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Towards a Sustainable Theatre Model

Scott Walters is an author, professor, and theatre historian whose new book, Building a Sustainable Theater: How to Remove Gatekeepers and Take Control of Your Artistic Career outlines a fresh new take on how small theatre companies can reestablish their footholds within an industry that increasingly sees them as expendable. Earlier this year, Scott sat down with HowlRound fellow Munroe Shearer to discuss the book, this history of centralized theatre, and how we can return power to artist-owned theatres that best serve local communities.

Munroe Shearer: Talk to me about the decision to make the book available completely for free online. Why was this model of access so important to you?

Scott Walters: I’ve always disliked gatekeepers, and publishers are gatekeepers. It would have been hypocritical of me to suggest people start their own theatres if I wasn’t willing to publish my own book!

Another issue was speed: I had had the experience of publishing a textbook through a major publisher, and it took forever for the book to become available. I wanted my book out quickly because in the summer of 2023 everything seemed like it was crashing, and it seemed to me like an alternative vision was needed. Also, publishers want books that echo conventional wisdom, which is definitely not this book.

Why free? Because my target audience is probably early career, or even coming out of college. They probably are frustrated, and they probably don’t have a huge amount of money. So, I thought, let’s just make it available, not only free, but in a way that allows readers to send an easy link to a friend or collaborator.

Munroe: You mention these large-scale changes over the summer, but tell me more about why this book feels so important to this moment?

Scott: In a lot of ways, I’ve been writing this book for fifteen years. I got a National Endowment for the Arts grant fifteen years ago to develop business models for theatres in small and more rural communities, and then I taught that material for years afterward. But suddenly, over this summer, things really begin to tank at the regional theatre level. And what interested me is that it seemed to be the largest theatres that were getting hit particularly hard. To me, that indicated that the business model was starting to fall apart.

There were two things that were said when all of this was coming out. One was about donor fatigue: the idea that people are tired of constantly having to contribute year after year to the same theatre.

Munroe: Right. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, when we’re used to this constant deluge of crisis in every area of our lives, donor fatigue takes on a new level. Donors are forced to say, “when everything is falling apart, how can I justify sustaining this one thing that’s falling apart.”

Scott: Absolutely. And donors are at the center of the nonprofit theatre model. What’s interesting to me was that there are smaller groups of younger artists that are not being hit nearly as hard by these huge crashes. They’ve been able to transition their methods of connection with their audiences into new formats, and that those connections were so strong that they ended up doing just fine. They were far less reliant on donors to begin with, so donor fatigue wasn’t an earthquake like it was in the big theatres.

Those New York touring productions are coming in without any connection to the audience or community, and the audience has no connection to the performers. It has become a transaction; they’re buying a product.

Munroe: Totally. When things change drastically, the group that grew up inside of that change is going to see it as a much more hospitable creative environment than a group that is used to one system and has a new one thrust upon them. Pandemic theatre is the only version of professional theatre than an entire generation of artists has had access to.

I’m interested in how we ended up at that structure though.

You give a history lesson in the book about the Theatrical Syndicate, and how it can still be felt in the business models of theatres today. Can you talk a little bit more about what the Syndicate is and what remnants of it we still see today?

Scott: Definitely. It’s so fascinating to me that this isn’t taught everywhere in Theatre 101 classes.

Munroe: I couldn’t believe this was my first time hearing this story.

Scott: The short version of it is this: before the Theatrical Syndicate, which was formed in 1896, there were thousands of stock companies throughout the United States. These theatres had their own seasons, but they also were also visited by famous actor-managers like Edwin Booth, James O’Neill, or Charlotte Cushman, and they would perform with the actors of the resident stock company. It worked for both the company and the actor-managers. Think of it this way: a celebrity actor like, say, I don’t know, Andie MacDowell might tour the country performing Love Letters with a local community theatre actor in each town. The theatre would likely be packed, right? So that was the model in the nineteenth century.

