Funding the Regional-Ensemble Producing Model
Jeffrey Mosser: Dear Artists, welcome to another episode of the From the Ground Up Podcast produced for HowlRound Theatre Commons, a free and open platform for theatremakers worldwide. I’m your host, editor, and producer Jeffrey Mosser, recording from the ancestral homelands of the Potawatomi, Ho-Chunk, and Menominee homelands, now known as Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
These episodes are shared digitally to the internet. Let's take a moment to consider the legacy of colonization embedded in the technology structure and ways of thinking that we use every day. We are using equipment and high-speed internet not available in many Indigenous communities. Even the technologies that are central to much of the work we make leaves a significant carbon footprint contributing to climate change that disproportionately affects Indigenous people worldwide. I invite you to join me in acknowledging all this as well as our shared responsibility to make good of this time. And for each of us to consider our rules and reconciliation, decolonization, and allyship.
Artists all today, I'm here to bring Olga Garay-English straight to your brain. If you don't know who Olga is, I highly encourage you to take a look at her 2021 World Theatre Day address for the Theatre Communications Group at the very least. The work she has done with Doris Duke Charitable Foundation is at the center of our conversation today. In episode one of this season, with Patricia Garza, I mentioned that I went to the Roadmap to Innovation panel at the Theatre Communications Group annual conference in 2019. Olga was a panelist at that session, and I knew that I needed to have the conversation that you're about to hear today. We talk about touring models, the challenges of regional theatres who want to produce ensembles and collaboratively creative theatremakers, and the idea of “what if America had a festival circuit akin to Europe and Latin America.”
She’s a firm believer in creating, as she says in her World Theatre Day address, “the antidote for cultural isolation,” which is a phrase that I will forever keep with me. She’s the founding program director for the arts at the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and currently an international arts consultant. A couple of quick things that I should explain before we get into it: first, you may hear a few computer notifications throughout Olga’s answers. I believe we tackled it within the first half hour or so, but just an FYI. Also, Olga mentions APAP, which is the Association of Performing Arts Professionals, which is a national service for performing arts professionals in the touring and booking industry.
She also mentions a paper that she provided me, which looks at the leading regional theatres, that she created while at the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. She gave me permission to share that with you, and you can find it at the bottom of the HowlRound page with our transcript of this show. And I mentioned the Segal Center interview she did in April of 2021, which I also highly encourage you to take a look at. We spoke on September 20, 2021, and she joined me from the Tongva Kizh tribal land, now colonized as Los Angeles, California. She often references her heritage and experiences in her homeland of Cuba on the ancestral land of the Taino. Let's have a listen.
Olga, thank you so much for joining me. I really appreciate it. We shared the same place, but we didn’t have a face to face at TCG in 2019. I was in the room for the Roadmap for Innovation, with Diane Rodriguez and so many others. And I was just blown away by the content in that conversation. I knew that you were somebody who I needed to talk to because I knew that you had such passion, and I kind of want to start by asking you, where does your passion for this sort of ensemble-based and collaboratively creative work come from?
Olga Garay-English: Well, I have to say that it’s not something that I’ve always been passionate about. I think it has been a sector of the theatre community of course, but even of the larger, just performing arts community that I sort of intrinsically knew existed. But I’d never really paid that much attention to what is the DNA of this work, and who’s doing it, and why is it appealing? And I think that because I had the great, good fortune to be the founding director for the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, I was able to start basically getting to know this sector of the theatre community about three or four years after I had started working at Doris Duke. And I’ll give you a little bit of the context of this so that we can move forward with that history in place.
When I first landed at Doris Duke was in 1997, and I was the first program director that was hired by the foundation. I had come from Miami Dade College, which is a very large but working class college, very grassroots, lot of immigrants, a lot of refugees, a lot of people of color. And I was the director of the Department of Cultural Affairs, and so we presented work, forming arts. We had three small visual arts galleries, and towards the end we started actually producing work. So I had been on the front lines of making work happen. And when I went to the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, I really wanted to create programs that would speak to people like me who were out in the field trying to make ends meet, trying to do significant and ambitious projects that really spoke to the community where I live, which of course Miami’s a very multicultural community.
