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

  1. patrick says:

    I really needed to read this. Thanks for being you, Melissa.

  2. bcpkid says:

    I can’t “Like” this enough.

  3. Brigitte says:

    I love this article more than anything I’ve read in a long time. Brava!

  4. sylk says:

    You are so right, Melissa. And Mister Clarke, there are lots of great little groups producing wonderful work on a budget you would not imagine. Your help would make a difference.

  5. Kathleen W. says:

    Vanity theater & theater produced for other purposes than pure creativity have been with us forever…I’ve known friends who took jobs in very bad shows that producers were pouring money into and it paid their rent and got them AEA health insurance. Remember the gangster’s girlfriend in Bullets Over Broadway? Or Charles Foster Kane buying his mistress a leading role in the opera? But in the past, it seemed to be understood that this was not art, but a transaction. These days, people who’ve managed to make a lot of money often mistake themselves for artists and believe that their lives are inherently interesting. The other aspect that stands out to me is that it’s probably unethical, bordering on illegal, because the theater is an organization that receives public funding. He could have produced the play himself commercially…but I’m sure it was cheaper with a LORT contract.

    • Just think of the tax deduction he received for his significant donation to the company. The savings could be funneled right back into the project. What a deal.

  6. Lurie Pfeffer says:

    Don’t we love her?

    Lurie

    Lurie Horns Pfeffer Stage Management 619.980.8386

    >

    • Viola says:

      (sorry for the hijack) Lurie! Remember me?

    • victrola72 says:

      (I apologize for a momentary hijacking of an excellent comment thread on an excellent article) Lurie! Hi! This is Viola from SD Rep and Plaid days. Hope you’re well!

  7. Oh, my, Melissa, you are really wonderful at this theater blogging thing. (Standing ovation!)

  8. Ben Lokey says:

    BAM! Preach it, sister! You the man!

  9. peter parish says:

    You are so freakin’ awesome, Melissa. Thank you for writing this. Thank you for voicing what NEEDS to be voiced!

  10. Great stuff (as usual) Melissa! If we were in theatre for the money, the only shows that would get done would be the “big draw” musicals.

  11. Geb says:

    So right! I really hope Mr. Clarke reads this and maybe, just maybe considers the points you’ve made.

  12. gwangung says:

    We should be clear here. This production isn’t a part of Seattle ACT’s MainStage season. It’s part of the ACTLab program, where ACT partners with outside theatre to present on the ACT stage. This gentleman formed his own production company and partnered with ACT, like any other theatre (which could have included my own).

    That said, Melissa’s point still stands; getting your hands too far into the creative process can warp it and incentivize artists to subordinate their own impulses to outside impulses.

  13. Amy Mueller says:

    Well thought out response Melissa

  14. MonicaMC says:

    Sometimes I wish there was mandatory “sponsor a fringe theatre” legislation for corporate and very wealthy individual donors. (People with a lot of money like the prestige of having their names listed as donors for top-flight, established, and already well-funded programs.) Or, perhaps 75% of each contribution goes to the established place and someone like 4 Culture could pick a fringe venue out of a hat every time for the remainder.

  15. Seattleite says:

    You’re giving ACT the benefit of the doubt that there are even 10 plays in consideration for their next season. Given that ACT produces an average of 1.3 plays per season by women or POC (never both) it’s not likely.

    Also, not many who work in the Seattle theater community are actually speaking out about this. No one wants to have themselves screwed out of potential work.

    On the plus side, they at least hired a local playwright to make the play make as much sense as it does. And they hired eight local actors. So there’s that. Not much solace, but enough to keep the community debating plus sides to the endeavor.

  16. James Lapan says:

    In the interest of full disclosure, let me preface my remarks by saying I am both a fan of this blog and a cast member of this production. The exposure the business model is getting has prompted a discussion which (perhaps rightfully) is eclipsing the show itself. It’s my job, having read/approved the script and signed the contract to believe in the show, and this isn’t hard to do. While not perfect, it’s very funny and very touching. I have at times felt uneasy about the business model, but my reality is that the equity scale checks have cleared, and I’ve felt supported in the process.

    In your letter you say “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.”

