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Does Size Matter?

There have been many an article, missive, blog, and rant, even a graduate thesis in recent years about how most of Americas’ largest theatres have become corporatized behemoths lacking any kind of real commitment to taking artistic risks, representing cultural diversity on stage and off, cultivating younger and more diverse audiences, etc. In fact, almost any conversation about the professional theatre, as a field, ends up referring to that small handful of once-revolutionary theatres that have succumbed to the forces of the marketplace, and are now producing cookie-cutter seasons that include a Shakespeare, a musical, a modern American or European classic, a regional premiere of a recent Broadway hit, and maybe, maybe a new play by a not completely unknown writer that the theatre is hoping will be the next major American playwright.

These conversations—some public, most private—are especially common among playwrights, and the resentment and outrage that are expressed is palpable. The sentiment is essentially “If only these twenty-five major theatres would change their ways, our field would be much healthier, and we would be much happier.”

Underlying that sentiment are two assumptions: (1) that if all those theatres really did commit to producing plays by lesser known and more diverse writers, American playwrights would be appeased; and (2) that those major, flagship theatres are leading our industry down a dreary path toward homogenization and corporatization, and that we need them to change course in order for the American Theater to not just survive, but thrive.

With regard to the first assumption, even if all the largest theatres did produce more new plays, only a handful of playwrights—those happy few who get produced—would feel appeased. Because the numbers of playwrights will continue to exponentially dwarf the number of production opportunities.

With regard to the second assumption, expecting these major, flagship theatres to voluntarily alter their programming and operational practices, or close shop, is ludicrous. What playwrights really want is for those largest theatres to take artistic risks, produce new plays by lesser known writers, engage artists and audiences of color, etc. yet stay the same size, so that the paycheck and prestige remain just as worthwhile. That would be akin to living composers asking the major orchestras around the country to stop programming Beethoven, Mozart and Tchaikovsky in favor of works by twenty-first century composers; the simple economic reality is that the orchestras would all go out of business in a heartbeat.

The conversation we need to be having is how we can educate and galvanize audiences, donors, funders, critics, agents, and other power brokers in our field to not automatically equate value or leadership with size; to not automatically reward theatres according to size; to not assume that the quality of the art has to do with size of the institution.

With some notable exceptions, these major, flagship theatres haven’t been leaders in anything other than size for quite a long time. And that constantly referring to them as the default leaders of the American Theater, or even tacitly implying they are such by not mentioning any other theatres which are, in fact, embracing the kind of programming that playwrights yearn for, is precisely what we need to stop doing. We even need to stop referring to the major, flagship theatres as “major,” “flagship,” etc.

At the same time, we need to stop demonizing this class of theatres for doing exactly what their substantial audiences, powerful boards, and major institutional funders are rewarding them for doing: Being large. When the only thing you are leading in is size—of budget, staff, and especially audience—bigger really is the only better.

The conversation we need to be having is how we can educate and galvanize audiences, donors, funders, critics, agents, and other power brokers in our field to not automatically equate value or leadership with size; to not automatically reward theatres according to size; to not assume that the quality of the art has to do with size of the institution; to not assume that change can only occur from the “top” down (since history has shown us that change so often occurs from the “bottom” up).

Hard as this may be for most playwrights to stomach, the overwhelming majority of America’s theatregoers are choosing to spend their money and time at large theatres that offer fairly predictable seasons. These hundreds of thousands of patrons are mostly middle-aged and older, upper middle- and upper-class, and white. They find familiar titles and playwrights, proven classics, and New York Times-approved offerings to be comforting and appealing and reliably worth their investment. They are not clamoring for new plays. They are not clamoring for greater diversity on stage. They are not clamoring for greater artistic risk. So why should the large theatres that serve these audiences change? What incentive is there, really, for them to do anything fundamentally different?  

We should let the field’s largest theaters do what they’re doing, and even be grateful that they serve the field in the way they do: by being large.

How can we, for example, get the estimated 10–15,000 playwrights in the US to refocus their attention on the vast number of genuinely enterprising, generally more risk-taking, new play-friendly, diversity-embracing, younger audience-attracting midsize and smaller professional theatres?

 

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The success of Permanent Collection by playwright Thomas Gibbons was driven by a collaborative network of small and mid-sized theatres—The National New Play Network. (Visual history provided by HowlRound's open source, community-edited New Play Map.)

