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Thursday, May 31, 2012

Why Stand Up and Sketch are Theater.

Cauliflower is nothing but cabbage with a college education.
-Mark Twain

In a very general way most of us think we have a good sense of what theater is.  But like many things which hide in the shadows of their Platonic Ideal, theater is most often defined by what it is not.  We could say that theater occurs when actors perform a prepared text for an audience, but we tend to mean more than that.  Stand up comedy, sketch comedy, historical reenactments and many other live scripted events fit this loose definition, but are not thought of as theater.  Instead, theater covets its place as a pure and austere, serious art form which stands above these lesser cultural staples.  But why?  And what makes theater different?  Visual art came to terms with its strange outlying examples a century ago (see Duchamp, Warhol, Yves Klein selling boxes of air for gold leaf ).  Theater has struggled to widen its tent, and in many ways this failure has quickened the demise of the form as an important part of people’s lives.  

So why isn’t sketch comedy generally thought of as theater?  I say generally because there are shows, such as the Neo Futurists “too much light..” and the Civilians forays into everything that is wrong with America, that use sketch elements and still get treated as theater.  But for the most part, the countless shows at the Pit and the Magnet and their brethren across the country are not anointed with the high art halo of “theater”. The simplest reason why is elitism, to my knowledge it is not possible to obtain an MFA in stand up or sketch.  Unlike the high brow theater molded by universities and cast by Non Profit theater companies, stand up and sketch performers learn on the job, more like plumbers.  There are classes to be sure, but even those classes tend to act more like apprenticeships.  If this seems familiar to really old theater artists, its because it is exactly how theater used to be.  
Another difference that theater cats point to between real theater and its poor cousins is a difference in purpose.  We are told time and time again that entertaining is not the primary function of theater.  Theater is important, it is meaningful, it is an agent of social change.  But this argument is specious and subjective.  I would argue that Don Rickles did more for race relations by assaulting his diverse audience with ethnic slurs, than Clyburne Park does by reminding wealthy, white, Westchesterites that they still have reason to feel guilty even in the age of Obama.  But here we really come to the crux of it.  The supposed import, meaning and social relevance of theater do more than make theater artists feel special, they also give the art form a quasi legitimate claim to charitable status.
Go to the website of the Magnet, one thing you will not see is a bright shiny button that says “donate”.  One thing you will see, is a corporate training program.  Instead of asking for charity, the Magnet performs a service for individuals and companies that those entities are willing to pay for.  Not only does this allow the theater to stay open (in addition to its ticket sales), but maybe more importantly, it brings theater into the real world.  It finds ways in which theater as an art form can interact with people lives, not by lecturing about values, but by providing a real service.  It is easy to see why elite theater artists, and those hoping to be elite theater artists demand this high art/low art division, without it the whole justification for government funding begins to crumble.  People who claim that theater will cease to exist without public dollars need look no further than their local comedy club.
I think we are better off defining theater as broadly as possibly, by putting sketch comedy reviews right along side off-broadway reviews, by giving Obies for stand up comedy (even if its not morphed into a one woman show by dimming the lights and telling an abortion story).  In my own experience producing Sticky, there have been times when a sketch troupe performs right next to a play by a Juilliard MFA, and honestly, both tend to be great (otherwise we wouldn’t book them).  But not only are they both great, they are also the same, both are attempts to share common ideas and feelings about being alive, both use acting, story telling and technical elements to achieve their goals.  Both deserve the name Theater.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Sins of Symphony Space

My ongoing search for illegal electioneering by 501(c)(3) theater companies has turned up another example, and this one may be the most blatant to date.  Symphony Space, it turns out, has an incredibly awful evening of skits and songs purporting to be comedy which it calls the Thalia Follies.  And this year, their show was called Primary Colors, an all out attack on every Republican candidate for president.  What is great about this example though, is that they did this show back in 2008, when President Obama was running, and the differences between the ways the candidates are treated are quite telling.  Lets look at a song from this year’s follies called “Anybody but Mitt”, don’t feel compelled to watch the whole thing.  Now lets contrast that with a song from the 2008 follies, called “How do you make fun of Obama?”.  Isn’t it interesting that with all these marvelous comedy writers, they couldn’t find one joke to poke at then candidate Obama, but seem to find such an easy target in Mitt Romney?
As has recently been my want I contacted Symphony Space to find out why they thought such programming was in keeping with the Tax Code’s prohibition on statements in favor of, or opposed to a political candidate.  

