we discover, nourish, and perform, that’s OK [….]But Broadway must not invade our house and take over our home. Always: he who pays the piper pays the tune.”
Here we have it, at long last, frank and honest assessment from current generals in the field, and that assessment includes: loss of ideals, impulse amnesia, and lack of aesthetic distinction. In a nutshell: Identity Quagmire.
Brustein next. Ideals: “What I’m trying to say is that there are certain ideals that were constructed for the not-for-profit theatre […] We all deviate from the ideals—ideals are meant to deviate from. But you have to know what they are in order to deviate from them.” Individual aesthetic: “There was a time,” Brustein tells the conveners,
when we were different theatres, we did different things. We didn’t join together to do the same things to please the largest number, to bring in the greatest amount of money, and the greatest subscribers. We did, as a not-for-profit theatre, most of us did these things because nobody else would do them! […] Because Broadway wasn’t going to do them! And they needed a voice! They needed an outlet. They needed a stage.
Now compare and guess who said it: “It’s the mission of the not-for-profit that’s the danger right now. That’s the thing that’s being eviscerated.” Maybe you guessed Oskar Eustis. Or this one: “Now, listen, we’re here together [commercial and not-for-profit producers] because we were on two different ships, they both hit icebergs, and we both jumped into the same life raft….Is there a creative progressive place we can go together as a community, as a culture? Because individualism, fame, money, materialism lead one to another iceberg. But we all kind of need and want those things too; so it’s a really tricky road.” That’s Tony Taccone, coming up with the stickiest (sinking-est) metaphor of the convening, as well as one its most shocking—and therefore, important—admissions. When the idea was floated of countering mission drift with a joint declaration of values, the longtime Berkeley Rep paterfamilias (once, with Eustis, a young Turk leader of San Francisco’s Eureka Theatre) admitted: “The idea of just making the value statement at all feels radical.”
I was especially moved by this cri de coeur from Arena’s executive director Edgar Dobie, who started his career as a commercial producer: “…Our experiences in this intersection have been head-on collisions.” Dobie, after describing the struggle of bad partnerships in the commercial world, turns to the Broadway producers in the room and asks:
Do you know what that does? Do you know what that does to an institution? Do you know what that does to a staff? Do you know what it does to the respect that they have for the leadership? Do you know what that does to us? It’s appalling.
Here we have it, at long last, frank and honest assessment from current generals in the field, and that assessment includes: loss of ideals, impulse amnesia, and lack of aesthetic distinction. In a nutshell: Identity Quagmire. My heart leaps up, and not because I relish the trouble. It’s real bad out there. I relish the honesty. I believe, with the vast anonymous recovery community, that the first step of recovery is to admit you are powerless and your life (or that of your institution) has become unmanageable. And I’m not glibly turning to the language of addiction; I’m pulling it from the report itself, where practically everyone uses it.
Brustein, for example, on working with Broadway:
…You get the taste of it in your mouth and you want more of it. And gradually you’re growing out of your old commitment to a collective ideal, your idealism, and you’re becoming—essentially, whether you know it or not, you’re becoming a Broadway producer. And the big difference is that you’re trying to please an audience and make money rather than please a group of artists, and an audience who are part of that artist collective, and make art. And that distinction gets lost. And once that’s lost then we have this confusion of a misalliance between Broadway and not-for-profit.
Mosher, like a guy with a ten-years sober pin, testifies: “I’d put my left hand on Subscribe Now! and raised my right hand to God and Peter Zeisler and the Attorney General and said, ‘We’re here to produce Art!’” But when excellence led to commercial success, he continues, commercial success led to “bells and whistles,” “the cash and the prizes and all the bullshit that theatres tell their boards about to get them excited to go out and raise more money.” All of which, according to Mosher, become like a drug. Like all addicts, you “start living a lie,” Mosher explains.
You would lie to your artists by saying they were central, but in fact pay them terribly and expect them to be the main subsidizing force in the American theatre—probably in the American arts. And you would lie to your board. And you would lie to your audience [by chasing ‘success’ rather than excellence].”
Commercial producer Michael David offers up “the heroin of box office success.”
