fbpx Response to "In the Intersection" | HowlRound Theatre Commons

Response to "In the Intersection"

I have spent my professional life in intersections of the commercial and not-for-profit theatre. I started work in the mid-seventies when the not-for-profit theatre and the commercial theatre were quite distinct from each other. I worked for a service organization that provided technical assistance to emerging not-for-profit theatres. The consultants talked about subscriptions and development and boards and mission. Commercial theatre was only relevant as an example of what these not-for-profits weren’t. Then I worked at the Yale Rep and then Manhattan Theatre Club for more than twenty years and observed firsthand not-for-profit and commercial engagement in many guises.

I worked on shows that originated at home and then transferred under the auspices of an outside producer after they demonstrated critical success and commercial potential. I worked on shows that were done under license from a commercial producer—not enhanced, but with participation for the originating venue should they move forward. I worked on enhancements that started with the artistic director. I worked on enhancements that started with the commercial producer. I managed shows in open-ended runs that we produced ourselves; after their subscription run they went into open-ended, nonsubsidized engagements. They rose or fell on the number of tickets they sold. Artists were employed for months or even years. Any excess revenue went right back into the not-for-profit. And then I came to Theatre Development Fund, where the TKTS booth plays a vital role in Broadway’s economy and where our “OffOff@$9” program sells thousands of tickets to the smallest Off-Off Broadway venue. I have dear and respected friends in both worlds and have seen extraordinary work in all their venues.

I respond to In the Intersection on multiple levels. The first is a tactical response to specifics about the relationship between the two sectors, examining what rings true and makes sense.

Over the course of the two days, points of intersection surfaced. Many of them caused varying levels of misunderstanding, creating stress for artists, plays, or institutions. Some felt incomplete or somewhat implausible to me, but many resonated. The ones that resonated did so because I have scars, or at least bruises, that remind me how true they are. In a few cases, they resonated because of the many things I heard about enhancement through the research for Outrageous Fortune.

A thread throughout the report is that the intersections are very different depending on who originates the project. The more successful collaborations occur when an artistic director is passionate about a play that is beyond the scope of the company’s usual productions and he identifies a commercial colleague who responds to the material, believes in its possible future commercial potential, and agrees to help fund it. Also more successful is the collaboration that occurs when a commercial producer has a project she is passionate about which needs more development in a sheltered environment under the care and feeding of an artistic director experienced in the development of new work. This is where the enhancement structure started. It is not perfect, but it is characterized by mutual respect, mutual need, and to some extent puts the work at the center. In the merger/intersection conversation, this is a merger.

A thread throughout the report is that the intersections are very different depending on who originates the project. The more successful collaborations occur when an artistic director is passionate about a play that is beyond the scope of the company’s usual productions and he identifies a commercial colleague who responds to the material, believes in its possible future commercial potential, and agrees to help fund it.


Cover of Diane Ragsdale's report In the Intersection: Partnerships in the New Play Sector.
In the Intersection by Diane Ragsdale.

Not so successful are the enhancement deals where one party appears to be using the other solely for monetary benefit. Either the not-for-profit theatre is attempting to balance its operating budget or wants the collateral income that comes from a relationship with Broadway and thus goes out and solicits productions that come with enhancement money, or a commercial producer is trying to get a cheap out of town tryout and has no understanding of or concern for the particular not-for-profit organization. The not-for-profit loses in these scenarios. It is risking its relationships with artists and staff, showing a disregard for its community, and is exposed when the commercial production falls victim to one of the many risks in this world. This is an intersection with fender benders if not a crash.

Another thing that rang true—artistic control is huge issue. You can have all the paperwork you want, and in fact you eventually have to have it, but as the conversations make clear, the best way to navigate issues about who is in charge of the artistic choices and the production choices is to have both the not-for-profit and the commercial producers trust each other and to work it all out before there is any paperwork.

I was struck by the conversations about the problems that arise from the different meanings of time. At almost every regional theatre, the not-for-profit has a contract with its subscribers, its single ticket buyers, and its funders to deliver a season with a fixed number of plays on a pre-announced schedule. Commercial theatre is all about finding the right moment, the right people, getting the right venue, riding the wave for whatever is best for production. The commercial producer has a responsibility to her investors to make sure the production has as many things going for it as possible when it hits the marketplace. An actor with commercial appeal drops out of an enhanced production—the commercial producers need the right replacement and the time to find him. The not-for-profit needs to get the show on as there are two more behind it in the season, and the subscribers have their tickets. The playwright turns down a guaranteed production while waiting for a commercial producer to put together a package that never happens. These times frames don’t merge; they intersect.

And perhaps nothing rang truer than the issue of intention. If the intention is to go to Broadway and that is seen as a foregone conclusion before the production at the not-for-profit as opposed to an awareness that if the work is successful then there might be a future life and this is who would shepherd it, the work will suffer and the not-for-profit will suffer. And the press will be on to you.

