Monthly Archives: March 2015

The Lies We Tell About Audience Engagement

TCG is holding a multiyear inquiry about audiences called “Audience (R)evolution.”

The piece I wrote for it is called “The Lies We Tell About Audience Engagement.” It’s a little . . . rabblerousy. Are you surprised?

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Check it out, leave a comment, share it on twitfacetagram. I’m thrilled that I was asked to contribute!

UPDATE: Please take a look at Jonathan Mandell’s excellent response to my piece in his blog, New York Theater. He takes me to task for adding to the culture of ageism we have in the theatre industry, and he could not be more right.

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Why Is Race the Line?

Lord Capulet (Jon Nagel) and his nephew Tybalt (Reggie D. White) in Impact's production of Romeo and Juliet. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

Lord Capulet (Jon Nagel) and his nephew Tybalt (Reggie D. White) in Impact’s production of Romeo and Juliet. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

I had an interesting conversation with a theatremaker recently about casting. The discussion centered around multiethnic casting, particularly whether casting actors of different races as members of the same family would make the storytelling in the play unclear. The concern was that audience members would have trouble reading the actors as related and therefore have trouble following the play’s narrative.

If you’ve followed my blog for more than 12 seconds you already know what I think (diverse casting is GO), but I gave this particular aspect of diverse casting some serious thought, as this is nowhere near the first time I’ve had this discussion. Here’s where I landed:

Why is race the line?

That’s a serious question, btw, not a facetious construction meant to elicit a WOMP WOMP from my fellow SJWs. We take it for granted that we put our disbelief in suspension when we go to the theatre, but that suspension has limits. When we see something inaccurate onstage, for example, it pulls us out of the narrative. When an actor playing a medical professional pronounces the word “larynx” as “larnyx,”or says the blood type B+ as “B plus” (both of which I’ve heard), I have trouble maintaining the belief that that person is a medical professional.

In casting, however, we make enormous allowances. We take it for granted that the storytelling remains intact in a production of As You Like It although the actress playing Rosalind is married to the actress playing Celia, the actor playing Orlando is married to the costume designer, and the actor playing Charles the Wrestler has never wrestled a day in his life. We take it for granted that the storytelling remains intact in a production of Romeo and Juliet although we know Lord Capulet, Lady Capulet, Juliet, and Tybalt are not related and, in fact, look nothing alike. We lauded Peter Dinklage as Richard III although his disability is nothing like what Richard’s was, and we lauded both Sir Ian McKellen and Kevin Spacey as Richard III, although neither has any disability at all.

Kevin Spacey as Richard III at the Old Vic in London. Photo by Nigel Norrington.

Kevin Spacey as Richard III at the Old Vic in London. Photo by Nigel Norrington.

It goes even further than that. People think nothing of casting a woman as Juliet’s nurse who is far too old to have plausibly given birth 13 years prior, although her entire relationship with Juliet hangs on that fact. People think nothing of casting a woman as Juliet who is visibly more than twice Juliet’s repeatedly stated age. We rarely expect an actor playing Iago to have military bearing although his years-long military experience and current military rank are central to the character and the narrative of the play. Hell, we live in a world where a major company can hire an all-white cast to do a show as vague “Native Americans” and almost no one bats an eye apart from Native American theatremakers and a few bloggers (also this).

So why is it so common for theatremakers to hesitate considering– or even refuse to consider– an actor of color to play the daughter of a white man, a Puritan farmer, the grandmother of a white woman, or a founding father (all examples taken from personal experience or discussions I’ve had with other theatremakers)? When we already are well aware that the actor isn’t the character, the characters’ relationships are (almost always) feigned, and the locations and actions are (almost always) pretend, why is that one factor– race– the line in the sand?

I don’t mean to discount the importance of race in our culture, or in the lived experience of people of color. What I mean is: Why is race so often THE most important consideration in casting, even when the production is not specifically about race? Why is race considered so much more important than other factors, such as age, suitability for the role, or skillset?

If you’re producing A Raisin in the Sun, M Butterfly, or Othello, the race of the characters is of primary importance, but most plays are not specifically about race. There’s no reason Tybalt cannot be Black in an otherwise all-Caucasian Capulet family. There’s no reason Eurydice cannot be Asian and her father cannot be white in Sarah Ruhl’s play. There’s no reason Joe Pitt cannot be Latino while Hannah Pitt is white in Angels. My own cousin is Black, and there are literally millions of other multiracial families in the US.