When I read Outrageous Fortune, I was struck by how often playwrights referred to the same handful of very large theatres when bemoaning their production opportunities; as if their career success was entirely tied to the class of theatres which, collectively, premiere only a handful of plays each year (and a good many of those premieres are by already established playwrights). There are two factors at work here: First, most playwrights don’t know who all of those midsize (and especially smaller) theatres are; in part, because they are never part of the conversation. They are not referred to in books like Outrageous Fortune, or almost any of the articles, blogs, rants, etc., about the field, despite the fact that they represent the largest percentage of TCG members, by far. Second, there is little incentive to find out who they are because (in the playwright’s mind) if they’re that small and unknown, they probably aren’t going to leverage one’s career.

Playwrights are trying to make a living like everybody else, and it’s obviously a lot easier to make a living if you get produced at a $10–15M LORT theatre than a $750K small professional theatre. The royalties from a single production at the former could be upwards of $50–75K, sometimes much higher; whereas the royalties at the latter are likely to be $3–5K. In other words, a playwright would need productions at ten to fifteen small theatres to make the same amount of money.

Imagine a world in which a $750K theatre offers a 12–15 percent royalty, or even 20 percent, instead of the standard 5–8 percent. Suddenly, it would only take three such productions to generate $20–25K; five could generate $35–40K.

How do we go about attacking this problem?

I would like to suggest that we try to make a collective, sustained effort to (1) educate playwrights about the legions of midsize and smaller theatres that are more likely to be receptive to new work, (2) create ways, like the National New Play Network’s newest program, The New Play Exchange, for like-minded theatres and playwrights to find each other with greater ease and at minimal cost, (3) engage literary agents and the largest institutional funders in how they can better support midsize and smaller theatres so that those theatres can, in turn, support playwrights at a significantly higher level, (4) stop wasting our time demonizing the largest theatres, and (5) start celebrating those midsize and smaller theatres that are actually taking risks by regularly producing new plays.

Instead of rewarding the largest theatres for being large, funders could more substantially reward midsize and smaller theatres for being committed to youth, diversity, and innovation. Instead of holding plays hostage for longshot deals at big theatres, agents could work to get handfuls of midsize and smaller theatres to commit to rolling world premieres. Instead of leading off every season preview with what the largest theatres are producing, theatre critics and writers could organize their lists by criteria other than size, like, say, the intrigue of the individual play. Instead of waiting for that all-or-nothing offer from the big theatre for a career-launching world premiere production, playwrights could build actual relationships with multiple midsize and smaller theatres across the country.

Playwrights need to wean themselves off of the grossly unrealistic thinking that being discovered, validated, or launched by a large theatre is the best, only, or most likely way to forge a successful career. Failing to do so will all but guarantee a lifetime of bitterness, resentment, and disappointment. At the same time, we need to work together, as a field, to improve the economics for new plays and playwrights.

Concerns continue to deepen around income inequality and America’s eroding middle class. The wealthiest few at the top have unprecedented power and influence, while the overwhelming majority of Americans are struggling harder to make ends meet. The same holds true in the professional theatre industry, albeit to a less extreme degree. We need to reframe the conversation around the vast middle class of theatres—those organizations that have been around for long enough to prove themselves worthy, but are still small and nimble enough, by choice, to embrace diversity and artistic risk. And we need playwrights to be at the front line of this conversation.

Real change, systemic change rarely, if ever, comes from the top down. And so it is with our field. Let’s get this revolution going.

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More importantly than trying to generalize audience by age or race, or at all, what is critical is the idea that the distribution of wealth within all the arts, and in theater in particular is critical for the art of theater to thrive. Playwrights, funders, small theaters must work together to build the lives we all want, to produce great work and be able to live off our work.

I think playwrights are already doing it and even mid-sized theaters are ignoring their contribution. Mike Lew and his wife are mentioned- they are self producing playwrights who have really made a vital impact in their work and with their company in NY. Myself and Jennifer Fawcett have done the same with Working Group Theatre. Dano Madden in NY has also begun producing high level work with a company. We are all alumni of the NNPN. It is often mentioned that playwrights need to do this or that- and lots of people have advice for us- I feel it's somewhat backwards. Playwrights are already leading those conversations and doing great things. Theaters still tend to ignore it. Jenn and I have found ourselves leaving regional theater as a whole more and more and working with large Performing Arts Centers because 1.) the money is better. And a huge 2.) they trust us. They give us money up front as a commission and a guarantee of production. The brave midsized theaters won't do this, even ones we have relationships with or know our track record. And the little secret is they'd benefit from it. We've seen on the Performing Arts Center circuit- the shows we make (political, rough around the edges, viciously acted) sell. We receive unheard of return engagements. However, where we started and called home (the small to midsize theaters) are often dismissive. It almost feels like they want you to be an intern. So, I don't think it's just the playwrights. I think even mid level theaters, if they are in it for the progression of the form and not merely the survival of their institution (because that obsession for survival comes from fear and eradicates true risk), need to look at themselves and how they produce. Co-productions? Creating long running relationships between new writers and communities (not just one off world premieres and we never engage with this writer again)? Playwrights on staff? Mike's ideas of smaler production budgets and more productions (which is something Joe Papp did that helped make the Public, THE PUBLIC)? There is a curation that mid-level theaters don't always embrace in their make up- I think JD's mention of BAM, Abrons Arts, the Flea is interesting. Those companies thrive. They create relationships between their artists and their communities. They engage new voices in really intriguing ways. I wish regional theaters were more interested. Some of those venues mentioned have gone out of their way to contact me and my company unsolicited to find out about our work. I can't say the same for regional theaters. They aren't hunting in the same and with a glut of writers from schools and elsewhere each year probably don't feel they need to be. But what's the conversation about? Just productions? Or progression? Sign me up for progression.

