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Rethinking the Commoditized Theatre and the Public Space

“I love the professional theatre. I’m trained and cultured in what widely would be seen as the LORT theatre machine, or as I call it the non-profit industrial complex. I see that it’s broken, and that it’s not even living up to its own mission.” — Jennifer Zeyl, artistic director of Intiman Theatre, Seattle

A Legacy for Mixed Metaphors

Contemporary professional theatre has its roots in commerce—European theatremakers of the sixteenth century, for instance, created their work as a means for commercial gain. Think of Shakespeare: the Lord Chamberlain’s Men and the King’s Men were strictly for-profit endeavors. Today, the Shubert and Nederlander Organizations, as well as Buena Vista Theatrical Group (aka Disney), command an enormously successful position on the commercial end of the theatrical spectrum. In the non-profit sector, theatre companies’ mission statements speak of innovation—particularity, social engagement, and community transformation—yet their actions reflect a hardwired predisposition for commoditization. Theatre companies speak of themselves as public libraries, but they function like bookstores. It is a problem of competing metaphors.

I work as producing artistic director for Square Top Theatre, a non-profit company that makes new work for theatre and film, and as associate professor of Theatre & Dance at Gonzaga University. How professional theatremakers conceive of their role in the community frames their work, and because working professionals lead our country’s academic theatre programs, that framing shapes the training of the next generation of theatremakers. This means we will continue to pass on our legacy for mixed metaphors unless we work to activate more consistent concepts.

This article is not for the Nederlander set. Their metaphors are clear; they are the Powell’s Books—or, in Disney’s case, the Amazon.com—to our public libraries. This article is, instead, for theatremakers working in the non-profit sector to advance bold and timely visions despite the wider culture’s primary value for commerce and uniformity.

two actors onstage

Sarah Harlett and Conner Neddersen in Intiman Theatre's production of The Events by David Greig. Photo by Joe Moore.

In contrast to the professional theatre’s commercial roots, our non-profit missions reflect the legacy of amateurs upon our artform. In a recent speech, Italian director and theatre anthropologist Eugenio Barba, of Denmark’s Odin Teatret, explains that amateurs—lovers and clerics of the theatre—created “a Copernican revolution” for our medium, making “theatre necessary for those who do it, not only for economic reasons, but also as a cultural and spiritual need.” These amateurs, whose livelihoods did not—and do not—depend upon the salability of their work, could take far greater risks than their commercial siblings.

The challenge with that shift came in the twentieth century when the professional theatre began to absorb these higher callings by taking greater creative risks to the peril of their bottom lines. The metaphors of the professional theatre began to mix. In many incidences around the world, individual patronage and public arts subsidies stepped up to support the work when box office receipts could not keep up with the creative risks. Name a European master of the twentieth century and it doesn’t take long to uncover the state or endowed support that enabled their work. “How long would Stanislavski and his Moscow Art Theatre have survived without grants?” asks Barba. But in the United States, we don’t operate in a system of adventurous subsidies. Our system expects self-sufficiency; our work thrives on interdependence.

We did, however, experiment with state-sponsored theatre during the 1930s. The Federal Theatre Project was a widely successful national initiative and part of Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration. It brought theatre to every corner of the country and provided sustainable employment to theatremakers of every discipline and in a wide range of cultural enclaves. It took one Revolt of the Beavers, a Marxist children’s play that premiered in 1937, to bring the whole system down after just four years.

Theatre companies speak of themselves as public libraries, but they function like bookstores. It is a problem of competing metaphors.

Today, American theatremakers work in a climate of scarce—and scared—federal and state support. The substantial subsidies and grants that remain are given, rightly or wrongly, to the same large cultural institutions over and over. The rest of us are left to compete for smaller project grants, mostly well below ten thousand dollars.

The effect of this legacy for mixed metaphors and a lack of public funding of the arts is a numbing of artistic innovation and an enlivening of artistic repetition. Companies often opt for what seems like more saleable programming—reliable commodities, you might say—to eke out new works initiatives. But commodification is a distraction from doing the real work that our mission statements claim we do.

a vintage show poster

Poster for The Revolt of the Beavers by an unknown WPA artist, 1937. Music Division, Library of Congress.

Radical Hospitality

For most theatre companies, ticket sales amount to only a small percentage of their operating budgets. They rely on philanthropy, which is noble, but for that to succeed they have to find a way to integrate their work “into the larger tissue of the community life,” as one of the co–artistic directors of Ashfield, Massachuetts’ Double Edge Theatre, Carlos Uriona, told me recently, or else “the value [of our work] is reduced to a monetary exchange as an object of entertainment.” In an age saturated with far more convenient entertainment options, we cannot compete in the same marketplace. Barba puts it more directly: “The theatre as a whole has become an archaic minority genre in the panoply of our time’s performance forms.”

