Many theater practitioners believe that nonprofit theaters in the United States are ailing. Among them, the word “broken” is thrown around over and over on industry panels, in articles, classrooms, and many corners of the Internet, yielding significant intra-industry agreement that something is wrong. Around the country, organizations producing new and reimagined works for the theater have become bloated and complacent—traits which are reflected year after year in the work on their stages. Regurgitated formulaic family dramas, diluted, stale productions of last season’s mild Broadway success, and the perfunctory nods to diversity that, at best, result in tired productions of August Wilson, populate the stages of America’s nonprofit theaters. This surface-level programming and rehashing of the successes of others does not follow the countercultural ideal that gave rise to the resident theater movement, and it is certainly not creating a new ideal for the twenty-first century. The regional theater movement that was formed in opposition to the commercialism of Broadway is now employing the same commercialist tactics it once deplored. The same movement that was formed through the progressive politics of art-for-all, and out of the belief that unheard voices should be heard, now looks homogenous, exclusive, and unlike the American society it was built to reflect. Many of the theaters that were at or near the forefront of the movement are now giant institutions with giant buildings and giant overhead. Arena Stage (founded in 1950), the Alley Theatre (founded in 1946), the Goodman Theatre (founded in 1925), the Guthrie (founded in 1963), South Coast Repertory (founded in 1964), Manhattan Theatre Club (founded in 1970), La Jolla Playhouse (founded in 1947), and the McCarter Theatre (producing entity founded in 1960) are examples of theaters that were formed at the start of the movement and have become huge beyond repair. It has become clear that the nation’s biggest theaters represent the most viable extra weight within the field.
As a young professional weaned in the nonprofit theater, I have become disillusioned with the possibilities that the sector holds for both me as a hopeful leader, and for the type of challenging theater that I believe could help move our society forward. In college, I delighted in reading histories of Margo Jones and Theater ‘47, Joe Papp and The Public, and many other narratives that sprouted from the seed of Hallie Flanagan’s Federal Theater Project. The rebellion, idealism, and hard-nosed pragmatism of the individuals in these tales inspired me and helped me envision a place for myself in the American theater. The fore-bearers who formed and built these organizations—Zelda Fichandler, Nina Vance, Tyrone Guthrie, Gregory Peck, Milton Lyon, David Emmes, Martin Benson, Lynne Meadow, and many others had overcome all economic obstacles to create theatrical work they believed in—work that shifted the cultural landscape around them. But as I worked and volunteered in the institutions that originated from these initial seeds, I too-often felt pangs of disappointment as I witnessed the programming practices and conversations about audience at even highly respected nonprofit theaters such as Lincoln Center Theater, Steppenwolf, and Northlight. Something has spoiled in the time between the nascent resident theater movement and its present incarnation. In spite of their good intentions, the leaders of our country’s theater organizations have let their organizations and their movement decay.
These signs of this decay are all too apparent: the majority of mid-sized to large nonprofit theaters are steadily losing the subscriber base that they were built to depend on. Many nonprofit theaters now see a precipice in the distance—the edge of a cliff of aging patrons and decreased cultural relevance. But the inclination of the leaders of these institutions is to keep trudging forward, even when they have little ground to trudge on. Rhetoric of self-sustainment abounds in contemporary discourse about producing theater within America’s nonprofit sector, as theater artists and administrators wail and problem-solve about this unprecedented time in the history of the regional theater movement. Multiple generations of theater practitioners have come of age within institutionalized nonprofit theaters. These practitioners, myself included, were often convinced of joining the field on the promise of permanence. We could, in theory, appease our society’s careerist pressures while also making the theater we loved. We saw people working in these institutions with jobs, insurance, and families. But, upon closer examination, it became clear that the theatrical output of these institutions was stagnant and lame. There is a trade-off that had slowly been made: forward-thinking theatrical work for job security. The nonprofit theater was formed in hopes of the former, and, therefore, was probably not economically sustainable to begin with. In a 2011 speech given by Zelda Fichandler, founder of Arena Stage and widely regarded as one of the mothers of the nonprofit theater, she describes the early impulses behind the start of the movement: “The fabric of the thought that propelled us was that theater should stop serving the function of making money, for which it has never been and never will be suited, and start serving revelation and shaping of the process of living, for which it is uniquely suited, for which it, indeed, exists.” This idealism and seemingly unending hope in the gift of theater has been slighted throughout the movement’s history. While profit may not be the driving force behind current nonprofit institutions, job security and sustenance is. When efforts at organization-sustaining masquerade as profit-seeking, theatrical work becomes dumbed-down and generic.