    Two things:

    First of all, this project is not part of the ACT season. It’s an ACTLAB project. I’ve worked on other ACTLAB projects, and they are not subject to all of the unionized scrutiny of their mainstage season. Also, this venue (the Allen) is well beyond the budgetary capacities of most ACTLAB partners, so this space would likely have been dark had this project not been scheduled. It should also be noted that this production is bringing hundreds of people through the turnstiles who have never seen professional theatre before, some of them potential subscribers and board members.

    Second, and perhaps more importantly, Mr. Clark will readily admit that he didn’t do most of the writing. The playwright you’re describing above IS Bryan Willis, who has paid his dues for over two decades before “co-writing” this play. Bryan was the playwright in the room, the true craftsman and collaborator behind this script. He’s done most of the heavy lifting here, and I hope this somehow opens doors for him.

    My two cents.

    Jim Lapan

    • Thanks so much for your comment! I’m not sure it makes much difference whether it’s a mainstage show or a lab show. Their own ACTLab application says they have a high volume of candidates– so high they make a point of stating on the application that don’t even reply to the ones rejected. Surely someone– likely many people– were rejected in favor of using ACT resources to support this project.

      I respect your opinion, even more so because you came here openly instead of hiding behind a screen name. I don’t know if we’ll agree about this issue, but I can see why you have the point of view you do, and I will still happily buy you a beer when you come see a show at my space in Berkeley.

  17. cdcarter says:

    I think it very important to point out that this play was not part of ACT’s Mainstage primary subscription series and an actual LORT production spot, but was part of their ACTLab program, which is designed for co-productions with self-producing artists. http://www.acttheatre.org/About/ForArtists/ACTLab

  18. James Lapan says:

    Berkeley Road Trip!

  19. Bret Fetzer says:

    While Bryan Willis may have done most of the writing on this play, he didn’t wake up one morning with a burning desire to write a play about a CEO’s experience with group therapy. Bryan was hired to do a job, and by all accounts has done a solid job — but while he may be the playwright, he’s not the author, in the sense of being the creative point of origin.

    While this play happened in ACTLab and is not a full-on ACT production, that really has no bearing on Melissa’s points above, as her comment above points out.

    It was, however, directed by ACT’s incoming artistic director. If this points towards a trend of local plays without wealthy patrons attached getting consideration at ACT, I’ll be delighted. But I’m not going to hold my breath.

  20. seankozma says:

    Dear Wealthy,

    PLEASE LEAVE FOR GALT’S GULTCH ALREADY!

  21. Todd London says:

    This is a beautifully written and deeply respectful response. It would be easy to rip into Mr. Clarke, but you didn’t. Instead you open up for him some of the real breakage in the system. I especially love everyone of your alternative suggestions–funding plays by women and writers of color, sponsoring small theatres and patronizing individual playwrights, underwriting whole season, and providing playwright grants. Yes to them all! If any of these things happen as a result of your advocacy, it’ll be a happy happy day. Thank you for this.

  22. AA says:

    I understand that it feels unfair that he was able to mount his production because of his money and connections, but I find it equally unfair that you consider his artistic efforts unworthy because he never “toiled in obscurity.” Why should you get to determine what are and aren’t the hoops one need to jump through in order to be a “worthy” playwright?

    I think your anger at this production is misdirected. You call him out, yet admit that most theaters are essentially doing the same thing by making sure their programming pleases their high-money donors and season subscribers. This was an original, local production, motivated by an artists urge to express himself – something rare to see in the current state of theatre.

    We shouldn’t be upset at this production. We should be upset at all of the non-profit theatres around the country who led us to this point. The “broken business model” – and it is broken, fewer people see live theatre every year – isn’t his fault. It’s the fault of the donation begging, holier-than-thou non-profit-monsters who produce garbage year after year – very often taken from the commercial theatres they claim artistic superiority over.

  23. gwangung says:

    On the one hand, Mr. Clarke pretty much purchased artistic competence here, from playwright to director to actors and took the short road to a big LORT stage.

    On the other hand, “purchasing artistic competence” is actually what a producer does, and purchasing a slot in ACTLab is exactly what every other producer does…it’s just most of the rest of us takes years to build the credibility and audience to do that.

    We’ll see if he can do it again and if his friends are willing to lay out money the second and third times (talk about sustainability!). His show is a pleasant ensemble piece, and it wouldn’t be too out of place at a fringe theatre–but can his and his friends wallets sustain it multiple times? And face the glare of a LORT audience ? (Because, face it, one shot attempts aren’t really a problem).

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