…and what it means for our future.

I was a lucky audience member for the Oct 26th SDC Zelda Fichandler Award presentation at Arena Stage (which was given, this year, to Blanka Zizka of Wilma Theater). I wanted to attend, in part, because I had just joined the stage directors and choreographers union a few weeks prior and, in part, to support Howard Shalwitz who was being recognized as the Distinguished Finalist. What I didn’t expect was an education in the significance of the early regional theatre movement and how its principals can guide the theatre of today in becoming a true force in our cultural landscape, once again.

As a DC theatre maker, Zelda’s influence on our local community certainly looms large. We know of her as the founder of Arena Stage. We think of her when we sit in the beautiful in-the-round space that bears her name. But for me, a 30 year old who only moved to DC in 2003, started a small theatre company, and has decided to make artistic direction my career, I now realize how little I appreciated the significance of that exodus out of New York and into the regions, over 60 years ago.

I am a member of a generation who have, perhaps, taken for granted the efforts of Zelda, Margo Jones, Tyrone Guthrie, and the countless others who blazed those first trails into the wilderness and forged the community that I so gratefully make a living in, today. For us, there has always been an Arena Stage. For us, Margo’s prophesy of “40 of these theatres all around America, that’s what we need to have” has not only been surpassed long before we were born, but has been met and exceeded in our very own geographic region. Professional theatres under the non-profit banner have always been a part of our lives.

Obviously, this has not always been the case. An argument had to be made to even allow theatres to be invited to the 501(c)(3) party “because [theatre] made a profit” (that comment nearly brought down the house at the event and reminded me of the joke “How do you make a small fortune as a theatrical producer? Well, you start with a large fortune…”). A case had to made that theatre could and should mean more than just financially profitable entertainment. The regional theatre movement had to reach back to the very foundations of our art and rediscover the community building, political-minded, and educational roots that our form of artistic expression is not only well suited for, but possibly best suited for bringing a populace together in public discourse.

Oskar Eustis points out that theatre has always been a social tool for practicing empathy and a forum for challenging perspectives. Starting with the earliest known work in our Western cannon, The Persians, theatre has always been intrinsically married to democracy and the effort of putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes to learn how to live better with one another. It’s apt that Oskar looks back to these early theatrical gods for inspiration for it’s important for today’s practitioners to look to our American Theatrical Founding Fathers and Mothers for guidance in how we move theatre forward for our contemporary audience and the generations to come.

We have lost sight of the founding traditions of our theatrical revolution. We see our non-profit statuses as means to an end. They allow us to solicit tax-deductable donations because this is how our government has decided to support the arts. And while we bemoan the always-shrinking amount of public funds available to our organizations, it’s important to realize how much freedom our United States not-for-profit system truly allots us. On a trip to Toronto a few years back, I found myself full of jealousy for the famous Canadian government funding support and enjoyed telling every theatre artist I met there about “how hard it was” for us, in America and how their government clearly valued the arts more than ours. I pulled out this attitude time and time again until one producer came back with “yes, but the projects we pursue funding for must go though a bureaucratic process that sometimes dilutes and censors the work because it has to go through a series of gateways.” As American non-profits, we have more freedom to do what we want so long as we find the support to make it happen.

Listening to Zelda, I thought about my own theatre, Forum Theatre, and wondered if we were living up to the service organization label we purport to be known by. Are we doing enough to justify our not-for-profit status?

Perhaps the name of our system is partially at fault. Have we unknowingly bought into the negative, profit-less connotation of the term “non-profit.” a term that inspires (if that’s the right word) low expectations with its very word ingredients. If our titled goal is to not make a financial profit, then what are we trying to achieve?

A campaign to replace the term “non-profit” with “social profit” has arisen over the past few years and I wonder if it’s a cause that theatres should take up as a galvanizing force for our industry. A stated intention of exactly what our organizations hope to return to our investors could refocus our missions beyond the needed language to gain 501(c)(3) status and towards a greater good. A social-profit would yield not financial profit but benefits to society. South Africa even has a “Social Investment Exchange” for tracking such organizations.

I firmly believe that a renewed focus on the core values devised by those early pioneers at Arena, the Guthrie, Theatre ’47, and others, is a key component to how we can not only strengthen our field but grow our industry in terms of higher risk and therefore higher investment return. As Zelda said in her speech when talking about dwindling audience numbers, “If that is so, I ask this question: could it be, in part, that the imaginative scale of our work is bowing to meet the budget’s needs?”

As my generation and the one coming up just behind us look to build the theatrical landscape of tomorrow, we would do well to learn from those who waged so many battles before us and forge onwards to a theatre of even greater value.

  • November 15, 2011
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