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.