Another level is qualitative and much more troubling to me. The report outlines in no uncertain terms how much enhancement has become an integral part of the not-for-profit business model in the eyes of its leaders as well as an integral part of the commercial producers’ development model. The conversation says much about the underlying reasons for the increasingly complex relationship and how it has evolved. I found myself needing to lay out the story in a linear fashion, to recap what I know of the history as it relates to this intersection.

As we know, and as recounted in the report by those with a historical long view, the not-for-profit theatre movement started with clear idea of what it wanted to be. The founders articulated how they were going to be different and what their relationship would be to the community where they put down roots. But they had no idea of what they were going to grow into. I suspect they couldn’t imagine it. And the movement got its footing at a moment in time when significant cultural players thought it was important to support it. Foundations funded the new theatres and encouraged them to think of themselves as a group, government policy said the citizens should help pay for it, universities committed to training programs, and explosive social issues created appetite for wide ranging artistic voices and styles. Broadway began to realize the occasional production might emerge, ready to take on the commercial marketplace.

But as the story was laid out over the two days, sometime in the late seventies, things changed in a more profound way than I had realized. Not having been around when it all started, I never really understood that there was a time when it felt like there was enough support, or that support would keep growing. As reported by the participants who were there in the beginning, the combination of key foundations’ changed priorities, government policy makers disinclination to increase the taxpayer funding as the sector grew, and the swerve of the cultural climate towards the right combined to weaken the underpinnings of the not-for-profit sector even as it continued to grow in number. As Michael David said early on in the convening in reference to his early producing career in the not-for-profit sector, “… those partners who were complicit in our existence, national and local governments, foundations… those complicit partners pulled out the rug. They abandoned us…. They started something they couldn’t finish and went away.” Some folks, including Michael, responded by moving into the commercial sector. As he says “… we just decided ‘Hell, we’re not going to go begging anymore.’ We turned to the dark side.”

For those who didn’t move away, as the resources dwindled, the challenges got tougher. Theatres continued to open all over the country. Training programs produced greater and greater numbers of artists. Size became a metric of success. The theatres that were there at the beginning got bigger and bigger.

And in a parallel universe, the commercial model changed as well. The out of town tryout, which for decades had successfully provided productions with multiple opportunities to develop, to put the work out in the marketplace and figure out what had to be changed to increase its commercial appeal, got more and more expensive. Musicals also got bigger and bigger, requiring more physical production and compounding the problem of how to finance development.

So, as we know, the two sectors found each other. They needed each other. And in the beginning, as noted above, it went pretty well. The arrangements were practical, rooted in economic and artistic need. But as the enhancement arrangements proliferated, convening members report that boards began to have different metrics for success. Boards were no longer made up of friends of the founder who had a clear understanding of the founder’s vision. Those folks were gone. The new board members had a different view, a different role, and a much bigger institution to keep afloat. They liked it when a show at their theatre was linked to a Broadway production.

Programming changes have also increased enhancement arrangements. Big theatres require big audiences. The quest for big audiences leads to the selection of material that the leadership thinks will appeal to the greatest number of people. The programming is therefore more commercial and thus the opportunities for enhancement become more frequent.

It is the not-for-profit that bears the brunt of the criticism in this new relationship. A significant theme running through the second day of the conversations was that the not-for-profits were no longer staying true to their mission. I am not sure that is a productive conversation. I might rephrase the conversation and suggest that the need expressed by not-for-profits to enter into enhancement deals in order to achieve financial stability leads to a loss of focus on founding principles. Those founding principles included a commitment to producing work that didn’t have to have commercial potential; a commitment to providing access to the work to a wide and varying audience; a commitment to the community in which the theatre did its work; and a commitment to artists to provide a home for them.

The commercial producers seem quick to criticize the not-for-profit theatre for mission drift and for selling out, but they are not willing to acknowledge (or the conversation didn’t get there) their complicity. They are reliant on the enhancement model for the development of new musicals. In the rare case where a musical isn’t the child of an enhancement deal, it’s a transfer. Given their dependence, a little less conversation about mission drift and a little more conversation about best practices is in order.

At the end of the conversation, David Dower asked the group to consider what might go into a statement that could guide successful collaborations. After some initial discomfort, the group came up with thirty-one ideas. Some of them are impractical, some of them are absolutist, and some of them are practical ideas, which speak to how the relationships evolve. I hope there is a next step with the list. One might ask “Does it matter?” I think it matters a great deal. The purist in me would like to see the practice go away, but it is clear that, absent an infusion of resources for the not-for-profits and a new economically viable development path for the commercial productions, it is here to stay. The group that gathered at Arena was populated by good people from both sectors who respect and understand each other and who all strive to create work that “makes the hair on your neck stand up.” Their collaborations represent the good end of the spectrum. But there is the other end of the spectrum, not represented at the convening. I have heard many of the stories of those collaborations and they are ugly. They happen all too frequently and they threaten to drag us all down. We must focus on best practices and share them.