Still, what if we could work less like bookstores and more like public libraries—public libraries for live storytelling? Consider the path of Seattle’s Intiman Theatre, whose newly articulated mission is: “Intiman wrestles with American inequities.” I wondered how it manifests in practice. Artistic director Jennifer Zeyl explained:

If there is an education program, if there is a community event that we can hold up, if there is a town hall we can facilitate, if there is a conversation that needs to happen, that also is the work of the theatre…. It’s not just transactional. It’s a more relational mission.

Intiman made news this spring when it announced their Community Ticket Project—inspired by Minneapolis’s Mixed Blood Theatre and their long-standing program of Radical Hospitality—making all their seats free of charge for their recent production of The Events by David Greig. (Interestingly, Intiman, a Tony Award–winning regional theatre, had gone out of business in 2011, closing its doors midseason and squeaking through an emergency fundraising effort in 2012 before reforming as a summer theatre festival. Since then, they have retired more than $2.5 million dollars of accrued debt and began this season debt free.)

As of one week before the opening of The Events, over 80 percent of tickets had been reserved online. Compare that to March 2019, when at the same point prior to opening Caught by Christopher Chen—which didn’t have free tickets—they were at only 5 percent reserved. It is clear the Community Ticket Project yielded an extraordinarily high advanced community response. But perhaps more importantly, “one thing we can tell already,” said Zeyl, “is that 70 percent of the folks who have logged in and reserved their free tickets … have never seen a show at Intiman.”

The Community Ticket Project also means that every performance of The Events, a play exploring forgiveness in the wake of a mass school shooting, features a community discussion. While it’s common for theatres to use talkbacks to engage audiences, at Intiman every member of their team—administrators, front of house staff, actors, and crew—received specialized training in how to conduct such conversations and deal with the wide-ranging opinions and emotions that would, no doubt, come out of the show. As Zeyl put it: “If you’re not trying to sell something, your staff has time to do a trauma-informed practice training with healthcare professionals because they’re not constantly trying to update the Twitter feed…. No one is good at selling tickets right now.”

Commodification is a distraction from doing the real work that our mission statements claim we do.

Relationships – Within and Without

Barba’s address also points out that the professional theatre’s struggle against commoditization includes “the manner in which a theatre imagines and develops its structure of internal relationships and interactions with the outside.” This is a model for the professional theatre that looks as much inward as outward. This is a theatre—despite our gig economy—that’s made up of committed, interdependent ensemble and community members. This is a theatre that pursues shared questions and communal points of inquiry over the course of years and multiple productions. This is a theatre that can risk pursuing enduring questions—a concept that remains vital despite being distinctly out of fashion at the moment—and has the freedom to set about its work with long-range curiosity and a sense of unknowing. This is not a theatre built around formulaic processes designed to churn out as many theatrical products as cheaply as possible.

Double Edge Theatre occupies a place in this section of the library metaphor. Founded in 1982 by Stacy Klein, it began as a feminist theatre and theatre laboratory, and today it produces exclusively original work that evokes Peter Brook’s “Holy Theatre,” or, as Brook clarified, “the Theatre of the Invisible-Made-Visible.” Double Edge prioritizes the physical, relational, and visual aspects of theatre as much or more than the audible, verbal, and literary. As it reads on the company’s website: “The prevailing theme of all of DE’s performances are the courage and necessity of the imagination in the progress and sustainability of human life.” Their productions challenge an audience’s expectations about what can be accomplished within the theatrical space. It is not about the form but what the form might reveal.

Similar to Barba’s long-standing ensemble at Odin Teatret, Double Edge Theatre’s core company members—artistic and administrative—train together rigorously and consistently. As co–artistic director Jennifer Johnson explains in an interview previously published by HowlRound, “[training is] the creative act rather than preparation for the creative act.” This highly physical training pulls from a host of sources and includes resistance training, object work (giant spools, cement blocks, balancing apparatuses), stilt walking, flying and aerial silks, plastiques, yoga, the exploration of archetypes, and, most especially, partner work. As Klein describes it:

You have the resistance of your partner; you can’t make your partner do what you want … so there’s a sense of real engagement and play. And then it’s developed to have a sense of risk … maybe you jump on someone’s back, or you walk on someone’s back, or you throw someone.