As you can see in the email exchange, I was assured that this political cabaret is not exclusively in support of or against any one political party.  I mean, come on.  This is simply, plainly and demonstrably not true.  So I replied, hoping for an example of Follies material that was as critical of the President, or any Democratic candidate as it is of Republicans,  The response was, I suppose somewhat predictable.

Equal opportunity satirists?  Does Johanna, the Director of Marketing just think I’m stupid?  It is as clear as is the summer sun that both iterations of this show are just wildly partisan.  The evidence is right there on YouTube.  
As I always point out when dealing with this issue, everyone has the right to make shows, even purulent and pathetic shows, embracing any politics they want.  But nobody has the right to do so using public funds donated through the 501(c)(3) tax exemption.  Symphony Space’s blatant disregard for this important feature of the tax code, and their absurd assertion that their political musings are not biased expose the bubble that theater exists in.  Has Artistic Director Isiah Sheffer ever considered that Americans who pay taxes, are willing to give money to the arts to create art, not to create political ads?  That the money Symphony Space receives through charitable deductions are not his private theatrical fun fund, but rather a trust he holds to promote theater for everyone?  Even Republicans?  My guess is he has not.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Last Name Equality Now!

Few people would deny that our society has made great strides towards equality in almost every area of American life.  And yet, beneath the surface, one group of citizens still suffers from broad forms of discrimination.  Of course I am speaking of those of us whose last names are also first names.  As double firsters we must weave our way through a culture that has no respect or understanding for our unique condition.  After all, how could they?  Until you have faced confusion from people who think your last name is your first name, you can’t understand how it feels.  And to those who say “just deal with it”, I say, “that’s exactly what the Nazis said, just in German.”
I remember bitterly the first time I realized I was different.  My 3rd grade teacher Sister Anne Mathews was constantly calling me Marcus, or even Mark.  It wasn’t so much the mistake, though really, how hard is it to remember a student’s first name, it was her unwillingness to examine the underlying causes of her discriminatory actions.  It all came to a head when she handed me back a vocab test which I had aced with the note, “Great Work Mark!!!”.   I stayed after class and told her how demeaning her actions were, how her subconscious prejudice was creating a learning environment fraught with emotional trauma for me.  Her reply?  “I’m sorry Mark, I had no idea”.  Talk to the millions of American double firsters and you will hear this story millions of times.  
This is not simply a problem of personal namism, the problem is institutional.  Whether its tax forms, drivers license applications or jury duty, double firsters are subjected to no end of red tape and run around.  A 2009 Pew research study revealed that the average American with a last name for a first name spent 43 hours a year, A YEAR, working out mistakes on official government forms (I would link to the study but I forget where I read it).  You would think the federal government would be hard at work fixing these problems, but to date, not one cent has been spent on this issue.  Last year’s bipartisan Frank/Ryan bill in the House, the “Last Name Fairness Act” floundered. Its as if to the federal government, we simply don’t exist.  Of the nine current Supreme Court Justices, only one is a double firster, and he never even says anything.
Consider this a call to action, all of you smug people with your unique and complicated last names need a wake up call.  We will no longer stand by and allow our rights to be trampled.  Double firsters have made this nation great, from Ben Franklin, to Abe Lincoln to Jesse Jackson, and all faced constant discrimination from people who just didn’t care enough to know what their first name really was.  This is America, we can do better!

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Public Politics

After the President's statement in favor of state's rights to legalize gay marriage, I came across this tweet from the venerable Public Theater in NYC.  As per my last few posts, I have to posit the question, is this tweet legal?   Here again is the language of the code, outlining the political activities that are forbidden to 501(c)(3) corporations such as the Public.