The Theatrical Syndicate was a group of money men who owned theatre spaces all over the country. They were tired of actor-managers telling them what percentage of revenue they would get, what plays they wanted to do, and so forth. In other words, they wanted more control and a bigger cut of the pie. So, they met at a hotel on Fifth Avenue in New York and brainstormed how they might do that. They decided that the theatre spaces were key. Distances between large cities were too big for centralized tours at that time, so it required one-off stops in smaller towns along the way. The syndicate bought up the smaller theatres between the big cities. Then they told the actor-managers: if you want to perform here, you have to work for us. You have to be our employees. We’ll choose the plays you do, how much you get paid, how long the tour is. Everything. From there, they had total control of what plays they could do in those spaces, how much actors would get paid, etc.

Once the train system got strong enough to allow an entire production to travel between these cities, not just the star, the stock companies were cut out, and the entire production became centralized in New York City. So, the stock companies died, and casting was centralized in New York.

A black and white photo of the exterior of an opera house.

The Coldren Opera House in Iowa City, Iowa. Circa 1875.

Munroe: It has created a culture where, to a non-theatre going audience, the entire conversation is around what Broadway tour is coming to my local playhouse. The money is funneled into there and out of local theatre projects. It’s a shift for audiences as well as theatremakers.

Scott: And those New York touring productions are coming in without any connection to the audience or community, and the audience has no connection to the performers. It has become a transaction; they’re buying a product.

Munroe: Okay, so that’s how we got here. Now I want to hear about your vision for smaller, artist-owned, for-profit theatre companies that operate as a central thesis of the book. The idea of being exclusively for-profit is so fascinating. What would this mean for these theatres?

Scott: That’s at the center of it. In my model (which is based on Shakespeare’s the King’s Men and just about every theatre company throughout most of theatre history), company members own shares in the theatre and are paid according to their share of the company profits. I’m trying to get artists to think of themselves as owners, not employees. So there’s a direct connection between the bottom line and their bank account. But the artists are in charge! They decide what plays to do, who is doing what, how much money will be spent on a production, and so forth. Where we’re at right now, everybody, including the artistic and executive directors, can be hired and fired at the drop of a hat. We’re seeing it happen regularly. I don’t think that’s a positive. What makes that comfortable for artists is that they’re getting paid regardless of the success of their work.

In this new model, the people who are going to be part of the company buy a share in the company, so that every decision being made is going to directly affect how much money is coming into your pocket from that theatre. Of course, the argument is that you can’t make money in the arts. That’s why the nonprofit model exists, so that the gap between expenses and income can be filled with contributions. But along with that comes a huge number of staff to handle grant writing, fundraising, marketing, box office. Some of these theatres that are crashing have hundreds of staff members! I don’t think that’s sustainable. A theatre needs to be small, agile, and lean. You don’t need these big staffs to support a small theatre!

A smaller theatre that serves a specific community can build an individual relationship with that community and keep those community members coming back for more. Not only does this allow the work to be more personal, but it also allows the work to be responsive. For example, who could have predicted the massive cultural phenomenon that the collision of Barbie and Oppenheimer had over the summer? It’s this magical moment of cultural conversation that came out of a unique moment, and if you’ve scheduled your entire season the previous spring, you can’t respond to it. A smaller, scrappier theatre company could say, “Let’s plan upcoming programming around this cultural moment that will engage and bring together our local audience into our work.” Those moments build trust and connection between you and your fans.

Munroe: How does a smaller theatre company go about building and developing that audience that trusts and cares for them?

Scott: You build your audience one person at a time. The idea is not that you have a mass, general appeal to every member of the community for every show. The idea is to pick a certain kind of person and build relationships until they’re pulled into the fold. What stories are being told? Not just stories that appeared sometime in New York City, but what new stories that connect to those communities will engage and challenge those audiences? We want stories that people will be talking about in line at the grocery store.