Bookmark this page

Log in to add a bookmark


Add Comment

The article is just the start of the conversation—we want to know what you think about this subject, too! HowlRound is a space for knowledge-sharing, and we welcome spirited, thoughtful, and on-topic dialogue. Find our full comments policy here

Newest First

Thank you for engaging the conversation in this way, Tory. Very helpful contribution. Funny, you say some might ask if it matters. At one point in the conversation there was such a sense of "what's the big deal?" from the participants that I actually asked flat out "Is there even a problem here or am I just making this up?" Of course I knew there was, and is, a problem-- a whole slew of problems in fact. But at that moment the lack of urgency on the part of the some of the participants was surprising to me. A couple of the nonprofit participants felt that the problem was really limited to some "bad actors" in the sector, none of which was their organization. Many of the commercial producers felt the onus was entirely on the nonprofits- "don't do the deal if it's bad for your organization". To be fair, as you can tell from Diane's report, there was also a deep sense of the urgency among other participants on both ends of the spectrum. I guess that I just expected, at the time, that the fact that the gathered were all active in this intersection would mean a broadly shared sense of the problems there would be a given.

Some weeks back there was a very well articulated column in the New York Times from David Brooks about Brutality Cascades. Polly wrote a bit about it here. When I read it, I immediately thought about how this idea was playing out in the commercial/non-profit intersection. I will quote it, but I recommend people go read the original column. http://www.nytimes.com/2013...

He begins "Let’s say you were a power hitter during baseball’s steroids era. You may have objected to steroids on moral and health grounds. But many of your competitors were using them, so you faced enormous pressure to use them too." In certain sorts of competitions, "the most brutal player gets to set the rules."

If you think about this in our field, and in relationship to this intersection in particular, you get a pretty clear sense of what he's talking about and its impact on all of us whether we are playing in this sandbox or not.

First of all, the intersection is a collision of competitive agendas. Within and among the commercial actors there is the relentless drive to discover the next big winner. (As Michael Friedman said, everyone's after the next Rent and anything less is "not the next Rent".) Within the nonprofits there's the endless competition for status and heat-- who's on top? (At this particular moment the leader in this sweepstakes is clearly ART and Diane Paulus.) Even inside the individual institutions there is the competition for the support of the Board. And no faster way to lose that support in some places than to appear "less than" an Artistic Director at another theater in the Broadway derby. So, it's a competitive playing field for many of the organizations and individuals engaging in this arena. The winners and losers will be announced live on television in a few weeks at the Tony Awards.

Second, the competition is, in fact, often brutal. Perhaps not intentionally, but simply by virtue of its Darwinian rules of engagement. There will be winners and there will be losers. Winners will take away profits, awards, and prestige. Losers will be left to explain their outcomes to investors, Boards, subscribers, funders. There is no "blended bottom line" in this competition-- talking of the social benefits of these economic and status failures is a wan attempt to put a good spin on a losing outing.

So, when we think about the notion of a Brutality Cascade as it impacts here, we see that those producers (on both sides) are either setting the brutality dial (including the price tag for getting into the game, the rules of engagement around the artistic decision making, and how success is going to be defined) or responding to that pressure by accepting the new realities of the brutalities. The same cascade can be seen with celebrity casting in nonprofit theater-- do it, and reap the financial benefits, press, and reflected glory of a newfound status among your peers. Resist and lag behind in all those measures of success.

I was a big fan of Barry Bonds during his years as a San Francisco Giant. I remember, very keenly, his evident pain at the McGwire/Sosa year in baseball, when both of them broke Roger Maris' homerun record in the same season and reaped huge rewards-- though it was totally obvious to every fan of the game that these results were "enhanced" through steroids. And lo and behold, the next thing you know a bulked up Bonds is clobbering every record in the books and obliterating these guys entirely. Bonds was the best player of his era. And he was falling behind the curve of his sport not for any diminished ability, but owing to the changing brutality of the competition. Once he succumbed to that pressure, he was once again on top.

Are some nonprofits juicing? Yes they are. Do they have an alternative in this era? Yes they do. Are those alternatives as attractive as the profits, status, and profile that comes with enhanced performance?

I happen to think that we are all one big sector and that there are important roles for commercial and nonprofit approaches to the work. I even still believe there is a middle ground in which these collaborations can take place without brutalizing the playing field for any of us. I personally haven't found it yet but I will keep looking. And I am confident that the seekers here, yourself among them, are smarter than the problem.

Thank you very much, Tory, for this insightful & important history lesson. Especially grateful to hear your thoughts on the future IMPLICATIONS.

Fantastic thoughts, presented with balance and a sense of the real world as well as the ideal. I especially applaud insight about the fact that these collaborations are most likely to succeed when leadership from both teams is there because they are artistically invested in THAT PRODUCTION - they care about the project in the moment, and are not invested for the sake of gains further down the field.

Tory, Thanks so much for taking the time to read the report and share these reflections. You've succinctly and thoughtfully lined up the dots, provided additional context, pushed back, and nudged in all the right places. x/Diane

Subscribe to HowlRound

Sign up for our daily, weekly, or quarterly emails so you never miss the latest theatre conversations.

Sign me up

Supporting HowlRound

We fundraise to keep all our programs free and open and to pay our contributors. Thank you to all who make our work possible!

Donate today