Like any addictive downward spiral, the cost increases and the original reasons for using get lost. Sue Frost (Memphis), who recently crossed over to the commercial realm after years at the Goodspeed Opera House, reminds the group that enhancement “morphed from ‘we could use a couple hundred thousand dollars to help us with orchestrations’ to ‘this will cost $2 million because we need to balance our budget.’”
In fact, addiction may be the overarching metaphor of Ragsdale’s report, and its use passes from speaker to speaker, even as its meaning shifts. The word “drug” appears something like forty-five times in the book. I’d argue we should take the metaphor seriously—instead of throwing it around like some hipster trope that gives our retro profession a whiff of dangerous intensity. Addiction leads to death. It’s pretty straight up. Or down. Addiction to that which doesn’t make you healthier makes you sicker. The fix fixes nothing. It makes you crave what you don’t need. It’s true for people; it’s true for systems; it’s true for cultures.
It’s too easy to paint the commercial gang as Times Square street corner dealers, handing out baggies of starry white powder to the strung out, ambitious art heads, tempting them into the garden of financial participation of good with evil. The guys with the moral problem to solve (the not-for-profits) are, of course, the protagonists here, but the Tempter is always the best role. (And the Scold is the biggest bore, I admit.) But, if Taccone’s iceberg/life raft analogy holds, this complicated morality play transcends the melodrama of good-versus-evil, which is why we need a thinker like Ragsdale to parse it.
This report is populated by some of the best Broadway producers around—Michael David, Margo Lion, Kevin McCollum, David Binder, Sue Frost. And they’re addicts, too. McCollum keeps reminding the assembled that, as much if not more than their not-for-profit counterparts, the Broadway babies are in it for love. “You’re talking about the money, but the sinewy material that keeps us all coming to this frustrating and glorious industry is we’re passion junkies.” They’ve gotta be. Even more than institutional artistic and managing directors, commercial producers stake their lives and livelihoods—and other people’s—on one and then another show they believe in enough to gamble on against terrible odds.
I do wish that Edgar Dobie would set the example for his fellow managers, just as I wish that the example of artistic directors coming clean here would inspire greater honesty field wide. Whenever these issues publicly raise their ugly heads, some LORT manager or another either starts denying they exist, attacking the people pointing out the problems, or worse, taking the self-congratulatory palliative line that we as a smart creative field—under the benevolent guidance of the large theatre leadership—will find a way. We haven’t found a way, and there’s no reason to believe, based on current practices (and the profound lack of self-criticism among the self-anointed field leaders) that we will. It’s only too easy in the “too big to fail” theatres to argue for bucking up a system that has betrayed its deepest values, while pretending to still be members of a rebel band of comrades.
Addiction leads to death. It’s pretty straight up. Or down. Addiction to that which doesn’t make you healthier makes you sicker. The fix fixes nothing. It makes you crave what you don’t need. It’s true for people; it’s true for systems; it’s true for cultures.
This year the Huntington’s Michael Maso chose the moment of being honored by the “field” at a Theatre Communications Group conference to cry “Bullshit!” on “those critics of our theatres who seem determined to drive a wedge between individual artists and institutions,” as if the institutional theatre hadn’t already done that by, for example, impoverishing those artists. Two years ago it was my friend Paula Tomei of the playwright-supportive South Coast Rep who found it necessary, on behalf of her less playwright-supportive colleagues, to attack the economic data of Outrageous Fortune (a study I led for Theatre Development Fund that collected, among much else, statistics on the earnings of playwrights) on the grounds that it was 1) old news and 2) that, in the qualitative, anecdotal piece of the research, we’d relied heavily on “anonymous” quoting, as if folks in our sadly untruth-telling community would chime in about the quality of playwrights’ lives if they were publicly named. As if playwrights were not still dependent on fiercely self-protective institutional theatres—notable for their wagon circling at the merest hint of whistle blowing—for their meager livings, a situation that does little to inspire an open airing of issues. (Maso made a similar case some years ago against an American Theatre article on designer fees, attacking the anonymity of sources, without the faintest acknowledgement that the designers had everything to lose by outing themselves when it was their employers they were complaining about.)
