Tuesday, January 15, 2008

TCG and NEA, Google Map and Spreadsheet

Lately, I have been using the Theatre Communications Group's Theatre Profiles database in an attempt to uncover some data that might inform what up to now has been largely intuitive feelings on my part. Inductive reasoning -- analyze the data.

At the moment, my focus has been on my first principle (see sidebox): decentralization. Just how centralized is the regional theatre, actually? Where are the TCG theatres located?

As you know from the previous Theatre Profiles work I did into new play productions, TCG separates theatres into categories according to the size of their annual budget. Instead of focusing solely on LORT theatres, as I did in the previous analysis, I included all 384 members of the TCG database for the 2006-2007 database. I then used Google Maps to place markers where each theatre is located. (In the case of theatres that listed only a PO Box, I just used the city and zip, so the location may not be exact.) What I wanted was a visual representation of how theatres were distributed across the United States. After that, I went to the National Endowment for the Arts annual report to look at the fiscal year 2006 grants for theatre -- how were those grants distributed across the country. The results follow:

I began with the richest theatres on the TCG database - those with a $10M+ annual budget. There were eleven such theatres that were distributed like this (to view the map in Google Map, go here):

(While it looks like only nine flags are in the map, that is because there are multiple flags in Chicago and Minneapolis, and you can't see them unless you are closer in.) So note this pattern: several on the West Coast, several in the Midwest (specifically, Minnesota and Chicago), and several in the Northeast.

Now let's add in the next group of theatres -- those with annual budgets between $5M and $10M. These will show up as yellow flags -- we'll keep the pink ones there for reference as well (Google Map version of just the yellow theatres):
This was a larger group: 26 theatres. While the pattern still remains, there are a few more theatres scattered in the south, the midwest and the southwest. Interestingly, so far in these two categories there is only one theatre in NYC: Roundabout, with its $10M+ annual budget.

Continuing on to the next category, theatres with annual budgets between $3M and $5M. Again, we will leave the previous theatres in place and add in the 18 additional theatres using green flags (Google map of just these theatres here):

The pattern continues: lots of theatres in the Northeast, the West Coast, and the Chicago/Minneapolis corridor, but still pretty sparse in the south, Midwest, and southwest, and non-coastal West.

The next map adds in theatres with annual budgets between $1M and $3M dollars -- a larger cohort of 75 theatres indicated by red flags. (Google Map of just these theatres here.)

I hate to be redundant, but the pattern becomes stronger and stronger, with huge numbers of theatres huddled in the Washington to New York to Boston corridor, and on the California coast. The huge mid- and southern section of the nation is getting very little attention at all from the theatre community.

The next map adds in the theatres between $500K and $1M -- about 45 theatres (Google map of these theatres here):

This last map is when things get a little messy, and I can't vouch for the representation. Apparently, Google can only handle 100 flags on a map, and this one -- including theatres with annual budgets of less than $499K -- add 203. It LOOKS like everything is there, but I'm not sure how to check. But I will include it anyway -- these theatre have blue flags (Google Map here):
So there they are -- 384 theatres. Huddled together in a few select parts of the country, with new theatres being added each year and new theatre people crowded in providing the 87% unemployment desired by casting directors, while large swaths of America are virtually theatre free. I suppose one might argue that those states that are...sparse, shall we say?... don't have the population to support a theatre. Well, Omaha has about 500K, Oklahoma City has over 535K, Witchita has over 350K, to name just a few. Meanwhile, Pasadena has 135K, and Blue Lake CA has 1,135, and they have theatres. Nope, something else is happening here.

It's the herd mentality. Instead of asking themselves where in this country might there be a need for theatre artists, where might I actually have an opportunity to create a theatre that would allow me to work regularly and practice my art, theatre people leave school with the advice that they head for New York or Chicago or San Francisco because that's where the work is, by which is meant that's where there are a lot of theatres. Never mind that there is an 87% unemployment rate in NYC and that you will spend most of your time auditioning rather than doing your art, that's the place to go. Why? Because of what the Heath Brothers call, in Made to Stick, the Sinatra Effect: if I can make it there, I'll make it anywhere, combined with the Cinderella Myth that maybe you will be plucked from oblivion and declared royalty. This defines the value of theatre not according to the quality of the exchange between artists and audience, but rather according to where this exchange occurs. Apparently, 99 people in a downtown Manhattan theatre are better than 99 people in Omaha or Wichita.

Meanwhile, the idea that our regional theatre ought to spread the wonder of the theatre throughout this nation is abandoned. The National Endowment for the Arts data makes clear how much it is being abandoned.

Follow the money has always been good advice for evaluating what is truly valued. In fiscal year 2006, the NEA gave theatre grants in the amount of $2,878,000 (this does not include "Access to Artistic Excellent II" grants or Musical Theatre grants, which I might evaluate separately sometime in the future). Not being a statistician, I did my best to figure out a fair and efficient way to examine the distribution of federal grants. First, I created a spreadsheet into which I typed the amount of the grant, and the city where the theatre is headquartered. I then sorted according to state. Knowing that the nation's zip codes were distributed geographically, I decided that I would assign the first digit of the 5-digit zip code to each theatre according to the state it was in.

