Friday, December 23, 2011

An Idea That Everyone Will Hate

IN A COUPLE POSTS on Parabasis, Isaac Butler has contributed two commentaries concerning the increasingly blurred lines between the profit theatre and the nonprofit theatre. This is an issue upon which Rocco Landesman has repeatedly commented quite powerfully, both as head of the NEA and long before. This is an issue that intersects with many of my own concerns about the increasing centralization of the theatre in New York as well as the centralization of arts funding in large theatres, many of whom rather regularly transfer their productions to Broadway.
    While I was thinking about this issue and how best to address it, I came up with an idea that absolutely everybody will hate which, if I were an avant garde artist, I would see as proof that it is an excellent idea. And while I acknowledge its likelihood of universal horror, and also the complicated details that would be involved, I am going to share it anyway as a "modest proposal"" offered to provoke thought if nothing else.
    So here it is -- for simplicity's sake, I will give it a narrow focus:

  • Any theatre that transfers a production to a commercial venue automatically loses its non-profit status.
Actually, this wasn't the radical idea. Rather, it was the next step that was radical, because it makes this prohibition work both ways:

  • In order to maintain its 501(c)3 status, a non-profit theatre is not allowed to produce a play that has been done on Broadway or employ an artist who has worked in the commercial theatre, television, or film.
Yeah, that's the kicker.
     This would have the immediate negative effect of reducing artist income and, indeed, would likely substantially reduce the theatrical workforce. In fact, it might seriously cripple the theatre scene, at least for a while.
   On the other hand, it would draw a bright line between the nonprofit world and the commercial world, eventually creating a workforce focusing all of its artistic energy on developing the theatre. No longer would the nonprofit theatre be a stepping stone for playwrights, actors, directors, and designers to make a jump to commercial art forms. No longer would regional theatres across the US produce, cookie-cutter-like, the latest Broadway hit. No longer would we have articles in American Theatre making excuses for playwrights heading to Hollywood to write TV shows. No longer would theatre actors spend their time trying to land a national commercial or a bit spot on CSI. Theatre artists would have to commit, and if they wanted to do a TV series, film, or Broadway show, they would know that there was no going back.
   Imagine the amount of great theatre the world might have seen if the Steppenwolf actors had been doing play after play year after year instead of spending most of their time doing movies and TV series. Imagine if Tony Kushner had focused his enormous talent on writing play after play for Magic Theatre instead of trying to figure out a way to make a smart Broadway musical.  Imagine the richness that might have entered the theatre if the only people working in it were those who had committed their lives and talents totally to it. Imagine the collaboration that might happen between regional theatres looking to share the work of their playwrights. The nonprofit theatre world would be immeasurably enriched by being populated only by theatre artists who have committed their careers to its development.
   Yeah, I know -- the free flow of labor.
   But unless something like this happens, the nonprofit theatre will continue to be used as the minor leagues for commercial art forms that contribute to the cultural sludge that pollutes our nation. We need to quarantine the corporate values that have infected the commercial theatre. It isn't good for the art form; it isn't good for our culture.


Oliver Tad said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Yella said...

Yeah, I think it is an interesting theory but irregardless of whether it is popular or not, I don't believe it would work.

Sure, it would be nice if there was more real talent at the regional level, but the idea that a non-profit should lose its status if it used 'professional' actors would do nothing to stop actors from trying to become 'professional'.

Your idea assumes some loyalty on the part of actors toward the theatre, when, in fact, there is none. Nor is there any particular loyalty by theatres to particular actors. The only way to instill some sort of loyalty that might move in both directions (albeit forced) would be if there was a permanent company that operated in repertory and had playwrights in residence, etc. While I know a thousand actors who would be thrilled to get that gig, not a one of them would happily stay for 20 years. And even if you could keep a company in tact we'd all be complaining in 15 years that X Theatre Co. had gotten stagnant and put up essentially the same show for the last 5 years.

There is no way to prevent talent from wanting to move on. That bullet is out of the chamber and there is no going back. But I think more than talent is the attitude towards local, upstart and regional theatre organizations as 'community theatre' by the media, funding organizations, and yes, audiences.

Isn't another problem with theatre the funding (not to stray too far off topic) the "what about the children" dilemma? Where is the funding for programs for adults? Programs for children are supported more readily and to a greater degree, but 'regular' theatre is almost ignored by funders. It seems epidemic that foundations and granting organizations want to help people experience theatre until they become adults and then forget about them.

Yes, it would be nice if more talent stayed, but who can blame them for wanting to work more, and for more pay? Punishing the non-profit theatre would just mean fewer non-profits.

RVCBard said...

OMG, Scott, you're going to DESTROY THEATRE AS WE KNOW IT!!!! If we change things, how can we continue doing the same shit we've been doing all along? How? How! HOW!!!!

Margot H Knight said...

While we're jonathanswifting (i would like that to be a new verb, please), let's just not allow theaters to be for-profit at all. Or set up profit margins or revenue sharing rules around their business models that compel them to share portions of profits with non-profits and/or professional development for playwrights or other theater artists.
This issue has plagued the small press community for years (e.g. an author gets a shot with a non-profit literary press, it is a critical success and their NEXT book is with a major publishing house). I always thought the answer would be an agreement that allowed for the sharing of profits or some kind of residual system--a win-win
The fact is that Americans are hardwired for commercial success--it's in our historical DNA. We just need some models for sharing financial and artistic wealth that don't give us the Faustian shivers.

Laura said...

I wasn't going to comment, but what Yella wrote struck a deep chord. There is a large amount of acting classes for children where I am. But adults have few options if they want to learn about theater. I wonder how much that situation contributes to the problem Scott is tackling here.

Annie A said...

So, if "in order to maintain its 501(c)3 status, a non-profit theatre is not allowed to produce a play that has been done on Broadway," would that mean that any Shakespeare play done (ever?) on Broadway would then not longer be available to a non-profit theatre, even if to do the plays of Shakespeare and other ancient worthies were their reason for being?

Wouldn't it perhaps be better to forbid commercial theaters from using any out-of-copyright play or any dramatic work, say, more than 75 or a 100 years old?

The more I think about the proposal, the more I agree with the person who seemed to be arguing that it might just be a lot simpler if there just were no such thing as theatre as a commercial enterprise -- and also music, and dance, and the visual arts.

Or at least we should perhaps bring the concepts of "value creation" versus "rent seeking" to any discussion of money in the world of the Arts.

Anonymous said...

Wow Scott, I really can't disagree more with this one. If nonprofit theatre shouldn't use artists who have been in "commercial" productions, then you are creating a separation that seems to say one must stay non-professional to be non-commercial. And you know sponsors and funders will see it that way too.

What if we closed all of the college and university programs and had the training come back under the auspices of theatre companies who are paid the fees that the schools are getting now to educate those in training. Also an idea lots of people will hate but worked for centuries in theatres across the globe.

Just saying...


Scott Walters said...

Annie -- I don't have this thought through from top to bottom -- it is more of a marker saying "we need to do something to stop the blending of the non-profit and the profit." I suspect the "policy" would have to have a start date as far as plays were concerned -- "from now on," perhaps. I know this is sort of like the Berlin Wall, which was built to keep the East Berliners from migrating to the west. But I think we need a group of actors, playwrights, directors, and designers who are totally committed to the non-profit theatre.

Scott Walters said...

Tricia -- I agree; I think that would be an improvement over the current situation. It would be efficient, and bring money into theatres. However, I think they should only train those they are willing to take into their company, which is also the way things were done in the past. Of course, that would require an ensemble, which also was the way things were done in the past.