Sean, you know I applaud the efforts of any and all playwrights who take matters into their own hands. You are certainly a trailblazer in that effort, and it is gratifying to see you rewarded for that effort. But as you know, not all playwrights are wired to self-produce, or perform/tour their work. Some playwrights (I would argue most playwrights) just want to write a play and have someone else produce it. You are also right to point out that some midsize and smaller theatres behave similarly to larger theatres, both as institutions and in their relationship to playwrights. Part of that is the simple numbers game; there are thousands of playwrights, tens of thousands of plays, and only so many hundreds of productions, even in the best of times. We may have eight plays we love in a given year, but we can still only produce four. Those four playwrights might think we're rejecting them, but it's often not that simple. Mike Lew's suggestion is that theatres produce more plays with less emphasis on high production values.

This is terrific, Seth. As someone who has worked on Broadway, co-founded a small Off-Broadway company, and now is part of the leadership of a midsize regional theater, it's clear to me that creative leap-taking is not the province of a particular size or scale of producing entity. Whether it is Margo Lion working with George Wolfe and Savion Glover, Epic Theatre Ensemble collaborating with Sarah Ruhl and Nilaja Sun, or People's Light joining forces with our six New Play Frontiers playwrights, the most meaningful leaps -- be they artistic or civic -- take place when there is rigor, care, and commitment between artists and producers. There is something Thelma and Louise about it, but hopefully without the bullets, burning cars, and pending death. For this reason, I echo your emphasis on the need for playwrights, their/our representatives, and their/our advocates to become more fluent in the numerous smaller and midsize theaters renowned for their partnership skills more than their budgets; for new play coalitions like NNPN to continue to champion their shared qualities and strengths; and for service organizations like TCG to lobby funders to take greater notice and invest more significantly in what you call the middle-class of our ecosystem. Key to this is the ability to support playwright travel, so that writers can go around the country meeting these organizations, seeing their work, and encountering their surrounding communities. I remember being 20, reading the Dramatist Sourcebook, and fantasizing about visiting the many fascinating smaller theatres listed with their distinct missions and considerations. I imagine there are many writers today who share that fantasy, but don't know how to underwrite their excursions.

Great read. I'm an early-career playwright, so obviously I'm tweaked by the thinking here. I was wondering, Seth, if you could cite a few examples of smaller and midsize theaters that, in your mind, serve the function of active new-play producer. I feel fairly plugged-in, but if most playwrights don't know about them...I'm based in Chicago, so are you talking about a Victory Gardens? A TimeLine?

Also, Outrageous Fortune is just a dour and depressing book (partially, I think, due to the authors seeking a confirmation of their hypothesis that things suck in this country), and since you brought it up, I wanted to pop on here a counterarticle published in AT, about new plays in Britain. The most useful revelation is that Britain's theaters have over the years successfully cultivated a theatergoing public interested in new plays; and theaters are much more invested in production, vs. workshops and perfecting a play. Most "LORT"-sized NFP theaters in Britain are, wonderfully, actively committed to producing new plays—and their audiences meet them halfway. http://www.tcg.org/publicat...

Robert. One of the challenges in our field has been that playwrights don't know who the midsize and smaller theatres are in other cities than the one they live in. Victory Gardens is probably known by a lot of playwrights in other places, but I'd bet that most theatres smaller than VG are not known at all outside of Chicago. There are proponents of the British approach here in the States. My friend and colleague (and terrific playwright) Mike Lew is a proponent of theatres doing more productions with less emphasis on high production values.