One of the slipperiest parts of this iceberg/life raft moment is the not-for-profit theatre’s version of what literary critics call “the intentional fallacy.” It goes like this: We are all, in the not-for-profit theatre, good people. We all care about art; that’s why we’re doing this hard, unappreciated work. No one’s getting rich at this. We are all just finding our way in this young field, in this hard, hard business. In other words, we have the best of intentions, so stop criticizing our actual practices. In other words—and I believe that almost all defensiveness in the not-for-profit theatre boils down to this—“We are doing the best we can, so don’t talk shit about us.”
I don’t, though, care about intentions, if the practices of our theatres impoverish and alienate the artists on whose backs they’re built. I don’t care about intentions of administrators if the work is boring and homogenous. I don’t care about how hard we work, if our work betrays bred-in-the-bones principles. Taking money from commercial producers, creating product for the commercial theatre, bringing people from the New York marketplace theatre in to meddle in the local, homegrown, not-for-profit art theatre, using commercial success as a lure for local patronage—these practices betray those principles. So do arguments that we can’t sustain or field acting companies, that co-productions are necessary for economic survival, that audiences won’t accept more challenging work, that it’s harder to run a theatre now than it was to found one when Mac Lowry at Ford was still passing out big checks. If theatres insist on dropping their identities “in the intersection,” funders should move on to smaller theatres—or even larger, still-on-mission ones (look at the wonderful example of the colossal Oregon Shakespeare Festival). Does this sound absolutist? Absolutely. Does this sound naively idealistic? So be it.
You can argue, as Christopher Ashley of La Jolla Playhouse does, that the vast majority of a theatre’s time is devoted to noncommercial work, to education, to community outreach, to the development of new work that no one else will see. You can argue, as he does, that Broadway is, for new work, the way to find an extended life and enter the theatrical canon. He’s correct about both. But the fact remains: the time and human energy spent on the development of commercial properties is time and energy not spent on fulfilling a mission, on the care and feeding of a theatre’s artistic identity (unless it’s that of a commercial/not-for-profit blend, which is ok, too, but then you shouldn’t be getting money desperately needed by the true pursuit of the art theatre ideals). The time the artistic director spends working on Broadway is time out of the community. The long hours working out commercial/not-for-profit partnerships are long hours not spent solving the problems of individual artists or figuring out how to rebuild acting companies or educating audiences about experiment and challenge. Every dollar spent off mission, every star cast, every regional theatre playbill that touts that theatre’s record moving shows to New York erodes the I in that theatre’s ‘dentity.
Whoever said you can’t serve god and mammon at the same time must have been an insufferable crank, but that doesn’t make the statement untrue. Or maybe it does, but would we really suffer so much by standing for a more idealistic theatre? Will we wish, on our deathbeds, that we’d been more pragmatic, that we’d made a few more compromises on behalf of the bottom line?
It’s not just individual theatres that have lost their voices. It’s the American art theatre as a whole. We’ve been making every argument—community development, economic impact, etc.—except the one in our genetic code. As Sheldon Cheney, the founder of Theatre Arts magazine in 1916 put it, “Idealism…may itself be put down as the first ideal of the art theatre.” If we don’t hold a place in this capitalistic culture for such idealism, for work that is play, for enterprise that lives and dies by the pursuit of truth and beauty, for company and collaboration and civic responsibility, for the local and the loving, for the distinct voice and the wild expressivity that needs a stage big enough to contain it, for something that George Cram (Jig) Cook, the pioneering spirit of the original Provincetown Players, called “the beloved community of life-givers”—if we don’t hold the space for just this kind of grandiose description of what we aspire to and do, we are not just up against the Taccone’s figurative iceberg. We’re sunk. Sunk in pragmatism. Sunk in striving for capital and celebrity and Times reviews and regional Tonys. Sunk in wanting to be everything but what we are: an idealistic alternative.
The not-for-profit theatre has cultivated our nation’s best talents—actors, playwrights, directors, designers. I don’t begrudge these artists commercial opportunities. Let them make bank on Broadway. Let them make their union weeks for health insurance. Let them be recognized and sell books and gather TV offers and movie deals and prize money. Let them phone home and have their families finally understand what they’re doing, because in America and around the globe the word “Broadway” communicates a value that “regional theatre” still can’t. Let our artists get the sustenance and attention and respect that the not-for-profit theatre has so negligently failed to provide.