Julie Eccles as Gertrude and LeRoy McClain as Hamlet in California Shakespeare Theater's Hamlet. Photo by Kevin Berne.

Julie Eccles as Gertrude and LeRoy McClain as Hamlet in California Shakespeare Theater’s Hamlet. Photo by Kevin Berne.

The three main arguments I hear about this go as follows:

1. But they WERE all white in that time and place. For one thing, are you certain? Because you’re probably wrong, even when you’re talking about Puritan Massachusetts or Colonial America. And also: So? There are lots of things we’re choosing not to depict accurately (some of which I’ve listed above), either because we have made a choice to believe they aren’t important, or because we don’t have the capability to. Think about this: 130 years ago, the difference between an Italian person and a white person would have been apparent to any American. To cast an obviously Italian woman as Juliet would have appeared absurd to an American audience in 1885, even though Juliet IS Italian, due to the enormous racial prejudice against Italian immigrants at the time.

2. Well, how about white people playing Black characters? Huh? Why can’t THAT happen? HUH? REVERSE RACISM. Well, it actually DOES happen, especially in Hollywood. Google “whitewashing.” I’ve already covered why this is problematic in this very space a bunch of times. Here, read this. Don’t believe me? Check out Racebending.

3. It will make the narrative hard to follow. This is the argument that arguably has the most (any) merit. A friend of mine has a daughter who looks exactly like her in every way but skin color, and did so even as a toddler. Although they looked so much alike, she was constantly asked, “Where did you get her?” I told my friend she should reply, “Out of my uterus.” People often unthinkingly assume all familial relationships are biological, and then use racial similarity as a marker for familial relationship, even though they know, if they pause to consider, that adoption, stepchildren, and biracial people exist. Stories like these underlie that. However, we can’t necessarily apply that to theatre. We don’t know the relationships of any of the characters onstage until they are revealed to us, and we already know we’re in the world of pretend. If you tell an audience that, for example, two men of different races are brothers, almost everyone in the audience will accept that. It’s not uncommon, especially in indie theatre and in areas with diverse populations, to see diverse families onstage. Yet some theatremakers still hesitate to cast people of color for reasons of narrative clarity, yet will discount literally every other physical marker as unimportant.

Sean Mirkovich as Richard, Duke of Gloucester, and Kelvyn Mitchell as his brother, George, Duke of Clarence, in Impact Theatre's Richard III. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

Sean Mirkovich as Richard, Duke of Gloucester, and Kelvyn Mitchell as his brother, George, Duke of Clarence, in Impact Theatre’s Richard III. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

I think what’s going on here is simple. We see “white” as “normal,” the baseline: neutral. We see people of color as a deviation from that– particular,  different, “other.” Race has narrative, of course, and we must consider that narrative while casting. If you have an all-white cast apart from one Black actor who’s playing the bad guy, you’re saying something specific. But often diversity in a play that’s not about race doesn’t change the narrative at all. How much difference would it make to the narrative of As You Like It if cousins Rosalind and Celia were of different races?

Sarah Dandridge as Rosalind and Francesca Choy-Kee as Celia in the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park’s production of As You Like It. Photo by Sandy Underwood.

Sarah Dandridge as Rosalind and Francesca Choy-Kee as Celia in the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park’s production of As You Like It. Photo by Sandy Underwood.

But because we see whiteness as “neutral,” when we look at white actors, we imagine a palette of possibilities, a narrative polyvalence, that we do not afford to people of color. A white person can be anything; a person of color is primarily and foremost “of color,” and therefore is relegated in most cases to inhabiting spaces already designated as such. A white person is read as “person”; a Black person is read as “Black person.” There are casting directors who still separate their files into “ingenue,” “leading man,” “Asian,” “Black.” White people are divided into types; people of color are their race alone. Thankfully, this is becoming less and less common, but we’re still far behind full inclusion of people of color. However, even small gains by people of color in casting are seen as a threat to white actors. We have a long way to go.

