Please Don’t Start a Theater Company, I Say Again…

In 2009, I read with interest a call from Edward Clapp, a graduate student at Harvard, for essays on the future of the arts by arts workers under 40.  Thinking about what to write, I recalled a conversation I’d had just before that with a young director who was considering starting a theater company.  Surprisingly given that I had just stepped down after ten years as the artistic director of a company I’d founded, I heard myself urging him “Please, don’t start a theater company!”  This ended up being the burden of the proposal I sent Edward, then eventually the title of the chapter that I was honored to have selected for his book.

Reading the complex responses to Rocco Landesman’s remarks at Arena about the possible need to reduce the supply of non-profit theater companies, made me think all over again about why I wrote the chapter.  I believe very strongly that there is little need and nearly no space for more and more companies founded in imitation of the large regionals.  But that doesn’t means I think there is no future in the theater.  It means instead that we should build something different.

Here’s how I began my chapter (I’m going to quote liberally here, you can read the whole thing by buying the book):

I was twenty-three when I arrived in San Francisco, fresh from assistant-directing at the Royal Court in London and eager to start my theater career. I was brimming over with enthusiasm, and maybe just a little hubris. Shortly thereafter, I founded Crowded Fire Theater Company, full of plans for it to quickly become the next major regional theater. My generation of theater artists grew up on the stories of how our current crop of institutions were founded—Sam Shepard and his collaborators starting the Magic Theater in a Berkeley bar, Tony Kushner premiering Angels in America at the Eureka, Bill Ball asking cities to compete to house A.C.T.—why shouldn’t my company be the next success story?  I had no question about what that success would look like—it would look like a building with staff and a season, with subscribers and youth programs, and a healthy mix of earned and contributed income.

It turns out I wasn’t alone in my ambition. In the past fifteen years, the number of non-profit theater companies in the U.S. has doubled while audiences and funding have shrunk. Neither the field nor the next generation of artists is served by this unexamined multiplication of companies based on the same old model. The NEA’s statistics on non-profit growth, set against their sobering reports on declining arts participation, illuminate a crucial nexus for the field, a location of both profound failure and potential transformation. The proliferation of small theater companies sits at the intersection between the necessity to imagine different structures for making theater and our field’s failure to provide career paths for the next generation of artists. Since the Ford Foundation’s investments kicked off the regional theater movement fifty years ago, there has been tremendous collective buy-in to what has now become a fossilized model of a particular type of non-profit theater. Within this structure, there is now a critical lack of opportunity for emerging artists and leaders, leaving the next generation of artists no alternative but to start companies of their own, companies that often replicate the problems of established theaters on a smaller scale.

So, are we as a sector overbuilt? I would say yes, if we’re talking about the percentage of dollars that go to administrators versus artists.  I would say, yes, if we’re talking about the number of institutions that have outlived their creative prime and go on receiving foundation support out of habit and sense of legacy.  I would say, yes, when you think about endowments that have sewn up in perpetuity funds that are no longer available for any other creative enterprise in a particular city.  My colleague David McGraw, who writes in 20under40 about the possibility of creating a theater company with a built in expiration date, uses the metaphor of an old-growth forest where the large trees are choking off oxygen to the understory.  That’s a serious problem

But are we overbuilt when it comes to artists?  Here’s where I say resoundingly no. Here’s a bit more from my chapter:

Is there a “glut” of new artists entering the field? Theater internship programs are besieged by applicants, new play festivals have to bring on extra staff to read all the incoming scripts, and BFA and MFA programs now graduate hundreds of new artists each year. Established theater professionals, entrenched in long-term scarcity, deplore the naiveté of the “wannabe” artists flooding the field and are quick to insist that there is no possible way to provide employment for all of them. But in a time of shrinking audiences, how can we reject the one group of people who are excited about the theater? These are people who want to participate in the essential project of telling the stories of our culture. They’re going to find the means for creative expression, if not in the theater then in other more accessible media. Moira Brennan at the MAP Fund comments, “There’s an increased sense among individual makers that you can be an artist if you want to be. We don’t want to discourage this self-expression.” Marc Vogl at the Hewlett Foundation agrees: “Who are the villains in this story? Not the artists and people who want to do new things. We can’t wish for people to stop making things, that’s not the problem.”