But please let’s not further degrade the idealism those of us on the inside of institutions have inherited (I include myself, as the artistic director of a sixty-four-year-old company). If you run a theatre and want to do outside work in the commercial theatre, go for it. Your soul is yours to care for in any way you see fit. But the soul of your theatre is not yours for the selling. Care for the ideals of the art theatre—which are, in the end, its power and example and magnificent gift—has passed into our hands. Why would we let it slip through our grasping fingers?
The not-for-profit theatre is now essentially the same age as the Broadway theatre was when the not-for-profits got started. Our theatre has never burned as deeply into the psyche of American life in part because its artistic intentions are almost inexplicable in a capitalistic society. That’s still the job. To answer the still unanswered question: can a capitalistic society support art that isn’t commodity, a practice of art that is only secondarily commerce? To answer that question with an unflinching “yes!”
Oskar Eustis says it perfectly: “We’ve been creative and entrepreneurial and we’ve been brilliant and flexible and theatrical in the last thirty years, but adjusting to the marketplace. I think we also need to put a big foot down and say, ‘No, we’re not going to just adjust to the marketplace. We’re going to insist there’s something other than the marketplace.’” Funders should shake the money stick to encourage better, alternative, foundational practices. Eustis again:
What I feel like we are missing are strong, strident voices in the field, which I think could come from funders [or others…] to suggest not that there should be some legal punishment against not-for-profit theatres that violate—but that we’re going to attempt to steer as many rewards as possible to those theatres which are clearly manifesting in their work not-for-profit values…
I mean, it’s what Mac Lowry did! Mac Lowry got up on a soapbox and said there are certain things that should happen in this country and the Ford Foundation’s going to put its money behind it. We need to find as many people who have some resources, who have some belief in something other than the marketplace, to band together and try to figure out how we’re going to enforce that…
I agree with Landesman, too, that foundations and the NEA should cold turkey stop funding theatres that take any commercial money. (Yes, counter the language of addiction with terms of recovery!) These seem like radical proposals, but they’re only radical if you’re staring at the large institutional theatres and thinking they’re all we’ve got.
They’re not. There are dozens and dozens—hundreds—of theatres across the nation who are as wild-eyed, brave, hardworking, and idealistic as the Joneses, Fichandlers, Brusteins, and Papps were fifty years ago, who are as pure as they were, who keep companies, who pay themselves the same next-to-nothing as they pay their collaborators, but who make dazzling work and set dazzling examples. Their theatres are also decades old. You can find them in Bushwick, Brooklyn, and Blue Lake, California; from Whitesburg, Ohio, to rural Pennsylvania and Western Massachusetts. They march puppets through the streets of Chicago and the farms of Vermont, re-experiment with avant-garde classics in warehouses in Austin and garages in Soho. They throw new plays up in a weekend or rehearse them for years at a stretch. They are also true professionals. They are also leaders. They mess with distinctions of high, low, avant-garde, populist, community-based, contemporary and classical, subject and form. They—and the artists who populate them—are our national theatre, and they don’t take a buck from the other part of our national theatre, that part that we are still, in spite of sixty-year’s effort, known by around the world: Broadway. They deserve a different kind of enhancement, the enhancement of our attention, of funding, of acknowledgment that the ‘dentity crisis of some is not the ‘dentity crisis of all. They are still, as Fichandler and her pals were, “angry.” They are still fueled by the energy of the alternative.
According to legend, Robert Johnson met the devil at the crossroads and came away playing the blues guitar better than anyone ever. What has the not-for-profit theatre profited by selling its soul? Nothing but confusion of purpose, something that’s happened, not in one night at the stroke of twelve as with Johnson’s devil deal, but gradually, incrementally, until we have become unrecognizable, even to ourselves. Until we have almost convinced ourselves that the only thing we’re selling is tickets.