According to Wikipedia, the first digit of the ZIP code is allocated as follows (I have removed territories and Army post offices):
  • 0 = Connecticut (CT), Massachusetts (MA), Maine (ME), New Hampshire (NH), New Jersey (NJ), Puerto Rico (PR), Rhode Island (RI), Vermont (VT)
  • 1 = Delaware (DE), New York (NY), Pennsylvania (PA)
  • 2 = District of Columbia (DC), Maryland (MD), North Carolina (NC), South Carolina (SC), Virginia (VA), West Virginia (WV)
  • 3 = Alabama (AL), Florida (FL), Georgia (GA), Mississippi (MS), Tennessee (TN),
  • 4 = Indiana (IN), Kentucky (KY), Michigan (MI), Ohio (OH)
  • 5 = Iowa (IA), Minnesota (MN), Montana (MT), North Dakota (ND), South Dakota (SD), Wisconsin (WI)
  • 6 = Illinois (IL), Kansas (KS), Missouri (MO), Nebraska (NE)
  • 7 = Arkansas (AR), Louisiana (LA), Oklahoma (OK), Texas (TX)
  • 8 = Arizona (AZ), Colorado (CO), Idaho (ID), New Mexico (NM), Nevada (NV), Utah (UT), Wyoming (WY)
  • 9 = Alaska (AK), California (CA), , Hawaii (HI), Oregon (OR), Washington (WA)
The distribution of grants were as follows -- Column 1 is the first digit of the zip, column 2 is the total grant amount given to that zip, and column 3 is the percentage of the total amount distributed that this represents:

|ZIP 0| 288000|10.01|

|ZIP 1| 754000 |26.2|

|ZIP 2| 290000 | 10.08|

ZIP 3 |128000 | 4.45|

ZIP 4 |145000 |5.04|

ZIP 5 | 255000 | 8.66|

ZIP 6 |171000 | 5.94|

ZIP 7 |106000 | 3.68|

ZIP 8 | 145000 | 5.04|

ZIP 9 | 596000 | 20.71

Not surprisingly, the zip with New York (1) and California (9) dominated the distributions, receiving roughly 47% of the NEA grant money. But this didn't seem counter-intuitive, after all New York and California have some huge cities in them -- maybe this is equitable. So I added a fourth column: percentage of the US population that each zip code represents. It looked like this:

ZIP 0 | 288000 | 10.01 | 7.14 |

ZIP 1 | 754000 | 26.2 |10.74 |

ZIP 2 | 290000 | 10.08 | 9.5 |

ZIP 3 | 128000 | 4.45 |13.5 |

ZIP 4 | 145000 | 5.04 |10.56 |

ZIP 5 | 255000 | 8.66 | 5.29 |

ZIP 6 |171000 | 5.94 | 7.63 |

ZIP 7 | 106000 | 3.68 | 10.99 |

ZIP 8 | 145000 | 5.04 | 6.54 |

ZIP 9 | 596000 | 20.71 | 13.86|

Hmmm. Zip codes 1 and 9 had a little less than 25% of the US population, but were getting 47% of the grants. And remember that swath of blankness on the TCG map? A lot of that was zip code 7, and 8, which represents 17.5% of the population and received 8.7% of the grant money. But it was when I went in a little closer that things got really interesting.

The population of New York City and Chicago equals 4.02% of the U.S. population. Yet the theatres in those two cities received grants totalling $781,000 or 27.14% of the NEA total. Meanwhile, pulling back a few steps, there were 17 states that received absolutely nothing from the NEA -- not a dime. Here is the list of those states the NEA decided were not worthy of recieving a grant:

New Hampshire
North Carolina
North Dakota
South Carolina
South Dakota

Included in that list were the #10 (North Carolina) and #8 (Michigan) ranked states according to population.

So what? What am I advocating -- that grants be distributed according to geography and population? No, although I do believe that, in a democracy, there should be some equity when it comes to things like this, and when 47% of the federal grants for a year go to two zip codes and 27% goes to two cities -- well, something is wrong.

In addition, when theatre artists get in a lather about the narrow-minded people in those big states in the midwest and the west who don't think the federal government ought to support the arts, they should take a look at these maps and these figures and ask themselves: what's in it for them? For instance, why should Jesse Helms, whose state received no NEA funds despite being the 10th most populace state in the nation, feel committed to funding the NEA? None of those artists do anything down south. When 36% of the NEA funds go to the northeastern-most states in Zip Codes #1 and #2, and another 20%+ goes to the West Coast in Zip Code #9 -- well, what's a good southern politician to think? Might he think that there might be a little elitism going on? A little snobbery?