I'm Cuban American so it’s something that I have been deeply aware of throughout my life, that the US is not a homogenic society. It’s made up of so many different cultures. And so when I got to the Doris Duke I had a very big challenge and that is that legally I had to give away $20 million within the calendar year of when I was hired. I was hired in March of 1997 and by December of 1997 I had to figure out how I was going to give away $20 million responsibly. And I think responsibly is really the operative word.
Again, I tried to create programs that would have addressed issues that I found working at a community-based community college. The sector that I knew the best in the whole performing arts arena was the presenting sector because that’s pretty much what I did. I presented new contemporary work that was of excellent quality that really tried to showcase artists from throughout the world with a specific emphasis on Latin America and the Caribbean because, again, that’s the majority of the population in Miami was and continues to be.
And so I launched a major program for leading presenters, and I had criteria in terms of presenters who commissioned new work who were part of consortia that would help artists do work, presenters who dedicated funding to community-based pursuits of artists, for example artists that go into homeless shelters or who work with abused women or work that you can't sell a ticket to, right? But that is a vital part of the creative process but the artists and a vital part of our institutions and our art is commitment to community.
And so that got off to a very good start. In about two and a half years after I had started working for the foundation, I realized that I wanted to branch out into different disciplines. So I approached my counterpart at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Kathy Machirello, because Mellon had been supporting mostly regional theatres within the United States… is considered a regional theatre. They tend to be larger and have seasons and they’re playwright-driven for the most part. Yeah, these are big generalizations, but they’re usually a significant part of cities’ or a community's cultural arena.
And so I was not that familiar with that environment. And so I said to Kathy, look, what I’ve been doing in the presenting community is I’ve been giving three- to five-year endowment challenge grants that are coupled with three to five years of programming grants so that during the period that the organization that the grantee gets to make the match, they are able to start the programming immediately with the programming dollars so that they have something to show potential donors as they’re trying to make their match. And again, I restricted the money so that the funds would be used specifically for artists and to do things like commission new work, support residency activities, do community-based projects, et cetera. That had been in place for a couple years. It had been a huge success. The presenting community is extremely under-endowed, and it was just a big home run.
So I’d to say to Kathy, "What if you continue to give programming money to these regional theatres and I give the matching endowment so that we are replicating what I’ve done with the presenting community. but it’s going to be cheaper for the Duke Foundation because now we’re just going to be responsible for the endowment portion and Mellon will give the multi-year programming grants?" And that’s how we launched the Duke-Mellon Theater Initiative was with that first Leading National Theatres Program. But as I got to know the sector better, I realized that there were additional synergies that could be put in place that had not been activated.
And so I started learning more about how does the theatre sector work in the United States of America. Unlike Latin America—where I’ve done a lot of work and continue to do work—and Europe and other parts of the world, here that whole regional theatre movement that had happened in the sixties and seventies had created this very codified system. These major theatres were a prominent part of the cultural landscape of the communities that they lived in. They suck up so much of the resources, both government and private dollars. And usually they're led by white men; that is hopefully changing a little bit, but certainly back in the early 2000s, almost every single theatre that Mellon had supported was being led by white men. And there was maybe three white women or whatever.
And so I thought that something's wrong with this picture. And one of the analysis that I started to do was the fact that in the presenting community, there’s a real synergy between leading presenters and choreographer-led dance companies. Presenters in the United States routinely commission new work; they are part of touring circuits. There’s a real symbiotic relationship between choreographer-led dance companies and the presenting community, which really was almost all absent when you thought about theatre ensembles that are more organized as a choreographer-led company than a regional theatre, right?
Jeffrey: Yeah. Yeah.
Olga: Even with ensembles that tend to have a more collaborative creative structure than, sometimes, than the choreographer-led dance companies. Structurally, they are much more fleet footed, and they really rely on the interaction of going to different communities and showing their work. It’s just a completely different structure than regional theatres, which are very place driven: you have a playwright, you choose the work, you audition artists for it, you have three weeks of rehearsal, you show the work for three weeks, and then you start over and then you get rid of all of the expensive scenery that was built, and you are killing the environment. So I just started to really look at, are there ways to make ensemble-based theatres and both the presenting community and the regional theatre community understand that these are vital creative forces that need support?