Years ago I made a personal commitment to include people of color in lists of actors I was recommending for roles wherein race wasn’t specified. Whether that had any impact on the eventual casting of the role or not, it was one way I felt like I could personally challenge the idea of whiteness as neutral in my day-to-day life. I get these all the time– people ask me for recommendations for roles like “woman, 20s, good comic timing, excellent physicality” or “man, 30s, sophisticated, witty, elegant.” All too often the implication is that a role is white if not otherwise specified, and I refuse to accept that. We’re getting better at diverse casting, certainly, but we’re still struggling with it, particularly on larger stages, where some directors can be enormously resistant.

While we take it for granted that an audience can see past a 30-year-old woman playing a 13-year-old girl (“come Lammas-eve at night shall she be fourteen”), or a 70-year old woman playing that 13-year-old girl’s wet nurse; while we take it for granted that people will accept Kevin Spacey as disabled; we all too often refuse to take it for granted that an audience will accept a diverse family or a Black Puritan.

It’s time to rethink this. We need to slow down and recognize when we’re positing whiteness as neutral and color as a deviation from that, and we need to stop imagining that the only places audiences can tolerate actors of color are in spaces clearly designated for them. We need those ethnic-specific roles (and plays), certainly, but we also need to open our minds to making our onstage families look more like our offstage families; to giving our audiences credit for being willing and able to play pretend with us wherever we take them; and to giving actors of color consideration for their types, talents, and abilities apart from– and in addition to– their ethnicities.

Bay Area Children's Theatre's production of Five Little Monkeys. Mama Monkey and her five little monkeys as one happy (and busy!) family. Photo by Joshua Posamentier.

Bay Area Children’s Theatre’s production of Five Little Monkeys. Mama Monkey and her five little monkeys as one happy (and busy!) family. Photo by Joshua Posamentier.

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Go Ahead and Start Your New Company. But.

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One of the earliest flyers from my company. This was 1997. We did a series of 10 minute plays called “Impact Briefs” for 9 seasons. Pictured are Charlie Marenghi, Alex Pearlstein, Tonya Sutherland, and Christopher Morrison, all of whom were acting, writing, and/or directing.

So you want to start a theatre company. My first bit of advice: don’t. It’s insanely difficult. Undeterred? OK. Here are some things you need to know.

1. Vision and Mission. I know this sounds like the title of an insufferable U2 album, but actually, they’re the two most important things to have in place when starting a company. Why are you starting your own company? What do you want to say, and to whom do you want to say it? What kind of art do you want to make? What’s your aesthetic? These are the questions that will, I promise you, make or break your company. Companies without a clear vision and a clear mission are doomed to fail. I’ve been joking for over a decade that every new company destined to fail begins with either Danny and the Deep Blue Sea or The Marriage of Bette and Boo. For some reason I’ve never entirely figured out, I’ve seen dozens of companies begin with one of these two. Literally dozens. If you’re starting your company with such a well-worn play, it says to me that you have nothing interesting to say, let alone any idea to whom you want to say it. If you have an interesting new take on one of these plays, commenting on its position in the canon or using the play to make a larger point, that changes everything. If you’re just doing the play because it’s cheap (small cast, small set) and you want to act in it, then you need to have a long chat with yourself and all your stakeholders about what your company is all about, because I guarantee you, you don’t know. If you figure it out, clarify your mission, your vision, and your voice, you can succeed. If you don’t, you’re not going to make it. It’s tough enough to make it with a clear vision; it’s impossible to make it without.

One of the most successful plays we've ever done, both artistically and financially, 2005. Our lesbian Othello. Pictured is Desdemona, played by Marissa Keltie, and Othello, played by Skyler Cooper.

One of the most successful plays we’ve ever done, both artistically and financially. Our 2005 lesbian Othello. I was blindsided by how popular this production was. I never expected it to be such a runaway hit. Pictured is Desdemona, played by Marissa Keltie, and Othello, played by Skyler Cooper. Picture by Cheshire Isaacs.