I agree with your premise, Seth, that smaller companies are important in creating change. As a theater-goer who enjoys the visions created by the excesses of money available to the big Broadway houses, but prefers the smaller venue like InterAct with its sometimes edgier work, I am shocked and disappointed when I hear occasional theater-goers equate big production musicals as the definition of theater. I wonder how to reach them and increase their appreciation of the broader theater experience, thereby increasing audience numbers in the mid and smaller theaters which are tasked with fomenting this change.In any event, thanks for the discussion and the fine work you do.

I think you raise thoughtful points here, as a means of opening and continuing dialogue. Many playwrights are very interested in rolling premieres; it's a great idea that allows for longer lives for plays. Hopefully the NPN will bridge the gaps between theaters seeking plays and plays seeking productions.

This is a great conversation. I agree that the bottom-up revolution is likely the way any substantive change will occur around this issue. However, having run a small regional theatre with just over a $500K budget, I can tell you that the razor thin margins on which we produced work would be inhibited by an increase in royalties as you suggest. That percentage of increase could cost as much as $3k-$7k (or 200-350 additional tickets per run, or 20-35% more butts in seats).

It seems that the "twenty-five largest theatres" are being put forth as the economic standard of your article, when in reality there are dozens or hundreds more of us operating on much smaller budgets. We are, in fact, the industry standard and those occasional royalties in the amount of $75k+ from the largest theatres should viewed as the special cases - bonuses even. The onus for this shift lies in some way with all of us (theatres of all sizes, audiences, donors, playwrights, etc), but I do not believe that asking for more money from the smallest and most tenuously situated of us is the best prescription.

Just to be clear, I am not in any way suggesting that smaller theatres should voluntarily embrace higher royalties without any ability to sustain such an increase. I am suggesting that, on this front, we need to engage funders to support such increases to smaller theatres so that playwrights and their agents look to us as a destination, rather than a fallback. Without subsidy, this can't and won't happen; but with subsidy, this could have a huge impact on the field.

Seth, thanks for the response. This leads me to several other questions: why is your first or at least most prevalent thought presented here to start with the education of funders? Or, why do you turn outward toward the external players first instead of turning the question inward toward the artists and their employees (the agents) involved to create a better model, and then go and seek the funding based on a proven track record?

A group of thoughtful playwrights engaging with thoughtful agents could very quickly make this shift in their practice. Playwrights who seek only the larger productions will encourage agents to seek the same on their behalf. Changing that approach alone could begin turning this tide rather quickly. Instead of maximizing dollars per production, why not work on simply maximizing the number of people who see your piece produced regardless of venue? This may not serve to make a playwright as much money, but it would make their work more widely known, expose more people to their artistry, and over the course of a career should have a positive net impact on their income, as well as their agent's.

I am a huge fan of NNPN and the rolling world premiere and my theatre was an associate member. Once that trend starts moving more toward the rolling world premiere model, and more frequent but perhaps lower paying productions, the funders will follow assuming the quality is what is expected.

Again, I'm not questioning the need for holistic change and for everyone to come to the table, but it seems to me that we need a better model in order to attract more money, and that starting with educating the funders is a top down approach and not a bottom up revolution.

Eric. You make great points. I certainly didn't mean to suggest that this "revolution" starts with funders. You are absolutely right that in order for funders to get on board, the need must be established by theatres and artists. The questions, from my standpoint, are (1) how do we go about making the case? and (2) what are theatres and playwrights willing to do (not only in terms of collectively making their voices heard, but what sacrifices and/or compromises are we willing to embrace in order to get to a better model)?

Brandon. I couldn't agree more, and I think that is going to change. Along with the systemic problems in the producing world, there are systemic problems in the development world as well, like onerous entry fees, no common applications for summer conferences/festivals, and no (or ridiculously low) pay for actors. Have you looked into the New Play Exchange yet? Our hope is that NPX will ultimately replace the "submission" model.

Thank you Seth for bringing such an uncomfortable subject up for discussion. As someone who works at a small/medium sized theater, I have found playwrights uncannily open to leveling down from those largest of theatres, when it comes to accepting commissions and the resource limitations of our company. Their collegiality and creativity makes it to our table completely undiminished. The promise of production likely is still king in the minds of emerging and established playwrights, and that is a challenge institutions like ours readily accept. It would be lovely if the financial recognition of that work was stronger in order to better support playwrights and their collaborators on those most central of endeavors to our field, the development of new plays.