"(ii) Directly or indirectly to participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of or in opposition to any candidate for public office"

Clearly the Public has distributed a statement (to its 15,000 twitter followers) with this tweet, but is this tweet on behalf of the President, a candidate for Public office?  It seems to me that it is, it links to an interview and goes on to say that this theater, a charity, agrees with the candidate's position.  When I tweeted back to the Public, suggesting their tweet was illegal I got the following reply:

Followed a moment later by this tweet:

So the position of the Public seems to be that they were just passing on the news, you know, in case anyone missed it, that the President had come out in favor of gay marriage.  I think this very much misses the point.  It does not matter how long the Public has supported gay marriage, or that they would happily tweet support of Mitt Romney if he made a similar statement.  The simple fact is that this tweet, sent to 15,000 people, is the distribution of a statement on behalf of the President.  Furthermore, this tweet had nothing to do with theater, it was not about a show, a playwright, a director, it was nothing but politics.  It's interesting to note that the same video the Public tweeted a link to, is the front page of the Obama/Biden election website today.

My message to the Public is clear.  You are charity.  You are not allowed to do this.  If you want to make political statements on behalf of the President, give up your 501(c)(3) status, and join the theater companies who do not take charity from the government, and reserve the right to say whatever we please.

A savvy reader hipped me to this document from the IRS that outlines further the prohibitions on election activity for 501(c)(3) corporations.  Some of it works against my argument, some of it works in favor.  These are tricky issues, somewhat out of my depth, but my larger point is that if theater companies are going to accept charity, they should act like charities.  There is every reason to believe that those companies who do not take public funds, should have much broader freedom of speech than those that do.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The First Anti Romney Play (part 2)

In which Fractured Atlas defends itself...

Above is an email I received from Adam Huttler, Executive Director of Fractured Atlas.  You can see my question in the body, but basically I wanted to know if the recipients of 501(c)(3) donations through Fractured Atlas have the same limitations placed upon them as a 501(c)(3) company that does not use a clearing house to accept donations.  According to this email, it would seem that Mr. Huttler is saying that they do, and that the sponsored projects of Fractured Atlas are not “allow[ed] to circumvent IRS rules."
Taking Mr. Huttler up on his offer of additional questions, I replied, asking if Fractured Atlas advises its sponsored projects as to the limits on political communication in the tax code, and if they monitor the actions of those sponsees.  Here his answer got a bit confusing, at least to me, as he took on the specific charges I leveled in my previous blog post.

Mr. Huttler seems to be saying that if Fractured Atlas funds were used for an anti Mitt Romney play it might be legal and it might not be, that the law is complex and subjective.  Fair enough, but he goes further.  Arguing in the alternative, he indicates that even if Co-Op Theater East’s reading ran afoul of the tax code, it is a “non-issue” because no charitable funds went directly to the reading.  If this is true, it does indeed represent a massive loophole for those companies who use 501(c)(3) clearing houses to collect donations.  
The code is clear that 501(c)(3) companies must be “exclusively” engaged in exemptible activities, not that they maintain a firewall between charitable and earned income with regard to non exemptible activities.  This is why one may not deduct donations to Citizens United, a 501(c)(4), but may deduct donations to Citizens United Foundation, their 501(c)(3) division.  It is not enough to ensure that funds are not commingled, there must two separate corporations formed.   Put another way, the Public Theater may not hold a fundraiser for President Obama even if they can show that only earned income was used to pay for it.  However, if Mr. Huttler is correct, a theater or any arts company can do just that, using a clearinghouse, provided that they show that tax deductible funds were only used for exemptible purposes.  
Digging a little deeper I went to the Fractured Atlas website to see if it had any information regarding which section of the tax code allows companies not exclusively engaged in exemptible activities to receive deductible donations.  Here I got quite a shock.  On their page regarding fiscal sponsorship I found this language, regarding the legality of this kind of charitable giving.
“The Catch
Anytime you're dealing with the IRS (which regulates these issues), you can bet there are going to be some complicated legal issues involved. Many well-intentioned, legitimate organizations across the country provide fiscal sponsorship programs for artists. Very few of them are doing it legally, though, and most don't even realize the danger in which they're putting themselves and their sponsored projects. If the IRS ever decides to crack down, they could lose their 501(c)(3) status, and their sponsored projects could be forced to return any money raised under the arrangement.”
So according to the website of a major fiscal sponsor, the majority of fiscal sponsors to the arts in the US are breaking the law.  What?  And why isn’t the IRS cracking down?  Its not like the federal budget is awash in extra cash.  Aside from the question of how all of these other fiscal sponsors can be both “legitimate” and engaged in tax fraud, the bigger question is, why is it legal when Fractured Atlas does it?  To this question, I have found no answer.  Maybe I will have to ask the IRS directly.
Here is the problem with all of this.  Having a rich uncle who is willing to invest in your new business is a time honored advantage for their entrepreneurial nieces and nephews, but there is no reason that the Federal Government should be providing tax deductions for those investments.  Unlike soup kitchens and foreign aid groups, which do not have commercial competitors, these theater companies do.  So not only is tax fraud on a massive scale being perpetrated by Fractured Atlas’ competitors, but unsubsidized theater companies are forced to compete with theater companies accepting this illegal, free money.  
The deeper one looks into the subterranean depths of theater funding, the more it looks like a fraud, perpetuated against the tax payer, and intended to make sure that the rich maintain their position as the arbiters and gatekeepers of American Theater.  It is time to break down the gates.

