I’m taking a quick break from the blog series that grew out of my workshops at SWTC to highlight the signs that the nonprofit theatre reckoning is here; the reckoning many of us saw coming at the beginning of the pandemic…but was blissfully delayed by SVOG funding.
Yesterday, I read this article on Williamstown Theatre Festival and then the news about Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s emergency campaign hit my my social feeds. On the surface, these appear to be very different situations. Nataki Garrett, as the first Black woman to helm OSF, was handed an enormous organization with many more structural flaws than she, the public, and quite possibly the board itself were aware. Although, we do, as an industry, have a strong history of handing of organizations to women and people of color once they are well and truly broken. OSF has had to deal with the compounded effects of the pandemic and the Pacific Northwest forest fires…you know there is a serious issue when you have to put “smoke cancellation” contingencies in your ticket sales projections. Meanwhile, Williamstown (pre-pandemic) seemed to be swimming along quite solidly creating big-budget, big-name shows in the Berkshires. However, as the Williamstown article spells out, structural issues abound there too. In fact, they abound throughout our industry. The pandemic brought them into sharp focus and the federal recovery funding allowed us to hide for a few more months.
I am going to ask questions for which I don’t have the answers, but I think they need to be asked and explored, transparently and publicly, for the future of nonprofit theatre in this country. For clarity, none of these questions are meant to question the quality of the work being done at either of these theatres or any others named or unnamed here; quality theatre (whether pure entertainment, thought-provoking and challenging, or any other type) is not in question, but whether quality theatre is enough of a reason for an organization to be nonprofit in any particular community is.
Can sumptuous, spectacle theatre be nonprofit? Should it be? If the impact is primarily (truly fantastic) entertainment for a predominantly well-heeled, monochromatic audience, and the financial model is only viable on the back of a lot of unpaid/underpaid labor (Williamstown is far from alone in this), should we subsidize it?
Is destination theatre and its sizable impact on the local economy enough to justify nonprofit status? If so, how do we determine to which community/communities the destination theatre is accountable? Where should we look to measure how the organization is bettering its community? In Staunton, local restaurants and shops have significantly more patrons when a show is up at the American Shakespeare Center. Is a self-perpetuating system of economic gain for the downtown area enough to call a theatre nonprofit? If we aren’t having a tangible impact on the broader community, can we really only count on downtown merchants and, potentially, city government to come come to our aid in hard times?
I have been incredibly impressed with Garrett’s work at OSF…in planning and execution…she is a brilliant and exciting artist and arts leader…but was Southern Oregon the wrong incubator for this shift in mission of such a behemoth of an organization? Does that community want that organization? Does your community want your organization? “But they should!” isn’t an answer.
I’ve been through a few internal organizational reckonings in my career and I hear echoes in the stories I’m reading this week. It is extremely difficult to learn and change as an organization and as a leader in real-time, in public (or semi-public). Many of our organizations and leaders (especially my generation and older) are trying to straddle the line of “we need to change” and “but weren’t those productions wonderful”? It is sprinkled with “I guess we have to change because these kids won’t suck it up” and “no, you are right, the way we work/worked was exploitative and wrong” and rose-colored backward gazing of “what beautiful work we created.”
I strongly, to the core of my DNA, believe that we can create fantastic theatrical work that has tangible positive impact on our community and doesn’t eat up and spit out artists and administrators (young and old) in the process. But, we can’t do it by continuing to change the diameter of our wheels. And, we are going to have to start from scratch if our current organizations can’t start doing the re-focusing, re-structuring, re-mission-ing work right now.