*In an irony celebrated by participants in Ragsdale’s report, Brustein wouldn’t have anything to do with the commercial theatre and, then, inadvertently started the whole blurry, codependent commercial not-for-profit thing by getting into bed with his former students (a figurative, collegial, artistic bed) Rocco Landesman and Michael David on the musical Big River. The show started at ART, moved to director Des McAnuff’s La Jolla Playhouse and then to Broadway, where it did brilliantly. Because their relationships were strong—including with librettist William Hauptmann (another former Brustein student)—and because they had never done anything quite like this, Landesman and David kept their hands off the Brustein production and Brustein/ART had nothing to do with the Broadway version, though the theatre got its three or four percent, as Brustein remembers. Their naïveté gives all of them a nostalgic kick, as Landesman recalls: “This was the worst deal we ever did.” To which Brustein exclaims, “I never knew it was a deal!” McAnuff was launched in the commercial musical business, though, as was La Jolla, where he was artistic director and remains affiliated.
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Yes, yes, and yes. The non-profit sector was created to support an alternative to the marketplace, but if you look at supply and demand over the trajectory of funding by, say, NYSCA and Ford, you will see that once there were funds enough to grow organizations. Now the demand has so outpaced demand, especially in public funding, that it has become a largely meaningless percentage of large and small unearned income. The larger more commercial organizations never "graduate" and so there is very little meaningful support to grow the cutting edge creativity. For decades we in funding have used a business rubric to measure non profit arts organizations and that has been a big part of he corruption of our mission-driven field. "Art" became a term interchangeable with product. (But let's give Susan Glaspell some credit for being Cook's partner and equal in leading the Provincetown Players, the Little Theatre Movement in NYC and seeding Off Broadway.)
Perhaps the American theater would be less "addicted" to Broadway lucre if we were more passionately engaged in fighting for the kinds of art we DO care about. And that has much less to do with "for-profit" versus "non-profit", or even with idealism, than it has to do with AESTHETIC. This is a word we never use because we think it's elitist and therefore BAD-- but what ultimately makes one theater different from another is the particular voice, aesthetic and taste of its artistic director. This is a hard thing to quantify or to understand-- it's easier in the dance world, for example, in which a season of work by Elizabeth Streb is going to look aesthetically very different from a season by Mark Morris. But the founders of the regional theater movement created extremely specific kinds of theaters to do the kind of work each was passionate about. That's what makes the whole thing worth perpetuating, but it's complex to sustain, given the governance and financial structures of the American non-profit theater. Our theaters are led by boards mostly comprised of individuals who have been successful in for-profit arenas, and are giving their time and resources to the theater on a volunteer basis. We ask them to make the toughest call of all, which is to hire the Artistic Director of their theater, but have been mostly completely remiss in giving them the tools to evaluate the artistry and work of the potential candidates. Given that TASTE and AESTHETIC are almost never discussed in our field, how are we empowering our boards to make a judgment about which artist best suits their own community and organization? Is it surprising that they keep hiring ADs with strong commercial resumes and deep ties to the kinds of celebrities that may help fill a theater? What other metric are they going to use? I have always been astonished and incredibly grateful that the A.C.T. Board of Directors is more interested in the quality and type of work on our stage than its commercial prospects-- somehow they always knew that I had very particular tastes and passions, and were willing to stand behind them. Certainly the good news is that we have managed to make a go of it at ACT for many years without celebrity casting or more than a small handful of commercial engagements, in part because we have been fierce about fighting for the work we love and in part because the Bay Area is a particularly open audience. The price of our commitment to our own aesthetic has been virtually no coverage in the New York Times and much less attention from foundations who benchmark success according to how many shows have transferred to New York. It has always made me sad that we have been able to send show to Europe or across Canada, but that registers nary a blip on the New York "buzz" barometer. But in the long run, that is a small price to pay for the gift of doing the kind of work we deeply believe in, and committing to that journey with our audience over many years. The artistic control issue is a real one: if you care about your audience, you have to take responsibility for the highs and the lows, for the risk that pay off and those that fail, and that is far more difficult to do when you have handed control to someone else. On the other hand, if there is a commercial venture that feels consonant with the aesthetic of the organization and the AD has some measure of control over its destiny, it may turn out to be the right choice to make.
In the end, what seems important is what kind of mark you want your theater to make IN THE LONG TERM. And that has to do with the values and artistic choices you make: are you going to have an acting company? Are you going to continue to sustain classical theater? Are you going to break the form and test out non-linear or non-verbal work? Are you most interested in multicultural or international voices? What kinds of new work resonate? These are the critical questions we should be asking. If we did, the conversation would be SO much more interesting!