And we started doing these gatherings between presenters and theatremakers. And it was very clear that the language is very different, the way that the artistic process and decision-making is done is very different. For a fairly long time, a couple years, a lot of the emphasis and the energy that we put into it was establishing sort of lines of communication and understanding between presenters and regional theatres with the goal of having them both be more responsible in terms of ensemble made work. And because in the regional theatre community, again, going back to the fact that 90% of the theatres involved in the Duke-Mellon initiative were led by white men, bringing in ensemble theatres, it would diversify your programming a hundredfold. The stories are different. The way of telling the stories are different. The communities they represent are often different. So that was kind of the impetus for convening the regional theatres and the presenters in service to the ensemble theatre makers.
Jeffrey: What I’m hearing is that you saw the value in the diverse storytelling of ensembles and the ability for them to contribute and be major assets on regional and presenting stages. That’s amazing. The work then in your tenure at Doris Duke, did you see that ensemble funding model change, or what did you learn from the first year to the end your work there?
Olga: Yeah. I don’t know that there was any, let’s say philanthropic or government support specifically geared towards ensemble-based theatre work, right? That just didn’t exist. People could go to Creative Capital and apply for a grant to make work, or they could go through the National Performance Network, which we funded. Back then there wasn’t even the National Theater Project that is run by the New England Foundation for the Arts, although it’s a national project. That didn’t even exist, those things came later from these discussions. It was really like saying, "People, something’s wrong with this picture." Right? I will say one more thing and then I’ll come back to this particular question, but I was privileged to have done a lot of work in Latin America like I said earlier and see the value of creating work that tells a story without it being so heavily overproduced that you can't move that story.
So it’s not unusual for, in the American landscape, to go to see a theatre production at a regional theatre. And I don’t mean to pick on regional theatres. It’s just that that's sort of been the salient model here, right? So it’s… they’re sort of an easy target, but it's not unusual to walk into a regional theatre and see that a set cost half a million dollars. To me there’s something wrong with that picture. I remember going to a production, I don’t even remember it. I wish I owned the kitchen that was on that stage because it was like this state-of-the-art, completely decked-out kitchen of what was obviously an upper middle class or a rich household. And I was like, "I want that kitchen."
Well, half a million dollars to construct a set, five major tours of ensemble-based work could have taken place. The production cost and the touring cost of five major tours of the Rude Mechs or Ping Chong with that same half a million dollars. I’m not talking about how much the whole production cost, that was just a fucking set, right? When you add in marketing costs, whatever, the whole production cost much more than that, but just the set. Anyway, that just got my goat. And so I said about saying, how can we change the paradigm so that there is more attention paid to ensemble theatres?
And so what Duke did was... Because I don’t think Mellon was involved in this component of the work, or maybe it was, I don’t remember, but we gave a grant to the Association of Performing Arts Presenters. Now it’s called the Association of Performing Arts Professionals, to make regrants to theatre ensembles that presented projects in tandem with a presenter or a regional theatre to create a new piece in collaboration with that presenter or that theatre. And the APAP gave the grant to the theatre ensemble. It didn’t give the grant to the presenter or to the regional theatre because we really felt strongly that that gave theatres a seat at the table that they normally don’t have, right?
So it wasn’t like, “Oh please, please, please give my production some startup money or whatever, commission my new work.” No, “Im coming in as a full partner saying a priori before you wrote the grant, is this something you want to work with me on? And if I get the grant, I’m going to come in as an equal partner in this endeavor.” And that really changed the conversation because the artists were able to come in and be on par with the presenters at the regional theatres. So what we did was, in order to telegraph what an ensemble theatre was to all of these presenters who didn't really have those connections or that awareness, Mark Russell had just left P.S. 122 in New York and I said to him, “Look, I want to put together a showcase for this work. Let’s do it right before the annual APAP meeting which people already have in their budgets to go to. I want you to be the director.”