Monday, May 7, 2012

The First Anti Romney Play (and why it is illegal)

The moment I have been waiting for has arrived.  For the past few months I have been scouring the internet looking for plays that deal directly with Mitt Romney by name.  I knew they were coming and now I have found my first one.  In a previous post titled “Citizens United vs Mrs. Farnsworth” I talked about the danger that the anti-corporate personhood movement poses for theater.  In a nutshell, since theater companies tend to  be corporations, if corporations have no Constitutional rights, neither do those theater companies.  But there is another twist in this story of theater and the tax code.  First off: a correction.  I wrongly stated in my previous post that Citizens United is a 501(c)(3) non profit corporation.  In fact it is a 501(c)(4) corporation, which means that donations to it are not tax deductible.  501(c)(4) status also means that the government cannot ban it from engaging in electioneering speech.  Interestingly, this is not true of 501(c)(3) corporations, the typical tax status of arts organizations, the code could not be more clear about its ban on political activity for 501(c)(3)s.  
Here is what the code says on the subject:

(3) Authorization of legislative or political activities.  An organization is not organized exclusively for one or more exempt purposes if its articles expressly empower it:

(i) To devote more than an insubstantial part of its activities to attempting to influence legislation by propaganda or otherwise; or

(ii) Directly or indirectly to participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of or in opposition to any candidate for public office.
And there it is: a 501(c)(3) corporation may not publish or distribute statements on behalf of or in opposition to any candidate for public office.
This brings us to Co-Op Theater East, a young theater company in New York City who on May 6th presented a reading of a new play by Phillip Kaplan called “Unborn Again”.  The description of the play is as follows:  “Mitt Romney befriends three fetuses and shows that he cares more about them, than anyone actually born”.  That certainly sounds to me like a statement in opposition to a candidate for public office.  And as I pointed out in my previous post, this is nothing new, 501(c)(3) theater companies do this all the time.  But here is the next twist, Co-Op Theater East is not a 501(c)(3) corporation, rather they accept their donations through Fractured Atlas, a 501(c)(3) that acts as a clearing house for tax deductible donations, for a price of course.  
So the complex legal question becomes this, can Fractured Atlas accept tax deductible donations, give that money to entities engaged in political statements on behalf of or in opposition to a political candidate and still be in compliance with the tax code?  
The reason this all matters is that the charitable deductions in the tax code were written for very specific purposes, to support only those entities with, if not universally accepted, at least extremely broadly agreed upon social value.  American Theater companies have every right to create political works that challenge or defend specific politicians, but not if they accept tax deductible donations.  This should be an important advantage for those companies that choose to be unsubsidized, but since the IRS turns a blind eye to this blatant misuse of the tax code, that advantage does not exist.  I applaud Co-Op Theater East for the work that they do, I haven't seen their shows, but they seem to have a good thing going, but that good thing is not a charity.