The focus is always on relationships and sustained connections, within and without.

Alongside their site-specific summer spectacles and touring performances, Double Edge hosts monthly training sessions for community members, weeklong intensives for theatre artists from around the world, and longer programs for apprenticing artists. Klein refers to Double Edge not as a theatre but as “a center of Living Culture.” Local relationships are as integral to the work as anything else. In her words, Living Culture is “playing music, dancing, gathering, talking, creating together, and participating in the theatre and other art that is created. On a daily basis, from childhood to death.” This is a theatre well outside of business metaphors, but, like a public library, Double Edge celebrates the intersections of its communities and flourishes when the doors are held open to everyone.

an actor onstage

Justin Huertas in Intiman Theatre's production of Caught by Christopher Chen. Photo by Naomi Ishisaka.

Community-Based Development

How might the library metaphor be used to enable and empower the work of so many independent theatremakers and small companies in this country who operate with meager budgets and limited access to facilities? Consider the freedom that comes from refusing to go into the business of selling, and consider that theatre might be created as less of a commodity and more of a public service. Like many smaller community libraries, the strength of our efforts relies on the partnerships that we forge. What assets—equipment, knowledge, facilities, access, and relationships—does a community possess that it might be willing to share? What alliances might be made to accomplish mutually beneficial goals? This is sustainable community-based development.

Such practices should not be confused with community-based theatre, a form of applied theatre where community members participate in the artistic creation process as a means of confronting social issues of local importance. Many of these community-based theatre companies thrive on community-based development strategies to get their work off the ground; this kind of development is an effective method for generating local operational support for any kind of new initiative, artistic or otherwise. The objective is to harness shared goals and outcomes to gather tangible community support for a project. The first step is to engage in asset mapping—widely defined as “a process of collecting, recording, analyzing, and synthesizing information in order to describe the cultural resources, networks, links, and patterns of usage of a given community or group.”

Like many smaller community libraries, the strength of our efforts relies on the partnerships that we forge.

Square Top Theatre began as a traditional repertory company in Pagosa Springs, Colorado, though our work tends to contrast with the standard revivals required by the commodified American theatre. In 2009, we transformed into a contemporary artist collective to encourage greater creative risk-taking and more financial responsibility and sustainability. Today, we operate from Spokane, Washington, but our ensemble members also live throughout the country and abroad. For the last ten years, we operate debt free, working over long distances with expansive timelines to create ambitious projects that challenge disciplinary definition. Our funding comes largely from individual donors and university, state, and local project grants. We prioritize ongoing artistic collaborations and thrive on community partnerships wherever we make our work, in the United States and abroad.

In 2014, we premiered Now at the Uncertain Hour by Square Top playwright and poet Damon Falke. The production incorporated live performance, online streaming, and broadcast radio. This was the show that convinced me of the necessity of community-based development, particularly as a pathway for enabling new work. Now at the Uncertain Hour featured an actor speaking a poetic narrative, a reel-to-reel recording of a soldier’s memories of WWII, a fretless banjo, and a modular synthesizer. Square Top Theatre produced the show with North Country Public Radio and St. Lawrence University, with funding from New York Council for the Humanities. The show premiered at Edwards Opera House in Edwards, New York—a rural community in the far north with a population of 1,156. But through the strength of our partnerships and the access granted by those alliances, the show reached an initial live audience of roughly 46,000—a total that included our community members in house and our radio and online listeners.

Now at the Uncertain Hour asked, “What can we take hold of that will go on, that will not be lost?” Our current production, The Scent of a Thousand Rains, devised from a book-length poem by Falke, is a performance piece in verse for an actor and a violinist. It poses a response to that question: perhaps in a life of transience and loss, love and imagination are all that remain to us and of us. As a project, it only works because of the partnerships we’ve built with Spokane Public Radio, Spokane Public Library, and Washington State Parks. And, thanks to support from Spokane Arts Grant Awards, all seats for our premiere performances were offered free of charge.

three actor/musicians onstage

Now at the Uncertain Hour at Square Top Theatre.

Resistance Training

To develop work under this library metaphor requires a theatremaker to lean into multiple points of resistance. Consider it an extension of “resistance training,” where an artist pushes against the boundaries of strength, will, desire, and focus in order to forge new capacities. It takes courage. It is not easy to make new and challenging work in a system that rewards more commercially reliable content.

Recently Spokane Public Library came under fire for its open-door policy allowing access to everyone–housed and unhoused—and for its new Drag Queen Story Hour during Pride Month. It would be easier for the library to let in only certain community members and to program more sanctioned book clubs, but, if it did, it would not be the community of learning it aims to be. Instead, the library leans into resistance.