2. Money. You have two choices: incorporate as a for-profit, which means you cannot qualify for grants and donations you receive aren’t tax-deductible, or go nonprofit, which means you will eventually qualify for grants and all donations you receive are tax-deductible. For-profit companies pay income taxes on their income; nonprofit companies do not. For-profit companies exist for one reason: to return profits to owners and investors. A successful for-profit company puts moneymaking at the center of most decisions. A nonprofit company exists as a public entity, governed by a board of directors, owned by no one, with profits going directly back into the business, ostensibly putting the public good at the center of most decisions. A for-profit company exists to make money. A nonprofit company exists to make art. A for-profit company makes money with their art, which dramatically impacts the art they choose to do– they’re only going to choose the kinds of shows they are reasonably sure will be popular and profitable. A nonprofit company, in theory, is supposed to be wholly divorced from the need to make a profit through their ability to receive grants and donations, making productions that may not be popular but further the art form, foster new voices, create a space for experimentation, and serve as a space for exploration of new ideas both in the art form and in the culture. In theory. In practice, the larger a company gets, the more money it needs, and the more blurred those lines become. Not legally, of course– legally, they are entirely separate entities– but in practice, particularly in season planning, the lines can get blurry.

A few years ago, Rebecca Novick wrote a fantastic article called “Please, Don’t Start a Theatre Company.” Provocatively (and somewhat misleadingly) titled, the article is a brilliant examination of the instability of the nonprofit model. I recommend that you read it, no matter where you are in your process, as it contains a great deal of hard, necessary truths. But if you’re feeling tl;dr today: There’s not enough funding to go around, so let’s think up different models than the traditional nonprofit one. The big theatres have sucked up all the grant money so fund your company differently, and worry less about structure and more about supporting the artists.

Of course it begs the question– how do you support your artists without structure? Your only two choices are selling stuff (show tickets, classes, merchandise) or getting stuff (grants and donations), both of which require structure in practice and by law. She advises new companies to make a “new model.” Her examples include a company that funds their personnel through a hit late night show (as if one could plan for that); a company that got money from somewhere unstated (but certainly traditional– grants, sales, donations) and uses it to pay artists, then uses those artists as admin staff as needed (which of course is the model most small theatres already use); and companies that fund their work through selling non-production-related things such as classes and CDs. While many companies offer classes, selling merchandise is a commercial enterprise that requires a great deal of support, both legal and practical (not to mention the fact that no one on earth is going to buy your CD). Here’s my point: When such a brilliant and experienced theatremaker elucidates the problems perfectly but presents solutions that are so deeply flawed, it exemplifies the difficulty of the situation we’re in. Whether or not her solutions are flawed, her analysis of the funding problems we all face are absolutely, undeniably true, and something you should take into serious consideration.

The takeaway here for someone starting a new company is that the nonprofit funding model is broken because there are too many companies competing for funding already, and your new company will only survive if you can produce on a shoestring, if you’re lucky enough to have a long-running hit show (and a place to house it), and/or if you have an extraordinary amount of free time to manage whatever non-production-related thing you’re selling to support your theatre, plus the enormous good luck to capture enough market share to make that profitable in an economy where small businesses go under every day.

Personally, I’d love to see funders stop giving almost all their money to a handful of behemoths and start peeling off a more meaningful percentage to smaller companies. Novick does chastise funders for requiring a minimum budget– the most common is 100K minimum annual budget for grants for “small companies”– and she goes on to say, “requiring a minimum budget size prioritizes growth over caliber of the work.” I could not agree more. But at present, that’s the reality we’re facing. (Novick also advises artists who are thinking of starting a company to consider forgoing permanent status and band together temporarily to produce shows here and there, as desired. This is possible if you have a funding source with which to pay production costs and no absolute need to make a profit on that money, as most shows, especially one-off shows, lose money. You could also run into some problems with finances, insurance, and taxes as an unincorporated non-company unless you’re working under the umbrella of a larger producing org. While one-offs aren’t what we’re discussing here, I would be remiss in not at least mentioning it. If you have access to an umbrella company and/or money to burn, you might want to consider a temporary, limited production run to see if you’re interested in continuing as a permanent, producing company.)

So choose which devil you sell your soul to, for-profit or nonprofit, as they both suck at present. I think nonprofit sucks slightly less vigorously, and if you agree with me, get the Nolo Press handbook for becoming nonprofit in your area and follow the steps. Make sure to check the law in your area about incorporating as a business (such as getting a business license), and take your paperwork down to a bank and create a business bank account. DO NOT– and I cannot stress this enough– commingle your company’s funds in your personal bank account. For one reason, you become personally liable for income tax on that money, and for another, it’s technically embezzlement.