Munroe: One of the things that you discuss in the book is the need for each theatre to have a playwright as an integral part of the process, and that’s the perfect justification for it. The playwright can write the stories of the community that they understand.

The theatre wants audience members that are going to resonate most with the work, which is also the most beneficial from a financial standpoint and from an artistic one.

Scott: Playwrights are the most forgotten artists in today’s theatre. Shakespeare was a playwright! Molière was a playwright! They were writing work that was specific to the communities that they inhabited and to the actors they were working with. I believe that a commitment needs to be made to the playwright to say that the theatre will produce everything that they write. Not a reading, not a workshop, a full production. Playwrights develop in the same way that the actors and directors do—by being in front of an audience. If the playwright is a shareholder, the money that they make is directly connected to the level that they’re engaging their community in their work.

Munroe: It’s work that resonates with the community.

Scott: A perfect word, it resonates with the community. You’re not going to do something that is really going to go against the ethos of the community because you have to stand with them in line at the grocery store the next day. I’m not talking about pandering. It doesn’t mean that you can’t raise things that are going to be challenging in some way, but you do it in the way that you can challenge someone sitting across from you at a potluck. It’s not just hurling a bomb and running away; it’s real engagement with the heavy topics.

Munroe: I think that’s so wonderful and wise because it allows the community to be challenged from an insider. Their beliefs aren’t being attacked by someone who doesn’t know or understand them.

Scott: For the company, it’s not as much about getting butts in seats, but the right butts in the seats. In other words, the theatre wants audience members that are going to resonate most with the work, which is also the most beneficial from a financial standpoint and from an artistic one.

Munroe: On maintaining these changes, you talk in the book about how mission statements have gradually become ineffective over time. What steps can these theatres you propose be taking to make more effective vision statements that will serve them and their communities over time?

Scott: I say this as somebody who has written my fair share. Out of the positive motivations, the goal of a mission statement has become to not leave anything out. “We’re going to do big plays with lots of people, and small plays with a few people, and musicals, and non-musicals, classics and new plays”—you get the picture. That doesn’t help you.

When the artists come together to decide on what they want their theatre to be, they should be setting real guidelines for the kind of shows that they want to produce and then finding the audience that wants that too. When a play crosses the table, if it doesn’t align with what we set out to do, we can be more comfortable passing it up. This isn’t to say that it shouldn’t be revisited every few years to say “is this still who we are?” so that the company can grow and change with the community.

Without those boundaries, you end up with mission creep. If there’s a ten thousand dollar grant that sort of aligns with your mission that you reach out for anyway because you need that money, then the theatre loses any sense of identity that it started with.

A group of people ask questions to a panel.

Meeting of theatre leaders at Double Edge Theatre in Ashfield, Massachusetts. Scott Walters stands back right.

Munroe: This also echoes the idea of establishing trust with an audience. Once the audience knows what you do and that you do it well, they feel more comfortable engaging with your shows repeatedly.

Scott: Exactly! Going back to the Barbenheimer phenomenon and being able to respond, I want to add here that I’m a huge fan of rotating rep. There’s a tech company called 37 Signals that defines their budgets of time and money only six weeks in advance. I love this! Why do we have to announce a full season a year in advance? If we’re on a six- or eight- week track of deciding what the next play is going to be, then I can respond to the needs of the community at an individual moment, and I can respond to box office conditions as well. If a play makes a total loss, for instance, you can always pull out a popular show that you did in the past that you have the costumes, actors, and set pieces for that the community will be excited to see return. You can make up for a show that didn’t do as well as you anticipated.

Munroe: That allows for a theatre to be responsive to the community’s needs on cultural moments, but also on global and political moments. It would be powerful if theatres could respond on a shorter timeframe to an event like the violence in Palestine, to use a current example.

Scott: Exactly. It allows for your theatre to be a resource to your community not only for entertainment but for catharsis, education, and perspective.

Munroe: That’s so poignant. Thank you so much for this book and for this work, Scott.

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