This is an incredibly thoughtful, thorough, passionate and decisive piece, Todd! And I hope that unlike the dozens (hundreds?) of similarly-themed outcries that have emerged over the past several years, this one leads to actual change.
For my part, I think we need to move past the vilification of the big regional theaters, and stop expecting them to embrace a paradigm shift. There are simply too many internal (Board) and external (funders) forces that put a premium on commercial success and growth.
Let us instead lead a national conversation that puts those who DO uphold the ideals of theatre-making in the center, instead of continuing to reinforce the commonly accepted wisdom that bigger is better. Let us find ways to better support those theaters that ARE genuinely mission-driven, so that they can not only survive, but thrive going forward. Let us find ways to educate institutional funders, so that they do not fall back on lazy assumptions about the largest "leading" theaters, when many of those once-trailblazing institutions have not been leading for decades. Let us find ways to educate artists (particularly playwrights) about the wealth of mission-driven, risk-taking midsize and smaller theatres throughout the country that often languish in the shadows of the large regional theaters. And finally, let us find a way to wean theaters and their audiences off the New York Times-as-de-facto-artistic-director mindset.
Todd's assessment here and in Outrageous Fortune, along with findings in Diane's book and other sources, are sobering indeed. But change is not likely to come by way of the largest theaters among us embracing an about face. Change is going to come by way of a shift in attention AWAY from them and onto those who are committed enough to the ideals we all cherish, yet nimble enough to remain flexible and progressive.
Thank you, Todd. I love this and will meditate on it frequently.
For me, the “I” this most makes me think of is INSOMNIA. As in the thing that’s kept me up at night for two decades now whether working on Broadway (Margo Lion), in upstart Off-Broadway (Epic Theatre
Ensemble), and now in the rural/suburban/urban intersection of LORT D People’s Light.
I love your Alaskan pipeline metaphor and completely agree with your call for change within the funding community. It’s imperative they strongly support individual artists/ensembles and representatives of the full-mission ecosystem over those established but drifting Titanics. Where I toss and turn, however, is in the intersection between organizations truly attempting to fulfill their pro-social impulses and intentions and the rapid changes in funding away from general operating support. As you know, the result of this shift towards project-specific funding may spur some vital innovation and occasionally offer artists a more central role in project leadership, but it also dramatically increases the premium on the individual donor and the individual ticket-buyer for the long-term sustainability of many worthy theatres. The impulses of these coveted individuals, however, are understandably influenced by our hyper-capitalistic, hyper-personalized, expect-the-perfect-fit
I-Culture. Their mission too often is: “Me”. So… per your essay’s subtitle, I have to offer: when the dance floor is filled with sludge and manure, it may be difficult to focus too much on whether we’re waltzing with the wrong partners.
I agree with you that the value of Art Theatre cannot be measured in income, but rather in impact -- and not some generic catch-phrase “impact” sweeping the nation, but rather the intimate, passionate, intricate, probing, delicate, and delicious two-way exchange possible between a specific creation and the specific contemplators it’s designed to challenge, celebrate, confuse, or cuddle. We know this (thank you, “Counting Beans”!). At the same time we also know the Diaspora of Matchmakers who populated the nation over the past fifty years with a driving dedication to introduce and integrate artists into communities with whom their work may resonate now more than ever must certainly
measure their impact with numbers: the digits on bottom lines of budgets for Board Members, the metrics of reach and reliability in grant applications. The Institutions constructed to house these matchmakers and the dating/marriage services they provide cannot sustain or grow simply from the fuel of passion or idealism. Brave dedication to one’s originating vision and mission may prove
self-destructive in the face of 30% increases in health insurance costs, the demise of public funding, and the elimination of arts in the schools.