Of course, not everyone who wants to be an actor or a playwright or a director has an equal amount of talent and many will never develop into mature artists working on a professional level. No one is suggesting that all of these aspiring artists are owed equal success. But it’s a mistake to pretend that our current system selects only for talent. Rather, gate-keeping as it currently operates in the field selects for economic privilege (like family support that can subsidize an unpaid internship or pay for an MFA program), for lucky choice of life partner (a higher-earning partner’s income often subsidizes low arts wages), and for lack of dependents (advancement often demands many weeks on the road, a challenge for parents of young children or those with other family responsibilities). These factors work against diversity in the upper ranks of the field and discourage participation by many people who might otherwise help revitalize the theater.

It should be a source of pride and joy to theater professionals that there are so many people who want to join this field and make this their life’s work.  But if we want to discover which aspiring artists will turn into the architects of tomorrow’s theater, then we have to give them opportunities to learn their craft, and we have to provide a career path that sustains them as they grow.  So many beginning artists find that the only way to get their work into the world is to start a theater company, and almost as many mid-career artists continue to run their own companies because there’s no other way to have the artistic freedom they want.  But in many if not most cases, these companies struggle financially, don’t pay living wages to artists or the founders, and divert energy from the true project of making the most extraordinary art you can.  If it turns out that you really shouldn’t begin your career by starting a theater company, then what can we offer artists instead?

If you’re at an established company, then look around and see what aspiring artist, what maverick playwright, what hungry ensemble you can welcome into your space, your season, or the structure of your organization.  At the very least, make sure that you’re offering real artistic opportunities to your junior artistic staff and take a hard look at your hiring practices to see if you’re succeeding at bringing in the next generation of artists.

If you’re a funder, then wake up to the fact that it is the long-held practices of foundations that are deeply implicated in the over-proliferation of non-profits.  Start funding projects with fiscal sponsors and try your best to get money directly in the hands of artists.  Stop advising every arts organization to meet some cookie-cutter set of best practices before they have enough “organizational capacity” to receive funding.  And please stop demanding that every organization have a plan to exist in perpetuity.

If you’re a theater artist thinking of starting a company, or taking your project down the 501 (c) (3) path then I urge you to stop and consider alternatives.  Ask yourself whether this is primarily a way to meet your own artistic or career needs. If so, then give yourself a time period in which you will devote at least at much energy to advancing your career in other ways as you were going to spend reading that Nolo Press book on how to incorporate.  Make meetings with larger theaters to see if you can join forces, try to see if you can connect with someone else with a space, an audience, some kind of demand that you can supply.  Think hard about whether running an organization will give you more or less time to pursue your art.

If the organization you want to found is truly about meeting a community need (the real basis of the tax status after all) then get clear about defining that need and making sure that no one else is already taking care of it. Maybe you’re in a rural area where there are no other theaters, maybe there is a population in your city whose stories are not being told, maybe you truly have a new artistic approach. In that case, get as creative with your structure as you plan to be with your art and make a new kind of organization.

These are some of my thoughts about what we might build instead. I hope we’ll all keep thinking about this question, and I applaud Rocco for getting the conversation rolling as provocatively as he did.  I’ll leave you with the conclusion from my 20under40 chapter, which asks us to think about how to sustain artists rather than continually focusing on sustaining institutions:

Every artist I spoke to told me that it doesn’t take much to sustain a life in the theater. No one got into this trying to be rich. But you don’t stay twenty forever and after that you do occasionally need to buy shoes, or go to the doctor, or send your children to preschool. And one day you might like to send them to college, or buy a house, or even retire. The middle-class dream shouldn’t be out of reach for theater artists, especially when every city now includes several hundred theater administrators who receive the benefits of permanent employment while the artists by and large are still camping outside the gates.

With increased competition for audiences and many easier ways for people to tell and share stories, theater is facing threats from many directions.  The future of the field depends on making the work on our stages as visionary, as creative, as compelling, and as diverse as it can be. We can’t reach this goal unless a wide range of the most creative artists and the most ingenious producers are allowed to develop their skills and are then supported over the long haul so their art can mature. The field must re-focus resources on the challenge of sustaining artists rather than sustaining particular institutions. Brilliant early work is a wonderful thing, but where would we be without Shakespeare’s last plays, or the end of August Wilson’s great cycle? Artists need support not just in starting out, but in carrying on, not just as apprentices, but as journeymen and master craftsmen as well.

  • February 15, 2011
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