The contributed income question is significant. While some of the Mellon residencies are clearly happening in the smaller theatres mentioned, there appears to be an overwhelming abundance of national foundation income and attention flowing into the largest institutions. Since scale seems to directly correlate in certain funders' minds with the audacity or ability to execute big transformative ideas, our field is willingly engaging in a certain kind of trickle down practice that many of us view as largely impotent or even abhorrent when applied to other fields like the financial services industry. This seems to make the case for partnerships like the NNPN and the Big Ten Theatre Consortium allowing smaller companies to scale up when it comes to supporting playwrights. That strikes me as the strongest current way of addressing what you suggest in number 3. Do you see other ways of successfully accomplishing that?

Getting funders to give some of their money to smaller theaters - a very good idea - but how on earth is that supposed to happen? The process is set up to reward the big guys. My theater is going to close this summer because funders don't want to give money to small theaters. Artists are being funded by other artists, but you can't run a theater on the small amounts of money you can raise from your colleagues.

I don't have any easy, actionable ideas yet, beyond getting this conversation started. I do believe there are some more open-minded, progressive funding institutions who could be persuaded to allocate their funds differently, or create new streams of funding, if they are convinced the impact will be worth it. The challenge is that impact is almost always equated with, or measured by numbers (of revenue dollars, patrons, etc.) and numbers only tell part of the story.

Exactly. As long as success is defined in terms of numbers, whether it's patrons or money, then we have an uphill battle. I think the impact of the work on the community will be a factor - and smaller institutions, who include the community, much like Cornerstone in CA, are making major headway in that area.

It's interesting. Gathering proof of your successes and creating documentation of your work is something that larger organizations do as a matter of course, but when I work in smaller orgs, it's often the last thing on our mind. With everyone working so hard to put up the next show, it's hard to take time to prepare for what seems a distant future. But that material is what you draw up on to make your case for funders. Maybe workshops on how to effectively show your successes to foundations would help...?

The main point seems very sensible. I cheer it, as I'm sure others will. I only wish that, in urging playwrights and others not to demonize large theaters, you didn't subtly demonize their "middle-aged and older" patrons - and by extension all older people. "Youth" -- whether theater makers or theatergoers -- does not have a monopoly on "diversity" or "innovation" or "artistic risk."stAgeism: Anti-Elderly Attitudes In The Theaterhttp://newyorktheater.me/20...

JL. I don't agree with the popular notion that younger audiences are somehow more important, or worthier targets. I was merely pointing out (or trying to, at least) who constitutes the majority of audiences at the largest theatres, and that those audiences, in general, are choosing to spend their greater time and money on safer, more proven fare. Of course there are audiences of all ages going to all kinds of theatre, but by and large, the riskier the art, the younger the audience.

How do you define "riskier" and what evidence do you have for your claim? Several arts administrators have told me the opposite -- they have observed that more experienced theatergoers tend to be more open to theatrical experimentation. Let's be specific. What I know is NYC theater. When I attend shows by the Living Theater; at BAM; by the Civilians; at The Flea; at St. Ann's Warehouse (all theaters/theater companies that do new work often at the cutting edge) or at theaters like Repertorial Espanol or Abrons Arts Center (theaters that do work about different cultures often in languages other than English) I observe an audience made up of a mix of ages. It's true that I've noticed the audiences seem to skew younger at The Brick, Bushwick Starr, the Kraine, but is that because the art in these places is "riskier" or because they are newer and the accommodations less convenient and physically comfortable?

My evidence is primarily the eye test from going to theatres in the Philly region and across the country through NNPN. There's no question that some of the savviest, and most intrepid audiences are older patrons. My own theatre, InterAct Theatre Company, boasts a very savvy and intrepid audience for almost all new plays with political content, despite having less than 30% audiences under 35, and approximately 15% of color. Our average age is probably mid 50's-60's. But when I visit the much larger theatres -- Walnut Street (with it's 60,000 subscribers), Philadelphia Theatre Company, People's Light & Theatre, Arden Theatre, Delaware Theatre Company, McCarter Theatre -- I see a much older average age (60's-up) and much less diversity (maybe 5% of color). And when I go to the truly experimental theatres here like New Paradise Laboratories and Applied Mechanics, I see a MUCH younger (and admittedly much smaller, in total numbers) crowd (20's-30's).

I think the problem lies in the word "risky"--though it's almost universally used--is unhelpfully vague. I've seen evidence that there are specific kinds of "artistic risk" that are more appealing to younger generations. As we all know from our theater and art history classes, there are generational taste changes. I believe I've seen evidence of contemporary taste changes that have permeated different generations to different extents.

Really love this article. I think it's also important to note that to many mid-size or small theatre companies try to be Steppenwolf in the large building rather than Steppenwolf in the Garage. Delusions of grandeur run rampant in the theatre and it can sometimes kill that organizations ability to grow.