And that’s how Under the Radar got launched was to say, come in a day early to New York and you’re going to see ten productions of this work, which is what we’re talking about and which is what we’re giving money to APAP to give on our behalf and to really start introducing the concept and the particular artists to these presenters. And we also paid for a number of regional theatre leaders to come because they wouldn’t have had that budgeted because they don't go to APAP. It was really elaboratory for people to see the kind of work we were talking about. We also launched something called the leading national ensemble theatres program. And we chose six theatres who had been around in different parts of the country and we started giving them...
Mellon was our partner on that. Duke would give let’s say $50,000, and Mellon would match that. I think the largest grant was $70,000 from each of the two foundations to ensemble theatres that you could point to and say, “My God, they’re doing unbelievable work. This is what this field should be aiming for.” And it was people like Ping Chong and Company got one, Culture Clash here from Los Angeles, the SITI Company, Jeune Lune from Minneapolis, Dell’Arte up in Blue Lake in California.
I think we chose six that first year, and they were going to get that amount. They were going to get that same amount for five years in a row. And then year two of the project, we were going to bring on another cohort of five or six theatres. And then I left Duke and the whole thing kind of just dissipated, but it was a pretty well-thought-out way of really shining a light and earmarking financial resources to what we felt were the leading creators of this kind of work.
Jeffrey: That was all included in that one-pager or the two-pager or so that you sent me. Do you think that other funders are starting to see the value that you saw in ensembles just in the way that the stories that are more urgent can sort of pop up a little bit more frequently?
Olga: Yeah. Certainly the National Theater Project, like I said earlier, which is run by New England Foundation for the Arts, which gets Duke and Mellon funding. It’s really patterned after the National Dance Project, which NEFA runs. And again, it goes back to that realization that ensemble-based theatres really are organized much more like choreographer-led ensembles than regional theatres, right? And so that has been going on maybe fifteen years. So that is a new, very targeted resource. Recently, the Mellon Foundation gave a $5 million grant to something called the Black Seed, which is a collective of black theatres, most of which are ensemble-based. And it might not conform to the most classic definition of what an ensemble is, but it achieves the same purpose of providing a platform, providing an environment where these theatre artists can go to again and again and again and find both intellectual resources, artistic resources, financial resources to make work.
Jeffrey: Those larger funders, in giving monies away to ensembles, are they more welcoming of process work versus product work at this point?
Olga: I think that the pandemic has completely upended everything, and funders are starting to take stock in demanding or expecting up product to come out of their investment is very twentieth century. And so I think that there is more, at least that’s what I've experienced in the last two years, that there’s a lot of reckoning in the funding community of saying, “Are we really addressing the needs and the realities of these artists that we purport to support by placing these strict guidelines on what the funding that we give them is intended to produce?” Now, is that a fad that came about because of the pandemic and grant makers really starting to say, “How can we help the arts world survive this period?” Is that something that is here to stay? I don't know.
I have heard a number of grant app makers say we really got to rethink the way that we support artists in this culture. And hopefully it is a long trend. I think that presenters are questioning how they support artists. So for example, I’ll give you a very clear cut example. ArtsEmerson, which was led by David Dower for ten years, when the pandemic hit… one of the playwrights that they encouraged over the years is Guillermo Calderón. Guillermo Calderón, the playwright from Chile, he’s very exciting, intellectually exciting and artistically exciting creator. And basically they had commissioned Guillermo to do his next work and premier it at ArtsEmerson.
And when the pandemic hit about, I don't know, three months into it, basically David said, "Look, we will still give you the $25,000 commission, but you don’t need to use it to fund this work that we have commissioned from you. You need to use it in the way that it makes the most sense for you creatively and for your team, your ensemble"—he does have an ensemble—"to continue not even making work, to continue living, to continue just being artists. If at the end of the two-year period, you have a piece, lovely, and we will certainly want to introduce it to our audiences in Boston. But if you say to me, look, we just wrote, or we just did theatre exercises, or we went out into the country and quarantined, that’s perfectly fine too, because you are living, breathing human beings and we want to support you."
