The Reckoning is Here

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.

6 thoughts on “The Reckoning is Here

  1. Good questions, and the answers have to be “all-in”, “Yes, and…” Whatever the specific community needs and theatre mission, answers probably need to be a combination of philanthropic, private, and government support.
    Professional sport stadiums are deeply subsidized by tax incentives because they are seen as part of an economic eco-system that benefits many people. Cultural institutions are the same, but because they’re not-for-profit they tend to be seen as parasitical rather than productive. But making economic impact the center of the argument is insufficient. We need to make health arguments—emotional and physical well-being—as well. And we have to return to truly community-based work—telling the stories of/by/for the community. People will invest (and vote to invest) in institutions they believe are investing in them. We have to lower barriers to participation and engagement, fostering much better connections between amateurs and professionals, schools, and other cultural institutions. It won’t be fast or easy or cheap, but I agree with you—the reckoning is here and we ignore it at our peril.

  2. Yes, but…

    You seem to pose two questions here, both interesting, but each–in their way–contradicts the other. Re-focusing, restructuring, and re-missioning are exactly the right step…FOR SOME THEATRES.

    When you talk about theatres in polyglot urban environs, this makes total sense. The Taper, Manhattan Theatre Club, The Goodman, The Alley, all of these can start the process of opening themselves to a wider audience with more diverse artists and voices (almost all of them have, to one extent or another, started).

    But here’s where mission runs smack into demographics: Ashland Oregon is a White city. Let me rephrase that: it is a WHITE city (artists, tourists, residents, you name it). Williamstown is the same, despite the presence of Williams College–whose population shrinks in the summer. Having worked Williamstown (and with many friends associated with OSF over the years), I speak from knowledge. And believe me, the exploitation of unpaid workers at Williamstown goes back fifty years (when I was an apprentice there).

    And for many years in many other theatres, BIPOC theatre was treated like medicine (statistics show that attendance drops in regional theatres during February, Black History Month, when ANOTHER August Wilson play is trotted out; one regional theatre where I worked even discovered that Black patron attendance shrunk in February).

    So, what are the risks, and what are the rewards, for recalibrating to an neighborhood audience that doesn’t come to the theatre (and may not even exist)? Don’t get me wrong, too many BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ artists have been and are marginalized in our larger theatres. But couldn’t that be because in the eyes of some communities they are marginal artists?

    This might argue for a breakup of the LORT system. I’ve heard calls for that for the last 10 years or so. But here’s the paradox. If you dismantle these large institutions, what economic impact would smaller, more inclusive institutions have on the communities where they would reside?

    However necessary, yes, a recalibration of the regional theatre “mission” is in order. But the economic/social impact could take ten years, and the loss of middle class audiences–along with the impact on the local economies–would be felt for a generation.

    Thanks for making me think (and type) on a Monday morning!

    1. Thanks for these excellent thoughts, Joseph. I want to clarify that what I’m proposing is that the theatres look to their communities for how to actually positively impact them…this isn’t just (or even primarily) about butts in seats or diversified programming in the traditional sense, it is about why we are “non-profit” in the first place. If, for example, a theatre in Ashland, OR saw that their community needed help in civil discourse (honestly, I don’t know a community that doesn’t), how could that theatre adjust their mission and their programming to measurably impact the discourse in their community…politically, socially, educationally. This refocus also has the ability to break open our funding opportunities. If we are having measurable impact on actual community ills, we could have access to funding aimed at that improvement. If we are going to survive as a nonprofit industry, we have to truly become necessary to our communities.

      1. All excellent points! I wonder if–and I hope that–we can find a balance of missions between the aesthetics and the community service.

Comments are closed.

Back to Top