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?
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.