Like education or air quality, Art Theatre cannot function like a commodity for the marketplace and is damaged when treated as one. At the same time Art Theatre cannot assume it will be supported just because its existence represents a social value or ideal. It must embody, elevate, and share these ideals in ways that have deep, practical meaning and function for a variety of populations in our overwhelmed nation. This is not just up to LORT leaders to demonstrate and achieve. It is also up to individual artists to show every day in the civic curiosity and vitality of their work. It is up to our training programs. It is up to our funders. It is up to arts journalists and critics. It is up to pragmatists and idealists. We all must put on some smart padding and wrestle with each other with love, anger,
compassion, and might, or else we will lose grasp of this great endeavor even more than we already have. Todd, you’re an Olympian at this and I like your attire. I’m curious to see who’ll now get on their gear.
If we're going to decry the monetary compensation of artists along with accepting commercial backing, do we have any suggestions as to where else the money might come from to support playwrights and designers and other artists? Perhaps we should also disparage the Unions for negotiating such low fees for artists in the first place. And if we're doing it all for capital-A Art, why should we require any money at all? Isn't the satisfaction and love of the art its own reward?
There are people who constantly strive to find a solution to these presented problems -- and even have some wonderful success stories to show for all their soul-selling. But at least they are attempting to find a solution. While I understand the disparaging of the term "Broadway," I don't see any alternative solutions being offered.
If we insist instead on navel-gazing towards some unattainable Utopian ideal, well, then what's the point of making any art at all? We can talk all night about how to create perfect art, but when you put into practice, it makes things a lot more difficult. That's why we continue to create, and attempt to find new ways to communicate. By doing, by actively trying to find a way to do better every day, rather than simply declaring that something else isn't good enough without offering anything better.
As a designer, I can respond to what you’ve written from the fairly unique perspective of having worked in all of these venues – the uncompromising, mission-centric companies, the big regionals dreaming of transfers, and Broadway itself.
The companies that have struck me as hewing most strongly to their formative missions all seem to stay conscious of Ram Dass's advice, to “Be Here Now.” That, in and of itself, is the common thread in the warp and woof of Lucidity Suitcases’ experimental works, Interact’s focus on plays that confront politics and SoHo Rep’s embrace of writers wrestling with how words work onstage. When companies like these, having chosen shows or seasons that serve their missions, then focus on the creation of each specific production in the exact present circumstances, they are most able to create work with integrity. Needless to say, dreams of commercial transfers are entirely antithetical to this kind of focus.
I do feel it's important to acknowledge that this does not necessarily mean that these companies are succeeding financially, as corporate entities. It does not necessarily mean that they are paying artists well, or investing in the long-term careers of those artists. And it rarely fulfills the structurally-focused rubrics sought by institutional funders. All it means is that they are doing what they set out to do.
If that is the pure metric of what makes independent theatre important, then Stanislovski’s notion of “being in the moment” for the moment of any given production's process may well be at the center of our hopes for non-commercial theater to last another 65 years in America.
This is great. Thank you Todd! And Diane.
Hard hitting and eloquent. For me the core of the issue was represented in this statement: 'Our theater has never burned as deeply into the psyche of American life in part because its artistic intentions are almost inexplicable in a capitalistic society. That’s still the job. To answer the still unanswered question: can a capitalistic society support art that isn’t commodity, a practice of art that is only secondarily commerce? To answer that question with an unflinching “yes!” So are we willing to respond with a yes? This takes deep soul searching. How can we make these 'inexplicable artistic intentions' more heard, felt, received, in such a way that creative and courageous action steps are taken? Do we really need to 'bottom out' for such discovery? On a side note I wish there would be a campaign for Regional Theatre to name it "The Great Rainbow Way.'
What an immense and important analysis. Thank you, Todd, for kicking at this stuff for ALL of us.
I started out in a LORT B theatre in the 1980s where we kept things on a steady but relatively upbeat high each season through the use of a prescription drug called subscribers. The price we paid for that drug was holiday musicals, last year's Off-Broadway hits and "balanced" offerings that chased riskier fare with spoons full of sugar.
The chains of cause and effect that led to this moment are complex, as you so eloquently point out, Todd, but I think we have to consider the mood stabilizers we've been addicted to for the last 35 years and ask what we may have sacrificed by cutting out all the highs and lows.