The Year of the Rooster, 2014. This show was a hit off-Broadway. We got excellent reviews, but the play never found its audience in the Bay Area.  Did I overestimate how turned off audiences would be by the idea of a play about cockfighting? Was I blinded by the excellence of the script and the fact that the heart of the play is the rooster himself to the way potential audiences here would be turned off by the stigma? Who knows. All I know is we lost a ton of money on this show, and you can never predict what will sell and what won't. Pictured: Caleb Cabrera as the rooster, Odysseus Rex, and Sango Tajima as Lucky Lady, his mate. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

The Year of the Rooster, 2014. This show was a hit off-Broadway. Even though our Berkeley production got excellent reviews, the play never found its audience. Did I overestimate how turned off Bay Area audiences would be by the idea of a play about cockfighting? Was I blinded by the excellence of the script and the fact that the heart of the play is the rooster himself to the potential consequences of the stigma? Who knows. All I know is that even though press was great and the audiences who did come raved about it, we didn’t come close to meeting sales goals and lost a ton of money on this show. You can never predict what will sell and what won’t. Pictured: Caleb Cabrera as the rooster, Odysseus Rex, and Sango Tajima as Lucky Lady, his mate. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

3. Board of Directors. If you’re a nonprofit company, you are legally obligated to have a Board of Directors. Most small companies have an “artist-driven board,” meaning the people in the company are on the board. Eventually you’ll want to decide what kind of board you want. My recommendation is to get a board focused on fundraising, and put a lawyer on it. This is much easier said than done. Whoever you put on the board, they need to truly believe in your mission and vision, because the board has the power to fire the Artistic Director. If you’re a for-profit company, investors are going to want to see some experience on your team. Surround yourself with people who have already created success elsewhere. Call them an “advisory board” if you can’t afford to put them on staff. Get big names on there if you can. And then listen to them.

4. Ethics. I know you’re new and tiny, but the world is watching you. The internet makes everything public. If your company does nothing but plays by white guys, if all your casts are all white, if you hire directors who scream at actors and designers, if you violate contracts, if you do not immediately fire people who sexually harass your personnel, then A. you WILL get called out for it eventually and B-Z. What the hell are you doing? If you fuck up, own it, and genuinely strive to be better. When someone in your company comes to you and says she’s being harassed by someone working for you, take that seriously. If you’re not taking those issues as seriously as you would discovering that someone is stealing from the till, you probably shouldn’t be the head of anything, let alone an arts org. There are about eleventy kajillion ethical considerations to running an arts org, and they can all be summed up in: Treat your people like gold, create a culture where people are valued, and make sure everyone you hire is on board with that.

5. Don’t reinvent the wheel. No matter what you’re trying to do, someone has already tried it and fucked it up, and someone else has tried it and succeeded. The advice of the person who fucked it up is going to be golden– listen to people when they tell you what they did wrong. It’s relatively easy to avoid many types of failures– “We forgot to buy insurance,” “We didn’t have a written contract,” “I kept my mouth shut when the director violated contract by rewriting the play,” “I didn’t check his references,” etc. The advice of people who succeeded is going to be valuable as well, but success can be much harder to replicate, especially if the market has changed significantly, your circumstances are different, or if (and this is incredibly common) luck played an enormous role in that success. Often you’ll hear Boomers talk about how much better they were than the rising generation at (fill in the blank), and how much more successful they are in comparison, completely ignoring that the cost of living and producing was miniscule by comparison in real dollars, donations and grants were free-flowing, and competition was minimal. Don’t look at a company started in 1980 and wonder why you can’t replicate their success– they had it so, so, so much easier than you do, in every possible way. But you can look at a company’s failures and avoid them. If someone is willing to tell you the mistakes they made along the way, take notes. Decide what you can replicate and what you need to adjust (or abandon outright) when looking at other companies’ successes.