But, you cry to this provincial hack, the grants are distributed by peer panels of artists who are focused on questions of merit. Right, says the politician, and where are those expert panelists from? Dollars to donuts there is an over-representation of zip codes 1, 2, and 9 -- with maybe a few Chicago and Minneapolis folk thrown in for "balance." Maybe.

No, this whole system is rigged to support the status quo, which is narrowly centralized. It's not regional theatre, that's for sure, if you understand regional to mean the breadth of this nation. It is a theatre focused on the metropolises of old wealth in this country combined with the new media center of California. Just like (ot connect this to our previous discussion) the "name MFA programs," which follow the same pattern and are centered in elitist eastern and Californian private schools designed for the children of rich, old money.

For those of you tempted to write this off to provincial "paranoia," I would point out that I have spent 80% of my life in the zip codes that have received the highest amount of dollars and theatres. This is more than just grumping. This is about a system that is working against the development nd appreciation of the art form that I love. Somebody must speak out against the cultural discrimination that this represents.


Anonymous said...

that is some very interesting stuff

the one thing I would add though - part of the reason that most people head to a major market to seek work is that, well, they are seeking work - they are not seeking to build an entire theater all by themselves from the ground up.

starting and running a theater is a very different skill set than say - acting or writing or directing even. and it takes alot of work to get funding and a board and learn (or find someone who already know how) to write grants and learn how to attract and build an audience. that is, if it's something you are expecting to make your life's work and not just a community theater situation or a one off production.

not saying that it's not a GREAT idea to go someplace where there is no theater and start one up! but again, it's not something they really teach you in an MFA program. LOL

also, there is still that perception that theater is a more sophisticated "citified" thing and that folks outside of major markets will not support or appreciate theater the way folks do in big cities.
That may be a load of crap - but it's hard to tell, since, as your diagram shows, there just aren't that many theaters in those areas.

but it is certainly something that would be interesting to see develop. and would more theaters not also bring more exposure to theater and more appreciation of theater? one would hope. but who will be the brave pioneers?

Freeman said...

Great stuff to further discussion. I do have to say, though, that it's not a secret that most of the major markets for the arts and entertainment are located around California and New York. It's great to see it so clearly expressed with new technology. I guess what I'm thinking is... what is to be done about North Dakota?

Anonymous said...

what do you think of this idea of streaming live theater over the internet?

i know it's not the same feeling and actually being in a room with the other audience members or with the actors - but really, only a very small percentage of the public is going to get to see, say, Kevin Kline play Cyrano or see Cherry Jones in Doubt -

wouldn't it bring theater to a whole new audience?

is theater more stodgy than the Met? hell, they have video simulcasts or you can get them from On Demand as pay per view. it's not the same as being there - but it's better than nothing at all

it's funny, OPERA is now more modern and forward thinking than the theater

if we want to nurture new audiences and really expose people to the arts - then why not use all this great technology to bring the arts TO THEM, and get them excited about things like live theater?

maybe then more people would DEMAND that they have some kind of local theater or would defend arts programs in schools.

Anonymous said...

"starting and running a theater is a very different skill set than say - acting or writing or directing even."

I don't think you get what this data means. THERE'S NO MORE difference in "skillsets." In this day and coming age...you can no longer JUST BE an actor or writer of whatever. THAT'S ONE OF THE CURRENT PROBLEMS OF THINKING. Not to mention this incredible information on how the theatre is being perceived from both a government and public perspective.
Time to wake up and take responsibility.


Anonymous said...

sorry bc-nyc
the whole "skill set" thing was the continuation of another discussion about MFA programs and what they teach and what they should teach and...

well - just go read some comments from previous posts and that should help my response make more sense

but i will say, unless you have ever started or run a theater company, you have no idea how incredibly complicated it can be.

it really is a different "skill set" than alot of people trained in acting or directing or writing even posess.

The Director said...

Interesting statistics, though.

I think they're misleading, though. Does TCG or NEA provide statistics for thespians per capita per zip code? More theatres in those areas doesn't necessarily mean that there are fewer thespians elsewhere.

...rats. I should have responded when I first read this. It's been about 8 hours and I forgot my thought process. There's more to my comment, but... had a long day. I'll comment when I remember.

I'm sure it will come back to me soon.

Tony said...

Food for thought. Have you compared these maps to the general population density of the US?

If memory serves me it looks pretty similar to the maps you've shown. So there may be more to it than it seems.

Tony said...


I found a copy of that map I referred to.

Paul said...

It's a small thing, but considering this post is probably going to be all over the theater blogs for days to come, just wanted to clear it up:

No, although I do believe that, in a democracy, there should be some equity when it comes to things like this, and when 47% of the federal grants for a year go to two zip codes and 27% goes to two cities -- well, something is wrong.

47% of the grants do not go to two zip codes. At least, as most people define zip codes. Chicago alone has more than I care to count.

I know what you mean, but someone's going to quote you out of context.