Great work! And there is much work going on in the trenches.Yes, we at Maryland Ensemble Theatre, in Frederick, MD have, over the past year, created (through our ensemble) a community based piece "I am NOT my Mother" that will see productions in Philadelphia and Baltimore; an adaptation of Antigone that has since been published, two children's theatre pieces, a remount of an original piece about 6 women in the Civil War, "Robin Hood, Occupy Sherwood," an episodic sci-fi comedy show "Laugh Station", and we premiere a collaborative ensemble farce tonight! All for a budget under $450k.
Thanks, Todd, for this great piece. And thanks for mentioning the hundreds -- really thousands -- of small theatre groups around the country who are passionately committed to the nonprofit ideal. Among Theatre Bay Area's 350 members, only a tiny handful are large enough to attract attention from Broadway producers (this must be true in cities across the country). The rest of our companies are more tempted by remounting NY hits -- Broadway and large Off-Broadway successes. This tendency makes smaller regional theatres the equivalent of presenters of off-prime time TV re-runs. At least the enhancement deals with very large theatres are forward-moving and generative. What can we do to wean smaller regional theatres away from the temptation to produce too many of last year's Tony nominee and towards programming that speaks distinctly to their own communities?
This article, every word of it, should be bronzed and hung in the lobby of every resident theater in the country. It's a superb summation of what has happened to the ideals of the not-for-profit theater movement and a daunting challenge to those who are in charge of it now. Well done, Todd.
I regret that I will be missing today's Weekly Howl. This subject arouses such yelps and bellows from me, nearly as much as the mess that is academic theatre.
Terrific piece, Todd. Let me add a little nuance. LCT chased artistic excellence, not commercial success. I mean, really, would you bet on a play that hadn't been produced for 20 years and cast a relatively unknown guy from Chicago as your lead, as we did with House of Blue Leaves, if you wanted to make money? Would you do Sarafina!, with it's forty-plus cast size and year-long rehearsal? Would you damage your relationship with major British writers, as I did, to focus on American playwrights? As the staff heard from me every day, LCT was not our press releases, our annual reports, our reviews or our awards; we were what happened at 8PM. Because we had no "season" we could focus only on productions that meant everything to us, and that would, we hoped, have value for our audiences. Directors decided how long they wanted to rehearse. We paid a little better, and our default setting was to say "yes" to the creative team. We didn't take a cut of the playwrights' royalties on future productions. To me, the longer rehearsals, better pay, and artist-centric theatre were the whole point. The weird thing was that this led quickly to extended runs, and annual budget of $45 million (close to $90 million is today's dollars). In 1988, Rocco and I were just young guys fighting for our respective organizations. He didn't want the nfp's using their "better" union and advertising deals in a Broadway context. At the time, I thought, "Hey, tough nougies, we're charging $10, so live with it." In hindsight, he seems to have intuited (as I didn't, because it wasn't on my radar) that that LCT's success was going to be like catnip, that theaters might start chasing the financial result, without having to double down on their commitment to artists. This is where he was absolutely right. As I noted at the conference, once you have the money and the awards, and the board starts to think you're smart because you're succeeding with an easy metric, that can be addictive. The great human rights advocate and playwright Vaclav Havel said that if you want a better world, you have to start with the truth and go from there. We may not all agree on what the truth is, but Havel is right that we have to try to understand it, and to act on what what we see, as Rocco did fearlessly and creatively during his time at the NEA. The leaders, both the established and as always the young, still obviously care deeply about a living American theatre. This discussion, long brewing, is going to be tonic.
Todd - this is gorgeous. Thank you for taking the time to both read the report and deliberate on it with such candor and might. I hope you will be participating in the Weekly Howl today - Tory and I will both be there. :-)
BTW, in doing my dissertation research, I recently came across a newspaper article, from 1992, describing a deteriorating situation at the Coconut Grove Playhouse under Arnold Mittelman's tenure. The article opens with a great line, "Like the village that surrounds it, the Coconut Grove Playhouse has lived to middle age in more-or-less constant tension, its stage the locus of a long tug of war between art and commerce, spiritual ideals, and materialistic forces."
How much ground we have ceded in this long tug of war ...
Charlotte's right. You've said it all. And your essay and Tory's are perfect complements.
You've said it all, Todd. I thank my stars every day that I have a company without a building and that our goal is to stay small and focus on doing the impossible.