If you’re wondering how to X, or where to get Y, or why so many companies do Z, just ask. Email someone at a longer-standing company and ask. Chances are they will be happy to help. If they don’t have the time, they’ll let you know. Don’t be offended if they don’t answer you– they’re just as busy as you are. Ask several people until you get the answer you need. Then remember, when your company is the longer-standing one, to pay it forward. If there’s a theatre service org in your area, JOIN IT. Here in the Bay Area, we have Theatre Bay Area. Whatever your equivalent is, it’s well worth joining. If you ever get big enough to join TCG, or if they make their membership less dependent on financials, it’s worth joining as well.

The show we closed in December, The Dragon Play by Jenny Connell Davis. I knew I wanted to produce this play by the time I was 15 pages into the script. It was so satisfying to see audiences fall in love with the show night after night. This was a deeply satisfying artistic experience for me personally and, I hope, our artists. Lindsey Schmeltzer as Dragon Girl and Jed Parsario as Boy, photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

The Dragon Play by Jenny Connell Davis, 2014. I knew I wanted to produce this play by the time I was 15 pages into the script. It was so satisfying to see audiences fall in love with the show night after night. Lindsey Schmeltzer as Dragon Girl and Jed Parsario as Boy, photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

I could write a book about starting your own theatre company. There are so many issues to consider– legal, ethical, artistic, practical. So many skills to acquire. So many decisions to make with enormous consequences down the road. So many things I’ve left out of this one short article. Maybe one day I will, since clearly publishers are scrambling to come out with books about us, right? A TED talk? Web series? ::crickets tumbleweed lonely gust of wind::

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Anyway. These are some of the most important points to consider when you’re thinking about starting your own company. Think long and hard about them, choose wisely, and make the art you need to make in the way you need to make it.

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Theatre’s “Broken Business Model”: An Open Letter to Dwayne Clarke, CEO

Dear Mr. Clarke:

I read the Stranger article about your play at ACT in Seattle. As a millionaire (billionaire?) CEO, it’s honestly touching that you wrote a play about your life-changing experiences in group therapy. By all accounts, it was a decent first effort. Of course, it wasn’t staged on its own merits– you paid ACT for the privilege, taking on all the financial risks yourself, and filling the house by exhorting your CEO buddies to buy blocks of tickets at twice the ticket price to support the work, then give the tickets to their employees– a very nice touch. You could easily have paid someone to make this into a film. But you chose the theatre, and that’s actually, honestly, kind of sweet. You say you see yourself as a neo-Renaissance patron of the arts, a modern Medici. Either you’ve played a lot of Assassin’s Creed, or you know a little something about history, but either way, on its surface, it’s touching.

What’s less touching is your opinion that theatre is a “broken business model.” You see, Mr. Clarke, there are two basic kinds of theatre. Commercial theatre makes scads of money by staging splashy, fluffy shows, charging a mint for tickets, and selling tons of related merch. Think Disney’s Aladdin on Broadway, or the touring company of Book of Mormon. These would be the people operating on the for-profit business model with which you’re familiar, and they’re doing, for the most part, quite well.

The nonprofit theatre, however, works under the 501c3, meaning the model it works under is expected to make less in ticket sales, and is allowed to make up the difference in grants and donations, tax free. “Why would we do this,” you ask? Because the kind of new, risky work we want to do rarely sells scads of tickets. Sure, every so often you have a hit, but most of the time, risky new work doesn’t pack the house. It’s necessary, however, for the development of the art.

This is usually where patronage comes in. You see, we already have that as part of our model. It’s called “donating.” Millions of people make individual donations each year to nonprofit theatres, ranging from a buck tossed in a hat on the way out the door to a $100,000 major donation that underwrites a show to a multi-million dollar endowment. We could not do what we do without them, because you see, Mr. Clarke, the patronage model is the business model all nonprofit theatres already work under.

The difference between most donors and you, however, is that most donors don’t overtly dictate the plays the theatre they patronize chooses to produce. Donors are making an investment in a theatre they love– it’s a gift to ensure that the theatre can continue to do the work it already does. It’s an act of faith in the theatre and its leaders, and the art they produce. And it’s already an enormous part of our nonprofit business model, by design.

Most new playwrights, and a significant percentage of new plays, come up through the small theatre world– either smaller AEA theatres (what we used to call “midsize theatres”) or indie theatres working without AEA contracts. There are thriving indie scenes all over the country. The playwright who would have been slotted at ACT had you not purchased the slot and put your own play there, would most likely have begun their career toiling in obscurity for years in the indie scene, developing their work, and trying to break into the level you bought your way into.