Jeffrey: I think that's absolutely true that folks are feeling like I need to be a human for a minute because that's what arts do, is take care of humanity, right? So we need to be humanitarian to one another, right?
Jeffrey: I was going to ask, but I think you kind of addressed it with the idea that those leading regional theatres, they already had capacity to foster a relationship with an ensemble in some way, correct?
Jeffrey: So there was something in their mission or in their drive or in their new play development that there was something there for them to already—
Olga: But many of them didn’t, right? Many of them didn’t. Because again, there in the United States, unlike many other parts of the world, there’s such an emphasis on the playwright-driven model that... And it’s baked into the system, it’s baked into the DNA, the artistic director, he gets to choose what the season is, right? And you have a classical Shakespeare production, and you have a Broadway-ish comedy and you have one serious drama . And, you know, it’s like this person is anointed with the privilege, responsibility, whatever you want to call it, of choosing six pieces that is going to make up the season. That’s the way most theatre companies in the United States function.
The idea of saying, "I’m going to give one of those slots to an ensemble-based theatre company to come in here and do a piece that they choose and that is often reflective of a much broader community dynamic than those six shows that I’ve hand-picked," that was revolutionary. That’s revolutionary. Relinquishing a spot to an ensemble theatre, it’s not often done. In my opinion, it has so many pluses to really under guard that relationship, part of the strategy of why we created this regranting program at APAP was to incentivize these presenters and these theatres to say we’re going to make slot available to a company that makes their work outside of the play right driven model.
Jeffrey: The downside, if there is a downside—listen, in my heart there's only upsides to this—but I can imagine that a downside could potentially be that introducing an unknown ensemble could adversely affect the box office, the bottom line or something, it’s a risk of sorts. Are there any mitigating factors to that you think are able to be established or conversed about?
Olga: In the case of Culture Clash, for example, they have a huge audience base here in Los Angeles, right? So you might be swapping your typical audience, but that doesn’t mean they’re not going to have an audience, right? Or Teatro Cartesiano, that’s another company that has performed on a number of occasions at Center Theatre Group. They have an audience. Why is it okay to bring in the Wooster Group, right? Well, the Wooster Group is the intellectual darling, and you’re an adventurous theatre going,—goer—if you know who that is, then maybe your traditional audience might be intrigued by seeing the Wooster Group and think, “Wow, my local regional theatre is on the cutting edge. Wow.” And it’s uncharted territory for a lot of regional theatres.
I think that there has been movement in terms of the presenting and the ensemble theatre connectivity issue. There’s a lot more presenters who are doing ensemble-based theatre work than there were certainly in the late nineties, early 2000s. More and more you see, for example, the Getty Villa here, again in Los Angeles brings in SITI Company regularly; REDCAT does Wooster Group and Elevator Repair Service frequently. I think that there has been real movement in terms of the connectivity and relationship building between presenters and ensemble theatres. It’s less apparent to me in the regional theatre, but you have to remember that when we launched this initiative it was in 2004, the ensemble-based initiative; we had done the Leading National Theaters, I think starting in 2001.
By the time that we introduced the ensemble-based funding, it was literally a year before I left my position at Duke. And so it was truncated, that sort of carrot-and-stick formula, of if you do this work or we will give the ensembles money, really only had a one- or a two-year life cycle and then that went away. But you know, things like the National Theatre Project came out of it, and NET, the Network of Ensemble Theaters. Not because we were doing it, but there was all of this discussion bubbling up then and people really paying attention to each other and saying, “How can we change the paradigm?” And so there are still initiatives that came out from that time period that are working to this day towards this goal.
Olga: At the end of the day it is about playing financial resources. People who are committed to doing this kind of work by hook or by crook, they'll find a way to do it. Speaking of REDCAT, the Mellon foundation just gave $3 million to APAP to give grants, very similar model of what I did with ensemble theatres, that you have to have a presenting partner in order to apply for the grant. Poor Dog Group, which is a theatre ensemble that started here in LA and then its members dissipated, now I think most of them are living in New York, contacted REDCAT and said, “We just read about this grant opportunity. Is that something you might want to partner with us on?”
