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Reimagining Public Theatres as Collectively Organized Cultural Institutions

For almost two years now, I have been researching the phenomenon of state theatres in Romania, where I live. The presence of this institutional form has remained very strong here, even after the 1989 political changes—similar to several other post-communist countries like Hungary and Poland. Put simply, being a state, public, or national theatre means having a mostly steady, yearly subsidy—either directly from the Ministry of Culture and National Identity or from their city or regional councils—and that their modus operandi is determined and approved by the administrative body they belong to.

When I look at the system, I mostly see a struggling structure that is not mutually beneficial, not at all transparent, and fairly undemocratic.

There are over fifty theatres subsidized this way in the country, and the millions of dollars of their annual support comes in the form of taxpayers’ money. Today, seven of these theatres are funded directly by the Ministry of Culture and National Identity and, in 2019, the total amount of their state subsidy was $32,032,856 USD—the smallest received being $2,600,000 USD and the largest being $11,180,000 USD. Between 75 percent and 91 percent of these sums go towards the maintenance of buildings, infrastructure, and payroll—which includes a company of twenty-five to thirty actors and a couple of in-house directors and dramaturgs—usually leaving very small amounts for production, program and audience development, and experimental projects.

This uneven distribution of money alone shows the urgent need for rethinking the organizational and financial management of these public theatres and, certainly, for the redesign of the entire theatre funding system in Romania.

I was curious about how the Romanian State defines the role of theatre, how it defines its operations, and what it actually thinks about public benefit, for which it hands out these sums. Because for me, a democratic public theatre means horizontal and collaborative work between managers, artists, and people from the fields of social sciences and art theory, together with the actually included audience and proactive local community, who assume mutual responsibility and roles in supporting their institution. However, the wording of the current legislation leaves out the public, local communities, and the people whose money is actually redistributed towards these institutions, mentioning them only circumstantially and in a superficial manner.

I believe that what a public cultural institution means should be redefined from the perspective of the people around it: its artists, employees, and, most importantly, its audiences. Thus, as an exercise, I want us to collectively rewrite parts of the Minister’s Orders towards one of its seven theatres regarding their rules of organizing and functioning by imagining a future public theatre, organized by and around its community, that could become reality.

This uneven distribution of money alone shows the urgent need for rethinking the organizational and financial management of these public theatres and, certainly, for the redesign of the entire theatre funding system in Romania.

The public theatre (PT) that I imagine for this scenario is a collectively organized public cultural institution that response to its local community and is funded through:

  • its local administrations budget,
  • private donations, and
  • its own income.

The organization and functioning of the PT is based on this community-written document, which is publicly reviewed and edited once every year.

The review is executed by all gathered members of the community who want to actively take part in the process. Upon the reading of the document, suggestions can be presented and will be debated during a forum. If consensus is reached, the suggested edit will occur.

The PT organizes its activities based on the needs of locals, including not only its public, but also all non-theatregoers, its building’s immediate neighbors, local artistic communities, and marginalized groups.

In order to have knowledge about these needs, the PT organizes yearly public meetings, where the current collaborators of the institution listen to their gathered public. The goal of these meetings is to offer an open space where locals can:

  • talk about what interests or bothers them on a daily basis,
  • share their personal experience regarding the PT’s functioning and programing,
  • give feedback about the PT’s presented works and activities, and
  • express their desires regarding the PT’s curation and programming.
An illustration of multiple hands assembling a broken art piece.

An illustration inspired by the essay, by Nguyen Tran.

The PT owns a building that serves as its headquarters and can host its programming, but current collaborators decide freely upon utilizing it for this purpose or not. This means that the building serves, upon request of the local community, other purposes besides presenting the PT’s main activities and programs.

At least half of the physical building serves as public space and thus is open to the local community within the PT’s working hours.

The building and all of its capacities are accessible by all members of the disability community.

The scope of the PT is to:

  • offer a safe and favorable environment for performative artistic research and creation;
  • contribute to the development of the performing arts sector on a local level;
  • use its position and resources to give both working and creative space for marginalized groups;
  • challenge oppressing narratives and sensibilize its local community;
  • promote inclusive, democratic values and critical thinking in its institutional and creative working methodologies, programing, and communication;
  • encourage non-hierarchical working processes;
  • take responsibility for its collaborators’ and local communities’ social and cultural development;
  • assume a strong and loud position against social and political injustice, and take action against these within its own institution;
  • remain transparent in its processes and open to feedback, inquiries, and criticism;
  • not limit its activities to performing arts production, but to realize activities that help the immersion of their audience; and
  • utilize its financial subsidy with great responsibility and to the benefit of its local community.

The PT owns a building that serves as its headquarters and can host its programming, but current collaborators decide freely upon utilizing it for this purpose or not.

In order to achieve the above, the PT applies the following within its program and functioning.

Collaborators who wish to be part of the group that runs the PT:

  • can join freely by attending the reorganizational meeting that happens every three years;
  • need to publicly express their motivations for joining;
  • must sign this document upon joining and respect it throughout their work;
  • may leave at any time if they no longer wish to participate, and new collaborators may join as well if all current members agree;
  • shall work for three years within the company and leave for a minimum of three years upon serving a term before returning to a new one
  • can choose their own department and field of work, whether it be artistic, administrative, operational-technical, or legal;
  • acknowledge that all deliverables presented to the entire company need to be accepted by all collaborators in a consensus, even if the work (artistic programming, budgeting marketing, audience development, etc.) was done individually;
  • will receive equal salary;
  • will work no more than four consecutive days with a minimum of two days off per week; and
  • will take a week off every three months and a minimum of two consecutive weeks off per year.