You see yourself as a modern Medici, but the Medici didn’t make the art themselves. They paid artists to create art. Sure, they paid for art that flattered them, or that they wanted made for other reasons, but the artists they patronized were free to create in their own voices, in their own styles. You would have been a modern Medici if you have commissioned a play about your experiences, underwriting the playwright while s/he was working on it. You would have been a modern Medici if you had made a major donation to the theatre and gotten your name above the title of a hot new play as the producer. You’re not a modern Medici, sir, by displacing a playwright with your donation. It’s wonderful that you made money for the theatre. It’s wonderful that you wrote a play (and engaged a local writer to help you). It’s wonderful that you want to help the theatre. But it’s not wonderful that you co-opted that theatre’s voice as a condition of your patronage.

You see, we already struggle with this issue. Unfortunately, many large theatres have something akin to that in place called “Don’t upset the subscribers,” or a skittish, conservative board of directors, and those theatres’ work has suffered for it. Groundbreaking new work is passed over for something less risky, less groundbreaking, less likely to result in Mr. and Mrs. Cecil Moneybags pulling their annual $10K because never! in our lives! have we been so offended!

And here’s something else you might not know: We’ve long been in a national conversation about how to get more work by women and people of color onto our stages. Because the experiences of wealthy, straight, white men, while just as valid and important as anyone else’s, have dominated western theatre for a very, very, very long time. If you had gone to ACT, said, Give me the top ten plays you’re considering for next season by women and people of color, chosen one, and underwritten it, sold out the house, put your name above the title as producer, and called yourself a “modern Medici”– you would have been a fucking hero. Instead, you made replacing the theatre’s artistic voice with your own a condition of your patronage.

Mr. Clarke, I think you’re probably an awesome person, and that’s not at all sarcastic. Believe me, it’s not lost on me that you chose theatre as your vehicle of choice, nor is it lost on me that you took on the financial risk. I know you treat your employees well, and that goes a long way with me. But we don’t have a “broken business model”– we have a model that already incorporates patronage. You didn’t create anything new, you just used an old model and made creative control a condition of your patronage.

I hope you keep writing plays. I really do. But I hope you don’t continue to buy season slots for your work. I hope you get out to the small theatres in your area and the places you travel (there are so many), to see what the up-and-coming playwrights are doing. Find a playwright or theatre whose work you like. Sponsor the ever-living fuck out of them. Seriously– go drop a 50K donation on a small theatre and you will be a lifelong hero to those people, and, by proxy, us all. Create a grant for playwrights. Underwrite a season slot somewhere where you get to be part of the season selection process, rather than sole dictator of content. Because this is already what we do. Why do we do it, you ask? We love it. Come love it with us. We welcome you with open arms. Just . . . don’t buy any more LORT slots, OK?

Love,

Melissa

UPDATE: (Or should that be PS?):

I’m getting a lot of feedback like this: “It’s important to point out that this was not part of ACT’s Mainstage season, but was part of their ACTLab program; no playwrights were displaced in staging this show.” The ACTLab program is something like a co-production program, allowing smaller companies and self-producing artists to use ACT resources such as space, marketing, and ticketing to which they otherwise would not have access.

I’m not sure that makes a difference here. In ACT’s own words, it’s a “curated partnership program.” ACTLab’s own application states, “Due to the high number of applications received, ACT will only contact those applicants whose proposals are selected as candidates for the ACTLab.” They’re turning so many people away, they don’t have the resources to contact them all. Surely someone– many someones– were turned away while ACT resources were devoted to this project.

My intention with this post was never to fault ACT for their actions. If someone came to me with such a Faustian bargain, would I be able to say no? I don’t know. But I do find it difficult to believe, given the available information, that no playwrights were passed over in favor of this project.

The point here is not to scold another company for taking an offer that would be very, very difficult to refuse in this economy. It’s to discuss Mr. Clarke’s misunderstanding of patronage, and the widespread, completely untrue belief that the nonprofit business model is “broken” because it performs exactly as it was designed– it doesn’t cover its expenses through earned income. What’s “broken” is the amount of support vs the number of companies needing support. But that, imzadi, is a blog post for another day.

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