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Friday, January 6, 2012

Rearranging the Deck Chairs

In the past few years there has been a great deal of interest in reforming the way in which not-for-profit theater is funded.  This is a wonderful development for theater, and a discussion which for many years has been taboo.  The fear of giving credence to right wing attacks on public funding of the arts kept artists and producers silent on this subject for the better part of  three decades.  Now, whether as a result of the economic downturn, or the failure of the current system to create  new audience, people are beginning to imagine better ways to move forward with NFP theater funding.  As positive as this change is, and it is, it fails to go far enough. 

Let’s focus on three approaches, all of which found their way into many facebook feeds in the recent past.  First Rocco Landesman’s 2009 speech to Grantmakers in the Arts, second the copious blog of the Collective Arts Think Tank, and finally, Alex Kilgore’s thoughtful article “The Shame of Theater” in the Brooklyn Rail.  All three of these ways forward share a common thread: the idea that funders, otherwise known as rich people and granting organizations, should better target their donations, giving more money to less artists.  In Landesman’s case this means less shows, so that trees can be seen for the forest; in CATT’s vision, funders would focus on “professional” companies, rather than amateurs; and in Kilgore’s new world, preference would be given to companies that actually produce plays, rather than engaging in what he properly calls new play “development hell.”    I argue that none of this can solve the real problem.  The real problem is that less people are going to theater, and therefore, it is becoming less and less relevant to the lives of average Americans.  Here are three issues that I feel are not addressed by this new take on public funding,  but which would be fixed by moving completely away from a public funding model.

1. Who decides what is good?

I give CATT and Kilgore credit for trying to create new criteria upon which rich people and granting organizations should base their funding. However, under their plans, these funders remain the gatekeepers of  theater production.  They decide who gets to produce. Theater companies, hoping to be good enough to benefit from their largesse, are still in the position of creating art that generates grants, not audience.  This would be fine if these gatekeepers had a good track record of pushing the form forward to newer larger audiences, but the exact opposite is in fact the case.  As Landesman points out, less people go to theater, even though more money is granted to it.  This can only mean that the funders are not very good at picking winners.  Rather, they give on the basis of their own idea of what constitutes good art.  Not only is this undemocratic, it also creates a whole bunch of shows that most people in our society have very little interest in.

2. Means of production

It seems to be an accepted fact that theater costs more to produce than it recoups in ticket sales.  The current model of  a 99-300 seat house, with full lighting and sound and all the bells and whistles, simply cannot pay for itself. Therefore, proponents of the NFP system argue that public funding is needed lest we lose these precious amenities forever.  None of these new approaches listed above do anything to redress this fiscal imbalance. Much the opposite, they require more money to be dropped into the black hole for the good of our culture.  Many people seem to believe that theater will cease to exist if there isn’t money for the $1,500 scrim that we really need for the end of Act II.  This of course is nonsense. Theater is thousands of years old and it will exist under any economic circumstance.  In fact, in order for theater to thrive, and grow, there must be creative destruction, the old ways must be replaced by newer, better, more efficient methods.  Perpetuating a style of theater that is already at least half a century old does nothing to bring new audience in.  When companies have to fight to survive, they will create work that people will pay for, and not just rich people.  By cutting overhead and focusing on work that people want to see, we can make theater relevant again to the vast majority of Americans who currently view it as entertainment for wealthy old ladies to talk about at lunch.

3. If a play falls in the forest...

Ultimately the biggest problem confronting theater is audience indifference.  If you ask 100 people off the street who their 5 favorite living playwrights are, a few might say David Mamet or Edward Albee and then stare off into space,most will just look at you quizzically.  Theater is not an important part of most Americans lives and that is because we don’t create theater for most Americans. We create theater for the left wing elite wealthy people who fund it.  They want confirmation that America, war, and white men are bad, and we give it to them.  This a point recently brought to the fore by Mamet himself.  There is a notion that art is somehow above the people, that it should instruct them, that their intellectual betters should guide them with their unique understanding of how the world really is or ought to be.  Even if these messages were important for people to hear, they are not hearing them.  Maybe instead of  hopelessly trying to force “good art” down people’s throats, we should find out what they want to see, what they want to pay for, and take their money for it. 

The not-for-profit system is not broken, it is functioning as it always has, as a way for the wealthy and connected to decide what theater is.  But if we deny ourselves the free money and fancy galas, we can connect to people again.  We can produce low budget, well targeted theater that means something to everyday citizens.  Kilgore ends his article with the following line, “If we don’t examine the machine, and the big funders don’t investigate the authenticity of the institutions they fund, development hell could erode the divide between commercial and nonprofit and in 20 years we might be able to examine them under the same microscope.”  In Broadway’s 2010-11 season we saw Jerusalem, House of Blue Leaves, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo and Motherfucker with the Hat.  Is this evidence that Stephen Adly Guirgis is suddenly “commercial” bullshit?  Is Rajiv Joseph?  Not at all, clever producers have found ways to make money off of them, or so they hope.  It is time for theater to stop relying on the kindness of strangers.


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