And I think that giving the resources to the artists, it just changes the game, right? It changes the way the relationship is built. It’s so much more equitable. Everything from We See You White [American] Theater to the Creative Justice Initiative to all of these other movements that have started are really chipping away at the patriarchal colonial model. Artists have more agency.
Jeffrey: One of the things you talked about in the Segal Center conversation in April that I really latched onto was the idea that the touring culture or the non-existent festival culture in America right now. Talking about a paradigm shift as you mentioned, do you see any sort of way that that sort of culture could be imbued, or could regional theatres become a part of that touring process?
Olga: Well, that was kind of one of the principles of the regranting program was to provide opportunities for ensembles to not just function in their community, but to be able to tour. I think that a lot of that has happened. You see more ensembles being able to grow. Carpetbag Theater from Knoxville, Tennessee. Again, not just from the two coasts, but in order to have that increasingly be part of the theatrical landscape in this country, there has to be more funding specifically allocated to support that kind of activity, because right now theatres are entrenched in that playwright-driven model. And they have all of the sort of like, what is my typical audience? And for many years foundations and government too it's all about, how do you build audiences? And was like metric.
And it became like being an artist was almost superfluous. It was like, how do you put your marketing scheme together? And how do you use social media? And when you look at those structures who works at our theatres, who works at our performing art centers? It’s very few artists. It’s the grant writers and the marketing gurus and the audience development people and the educational, let's sell the university or the school system, that they can come to five of our shows so that will underwrite. It became this formulaic corporate driven kind of world. And I’m hopeful that we are going to really address that and question it and say like, who is this being made for? And what are we trying to engender?
Jeffrey: This is totally off the cuff. So this question, I haven’t even written it down. I have no idea how it’s going to come out of my mouth. It stems from what you were saying, the makeup of our board system, it’s a group of similarly looking humans to what the artistic director looks like, right? And so the idea being that sort of framework is no longer working, diversity and inclusion on our boards needs to be representative. Otherwise it feels like sort of that structure of corporate structure is kind of shaking right now too, even though we might not see it. And it also feels like if that’s the structure in the corporate world, is it not happening in the nonprofit world because we’re modeling one after the other? Maybe I don't have a question on that.
Olga: Look at the nomenclature. It's a 501(c)(3) corporation. It’s part of the lexicon. It’s not a 501(c)(3) organization; it’s a 501(c)(3) corporation. And it does follow that capitalistic corporate model where... I remember clearly when I first started working in the arts in the mid-eighties and you'd go to these seminars and it was all like, "Well, the ideal board you should have the local banker and you should have a real estate person—"
Jeffrey: A lawyer.
Olga: "... you should certainly have a lawyer." This is how it's being promoted as the ideal board, right? Of prominent citizens who care about the arts. That’s not their main responsibility or thrust, and they have to donate or give or get at a certain level, and everybody has to donate, even if it’s a modest amount, and it codified this structure. And then if you are community-based ensemble or a culturally specific ensemble, your local banker is not going to give you the time of day because he or she wants to be on the symphony board because they're going to meet wealthy potential clients there, right? And so, right off the bat, if that is the ideal composition of a 501(c)(3) corporate board, you’re already leaving huge swaths of the creative community out of that paradigm because they’re not going to have access to people.
I remember when we started the Hispanic Theatre Festival in Miami, first it was mostly Cuban American theatre organizations that participated. The wealthy Cubans that we would’ve been told to get on our boards, they wanted to be on the museum board, or they wanted to be on the mainstream American boards because that’s where they were going to meet other people of that same social standing so that there would be an advantage for them to be in that milieu. They didn’t want to support your local after-work theatre company that wasn't in their professional interests. So I really do hope that hopefully one of the positive things of the pandemic is there to be real dialogue as to what does inclusivity mean in our communities? What does it mean to tell diverse people’s stories? How can we support that? How can the philanthropic sector be taken to task on this?