A note that those who run the organization are a diverse group racially and ethnically, and 50+ percent of its members identify as women, non-binary, or part of the LGBTQ community.

Open forums are organized with the participation of the general public and local community to:

  • present the detailed annual report on the budget and all programs at the end of the season;
  • hold the reorganizational meeting every three years, forming the new team of collaborators;
  • review this document every year;
  • actively listen to the general public and local community’s suggestions and have open talks about programming and activities; and
  • present the yearly program at the beginning of the season.

Activities and performances will be environmentally conscious by:

  • avoiding food and water waste on and off stage;
  • not using animals for artistic representation;
  • using as little plastic and as much recycled material as possible during production;
  • repurposing, recycling, and upcycling all costumes, props, and sets;
  • applying upcycling and recycling at all times; and
  • rehearsing as much as possible in natural light.

Those who run the organization are a diverse group racially and ethnically, and 50+ percent of its members identify as women, non-binary, or part of the LGBTQ community.

Accessibility to the PT and its programing is broadened by:

  • realizing a yearly budget that allows tickets to cost no more than $5 per person;
  • organizing several pay-what-you-can shows for each production;
  • having several matinees for each production;
  • offering childcare services for the duration of performances and activities;
  • subtitling productions in all minority languages spoken in the local community;
  • offering sign language translations and audio description for all productions;
  • organizing a “work lights on” edition for each new production, where only working lights are used and sound effects are reduced, so people afraid in the dark or who can’t attend events with heavy lighting or sound effects can take part, with explanations and visual narration before/after each scene;
  • making trigger warnings and disclaimers available before every activity;
  • ensuring activities and productions are accessible to people with disabilities;
  • presenting every new production once both in open air and for free; and
  • touring the city’s outskirts and surrounding rural area with its activities and performances.

In the programing of the PT, an effort is made to:

  • present at least one production from a local independent artistic group per week, offering all of the PT’s infrastructure for free and ensuring all revenue from ticket sales goes to the presenting company;
  • critically reflect on and rethink narratives when staging canonical works with an oppressive narrative, like Shakespeare’s treatment of women and marginalized groups;
  • host the final performances of local performing arts students, offering all infrastructure for free and ensuring the students receive the revenue from ticket sales;
  • have a permanent Theatre in Education program that is free and visits every local school at least once a year;
  • present at least one performance a year that has been realized by and with local non-professionals;
  • have a community theatre group for children and adults;
  • have participatory theatre events that address domestic violence, institutional racism, sexual education, and xenophobia;
  • organize introductory workshops and professional discussions around all productions;
  • offer as much rehearsal and running time needed for each performance, never cutting either short because a new show needs to open; and
  • produce or offer activities in ways that will not push collaborators towards overworking or burnout.

As this imagined document is the result of a participatory, collective editing process, I now invite each and every one of you to contribute to it with your own thoughts and wishes for a better public, state, regional, or any type of publicly funded theatre institution. You can do this by following the link at the end of the written version of this article.

Thoughts from the curator

It's 2021 and we're amid multiple pandemics that are revealing the structural failures, challenges, and opportunities facing the nonprofit theatre. Where do we go from here? What are we bringing with us through the portal, and what are we making anew? The Devising Our Future series asks theatremakers to consider a future theatre field where resources and power are shared equitably in all directions, contributing to a more just and sustainable world. This series is curated by HowlRound Theatre Commons as part of our tenth anniversary celebration.

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For all its known disadvantages and shortcomings, some listed above, the paid-by-the-state theatre system has also a number of important advantages that any theatre practitioner shouldn't discard in the name of 'community' or 'education'. Theatre is NOT a substitute for 'community' or 'education'. If these 2 have been decimated in the West by means of neo-liberal policies and destructive capitalism it is not the primary job of the theatre to become a substitute for them. Also, your approach seem to favour the 'Wester cultural manager' as central to a model for theatre making that is largely an American model. This model in the past 20 years has produced nothing of true relevance if we are to look at the state the world is in, that is something the theatre could have least debated if not directly changed. Regarding the state-funded theatre model, it allows theatres in Eastern Europe to have and build a repertory they want, and to perfect that repertory over time (to rehears a play for 1 year is still common). The ticket price was always low and it still is, so that everybody and I mean everybody can attend performances over a long period of time (2 years for a play is quite common). State-funded theatres are repertory theatres and ensemble driven theatres where creativity leads and actors have the security to perform on stage since they are salaried employees of the theatre that have rights. This aspect appears at least neglected if not discarded by your article. As an independent theatre company in the West you are tied to a 5-week process from page to stage that is seldom enough to develop the work the actors and the director plus creative team want but it seem that cultural managers, marketings honchos and greedy producers are very happy with to bask about as a 'good model'. And then, the show has at best a 12-week run which is a short to very passable run where the price of a ticket is very relevant to generate profit and recoup costs. The ultimate issue in my opinion refers to having access to a creative space... practically you need space to do be in a position to make theatre and build an audience. Bearing in mind space is a commodity in the West that is where the issue is creeping in the East too. Most theatre practitioners struggle to the point of giving up, to find spaces to do their work, to plough their trade. In this area it is true that state theatres could do more to share the space and comprehensive stage resources they have and it is also true they avoid to share these as much as possible in the East and invoke too often the prerogative of their special status. Then again if the 'state' or 'mayor' would make available more spaces - that are still plentiful in the East - where artists could do their work the interest to perform in what are generally old proscenium theatres would very likely dissolve and a new theatres would emerge elsewhere and in my opinion thieir reperotory wouldn't have to answer to the demands of the market or capitalism or avoid to upset the Western corrupt consensus (for fear of not getting funding).