Barba concludes his speech saying, “What is theatre? It is the supreme science of the mystery of life, accessible even to the disinherited of the earth”—a definition that demands both the removal of barriers and a willing pursuit of the unknown. But to realize this vision, non-profit professional theatres must stop thinking and acting like for-profit businesses—like bookstores—providing reliable commodities via one-way transactions to only those who can afford them. Instead, theatremakers ought to look to libraries as a more inspiring model.

This is a concept for the theatre that is, as Barba suggests, “politics by other means,” and it is not an easy path. There is so much resistance for what we do in the theatre, but it is possible to build new capacities. American non-profit theatres, like our public libraries, can work towards radical hospitality and the removal of barriers, foster enduring relationships within and without, and embrace the risks necessary to create new programming that engages and supports community partnerships and shared goals.

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Having worked in admin or leadership in "non-profit" theatre for much of the last decade, I couldn't agree with the premise of this essay more. 

My personal opinion is that we're headed for an economic paradigm shift in the business of theatre in the United States. Unless by some miracle, public funding becomes more of a thing, my suspicion is that the next sustainable model (at least for a generation or two) will be hyper-local, predominately original (or updated) work.

Like the article states, I don't think that will affect the Nederlanders of the world (or whatever theatre is capable of housing "Dear Evan Hansen" when it tours through), but for those creatives who want an outlet for their own unique voices, the nonprofit model appears to be broken - beholden to "safe" choices.

I'm actually quite excited about the future of theatre. I think we're entering into a new golden age of playwrighting with a multitude of  perspectives that can wake up a sleepy industry - particularly in small and midsize communities and academia. But I also think it's probably going to be a rocky road, economically, for such creative voices - at least in the near future - while the new idiom is established with a new generation of theatregoers. 

Call me cautiously optimistic about the future. 

 

Thank you, Jadd. We're in a cultural moment that seems right for more original work with attention to local voices. The question is about the economics of that shift. How can theatremakers earn what they need to from that sort of work? The library model I propose is, perhaps, one step along the way, but it requires a commitment to incremental returns. Double Edge Theatre is an example for how local relationships can enable new work that reaches regional and national audiences, but it has taken a commitment of more than three decades for them to get there. I also don't mean to suggest that "scaling" is the only path to success, but our system provides few other models. The for-profit theatres in this country make a practice of capitalizing on other countries' public subsidies. The Guardian this week, speaking of Belgian director Ivo Van Hove, articulate's "Broadway's dirty secret" this way: "Its money-making machine depends on artists and productions nurtured by European government subsidies...when Van Hove is hired in the United States, Broadway producers are buying an artistic sensibility and a talent for provocation honed in state-funded theatrical laboratories across Europe, plus expertise that is the product of working relationships stretching back decades." In the non-profit sector, we have to find a way to provide for similar on-going collaborative relationships and innovations without public support. That will keep us on our heels until the "new idiom", as you nicely put it, finds a way forward. Still, I share your optimism that there is a way forward, rocky and slow though it might be. 

I read the Guardian article in between posting my comment and reading yours. It's fascinating! 

 I've been wondering about this type of arrangement as an entrepreneur in the voice field. Case-in-point: I charge a per-lesson fee that is probably not affordable for the average artist. My bread-and-butter is high schoolers whose parents pay for lessons. No disparagement toward the young and funded, but if I'm trying to reach the artists of my community, I've either got to lower my rates (untenable for me as a working professional), or find some other way of funding the opportunity. I've considered crowdsourcing an annual salary and then teaching for "free", I've considered setting up my own non-profit with me as the sole employee, etc. etc. I think there are the resources available in my community of 120,000 people, but I've got to discover them...

BUT! If I do, how do I keep the stream sustainable? What if others start adopting the same approach?

This is probably the biggest unanswered question I have at the moment: How is the criteria for "worthy" determined? Art, by definition is unmeasurable. What makes my aesthetic more fundable than anyone else's? Is it a matter of administrative acumen? Is it a matter of addressing certain issues? I worry we start swirling the same "free market" drain, even if there's a public source of funds. 

Having said all that, my theory on local (hyper-local) work allows for the idiosyncrasies of individual communities, which in turn allows for variability of strategy that creates wholly unique artistic landscapes. I am interested in whether a model can work the same in say, Spokane and Missoula, or if a completely community-specific approach needs to be considered.

Lots of big thoughts! Thank you for instigating them!!!