One of my pet peeves is that in order for foundations to get nonprofit status they’re seen as the fourth sector, they don’t have to pay taxes because they are providing a service. Out of the tax system billions of dollars are taken out every year because philanthropy is supposed to be serving that need, right? But there’s no checks and balances, and so I just was writing a paper recently and this is based on a study that was conducted, I think it was in 2015 or maybe even earlier, and I’m probably going to get the statistics wrong, but it was something like 2% of arts organizations get 70% of all the funding in this country. Something is really wrong with that picture. But we have to have a real conversation with how funds are distributed so that they are awarded to a more representative group of arts organizations than they have been for since the whole philanthropic sector started.
Jeffrey: And this is just a follow up to what you just said, too. Did you ever, while you were at Doris Duke, feel like there was a rift in you that there was something, as though you were giving for Doris Duke but then you also had to have this juxtaposition of knowing you're dealing with a nonprofit that is corporate modeled?
Olga: Yeah, totally all the time. That was my world, right? The foundation had a board. They all were in Doris Duke’s social circle or they were appointed by the State of New York because there had been so much litigation against the foundation—that’s a whole other blog episode; we won’t get into it. It was a very homogeneous group. Let’s put it that way.
Olga: Because I had to give away so much money within such a small period of time and do it responsibly, it made sense for us to launch the leading presenting institutions. And how I defined what leading meant, allowed me to say they’re institutions that go above and beyond the call of duty. It’s not just butts in seats. It’s not just how much do we make at the box office, but it’s commitment to commissioning new work. And so that allowed me to have, again, a codified list of criteria that I could say, “that’s why Jacob’s Pillow made it but not this other entity that maybe one of our board members knew the director of or whatever.”
But when I started trying to be more culturally diverse in terms of who our grantees were, I introduced a mid-size presenting organization’s program. And that allowed me to go beyond the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the Kennedy Center and UCLA or whatever. And already there was concern, let’s put it that way, on the board that these organizations, who were they? And were they really capable of stewarding a grant? And already I was getting a lot more pushback because they were not the sort of the gold standard. They were the gold standard in their own communities but they weren’t necessarily known to our board members, so there was more suspicion there. So yeah, that was a constant navigation for me.
Jeffrey: Is it unfair that an ensemble then might have to appeal to a larger regional theatre or a presenting organization to be recognized because the philanthropy wouldn’t otherwise see benefit in working with them?
Olga: Well, that’s why we started the second part of the program was to say, who are the really outstanding ensembles that have been doing this kind of work year after year after year? And we started making direct grants to them, right? Significant, because a lot of these ensembles—again, this is a huge generalization—but they could have a $50,000 budget or a $500,000 budget, so giving somebody with even $100,000 budget a $60,000 grant that's guaranteed for five years, from two major national foundations, Duke and Mellon, we believe in you and we believe that the work you're doing is important.
I was very aware of the fact that we had to take that step, right? We had to put the line in the sand and say above and beyond the regranting work that we are supporting at APAP in this case, these organizations, these ensembles are at the top of their game and they deserve direct funding. That could be anywhere from a quarter to 50% of your annual operating budget.
Jeffrey: What do you want an American theatre ensemble to take away from our conversation here today?
Olga: This is critically important work. It's critically important on so many different levels. If there's the support system, they should be able to take their work to other communities in this country and abroad. We have a really poor showing at international festivals because this country does not support its artists by and large. there's a couple of measly little grants at the $15,000 or $18,000 level at Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation, and there's hardly any support for our companies to be present at international festivals. I am the senior advisor for international affairs at the Fundación Teatro a Mil which produces the Festival of Santiago a Mil, which is one of the best international festivals in Latin America, is certainly one of the top three.
And they've done unbelievable work, have relationships to the Royal Court and Great Britain. They have a longstanding relationship with Ariane Mnouchkine, accord nomad with festivals all throughout Europe, et cetera. And it’s not unusual for that. It’s a three-week festival in January of each year, and it’s not unusual for them for there to be three or four French companies or Italian or Japanese. We get to bring one company from the United States because there’s no support. I shouldn’t say no support—the US Embassy usually gives us a grant and we usually get funding from the Mid Atlantic—but it doesn’t even cover all the costs of that one company, covers like maybe 50%. So there isn’t an opportunity for us to have more than one US-based company in the festival each year whereas other countries have multiple companies, but they foot the bill.
Jeffrey: Anything you want someone from a regional theatre listening to this conversation to take away? Sorry, a regional theatre or a presenter.
Olga: Ensembles provide a really vibrant way to bring new audiences into your venue. It’s a very different way of making work. A very typically, a very exciting way to make work. And it just shakes people up. It’s just a very different experience. And so if our institutions, in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and all of the racial reckoning that has been happening over the last eighteen, twenty months, if people really mean that, they’re going to have to be less precious about what work goes on their stages and what audience members are invited in and what artists are invited in. And I think that ensemble-based work offers that opportunity in a way that is often not available to major regional theatres or sometimes presenters.
Jeffrey: Thank you.
Olga: That's all I got to say.
Jeffrey: No, that’s great. Anything else I didn’t give you a chance to say in these past—
Olga: No, I think that we’ve covered the waterfront.
Jeffrey: I agree. I agree. Well, thank you so much for your time, Olga. This has been a delight.
Olga: Thank you for inviting me.
Jeffrey: Go have lunch.
First of all, a special thanks to Corrina Schulenburg for connecting me with Olga. You are appreciated, Corrina. Thank you. What I loved about this conversation is that Olga is really focused on centering community stories and understands the importance of them being seen in multiple locations. It’s this core tenant of sharing culture that theatre does so well. All of her work was because she saw the commitment to community that ensemble-based work provides. This is an underpinning argument why we need to be sharing this kind of work.
Also, she wasn’t very familiar with regional theatre before she started. Isn’t it great to hear that it took an outsider’s point of view to create a radical shift in funding and producing and beyond? There were huge callbacks in here for me to season one, episode five with Quita Sullivan, from the New England Foundation for the Arts and the National Theater Project that she describes.
She brought us all the way with her framework and history of the regional theatre system as something that consumes resources and how she aligned ensembles as having similar resources with choreographer led to dance companies. The fact that they are more closely aligned to dancers than to regional theatres makes a lot of sense. It really highlights her point. That content can’t be so overproduced that you can't move the story. And it makes sense that we as ensemble makers might do well when trying to organize our processes to look toward other models. I just want to recognize that I think the idea of power sharing in this episode, giving an ensemble a slot in the season, that’s a lot of power to give a voice that is not the one voice of the artistic director. I think that there is some intimidation in there where an AD might find it difficult to have someone speak for them. This begs the question as finances are at the front of my brain right now, how a philanthropy has been evolving to understand the arts.
As Olga said, her board at Doris Duke thought that there was only one way to evaluate the gold standard. I really do hope that we are able to find a way to create funding for a touring or festival model. There are so many ensembles who are regionally known and they deserve to be seen nationally. And there's something about these last two episodes that reminds me of Lewis Hyde’s The Gift. And please forgive me as I paraphrase that he says that the value of a gift increases as it's passed along. I see the opportunity for ensemble stories being told as a gift for every community, not just their local one, just something to chew on.
Next week we’re going to go one step further down this path with Rachel Dickstein of Ripe Time theatre, who was a financial recipient from the Center Theatre Groups, Roadmap to Innovation process, lots that you want folks. More questions, more answers next time. And now it’s time for your sound check lightning round.
Your favorite salutation.
Olga: Yikes. That wasn’t the answer. Hi there.
Jeffrey: Your favorite exclamation.
Jeffrey: Your favorite mode of transportation.
Olga: A winged horse.
Jeffrey: What’s your favorite kind of ice cream?
Jeffrey: What would you be doing if not arts consulting?
Olga: Traveling the world.
Jeffrey: And what's the opposite of arts consulting?
Olga: IT consulting.
Jeffrey: This has been another episode of From The Ground Up. The audio bed was created by Kieran Vedula. You can find him on SoundCloud, Bandcamp, and flutesatdawn.org. This podcast is produced and the contribution to HowlRound Theatre Commons. You can find more episodes of this series and other HowlRound podcasts in our feed on iTunes, Google podcasts, Spotify, and wherever you find your podcasts. Be sure to search HowlRound Theatre Commons podcasts and subscribe to receive new episodes.
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