I define the metric against which the nonprofit theater should be measured as the specificity and achievability of the goals of an institution, and whether or not that organization achieves, or is effectively working towards achieving, those goals. An organization’s goals must pertain to the type of work on it’s stages in conjunction with the audience that work is targeted towards. As we see in their mission statements, many theaters intentionally articulate their institutional aims in broad strokes, thereby rendering the achievement of those aims difficult if not impossible to verify. For instance, there are very few theater organizations across the country who explicitly target their work towards white people over the age of sixty, and yet, this is who a significant majority of the audience consists of. There is nothing wrong with serving this demographic per se; rather, the problem lies in the apparent contradiction between theaters’ target audiences and the actual audiences that fill their seats. I do not seek to make the argument that one type of theater is inherently better than another, but rather that if a theater is setting out to do one type of work and really doing another, there is a kind of hypocrisy at work that, I believe, feeds into the illness currently plaguing the nonprofit American theater.
In my MFA thesis of the same name as the above, I argue that this cultural irrelevance is largely caused by the permanent structures that have been built around the theatrical work on our country’s stages. I present evidence that the massive growth of stagnating infrastructure has held within it an assumption of permanence that has pushed the nonprofit theater to the precarious, increasingly irrelevant, and hypocritical crossroads it is in today. I argue that mission statements have been tinkered with to the point of foggy ambiguity, allowing institutions to get away with loose, lazy programming and a lack of accountability for their own relevance. Finally, I make the case that, in order to bring culturally relevant theater back to America’s stages, nonprofit theater organizations must change in a radical way. In many cases, I believe that this change should come in the form of complete and responsible closure in order to make way for the next generation of arts organizations—to allow for a refertilization of artistic crops. There is nothing sacred about our institutions. If they are meant to serve as a vessel and a backbone for making theatrical work that reflects the society we live in, they do not deserve to be sustained for their own sake. Continuing to produce work within their models is akin to attaching muscles, organs, and skin to a skeleton and hoping life will emerge. If death is part of life, then dissolution is part of an institution. Success in the nonprofit regional theater movement has been largely defined by longevity and sustainability. As I attempt to demonstrate in my thesis, there is a massive stigma in the nonprofit theater world that the dissolution of a company means that company has failed.
In order to test my ideas about the values, attitudes, and economic priorities of nonprofit theater institutions, I administered an online survey that was completed by 131 full-time staff members at 76 nonprofit theater organizations of all sizes throughout America. In anonymity, these individuals chose to take this survey online, which was distributed over various social media outlets and targeted email requests. Individuals were asked to report data about their organization’s budget size, age, and locations, as well as provide scalable perspectives on the way in which their organization perceives itself in the larger landscape of the American nonprofit theater. On a scale of 1 (strongly agree) to 7 (strongly disagree), respondents were asked to rate the extent to which they agreed with a variety of statements about their theater, including “my organization values growth as a measure of success,” “my organization values longevity as a measure of success,” ”my organization values mission-fulfillment as a measure of success,” and other similar statements. Respondents were then asked to rate, on a slider scale of 1 to 100, the degree to which their theater valued various institutional foci such as growth and artistic excellence. Finally, respondents were asked open-ended questions about what their communities would gain or lose if their institution were to close down. The results of this survey illuminated the disparity between the values of organizations and their stated goals, as well as brought to the surface intriguing correlations between various organizational circumstances, institutional values, and the work they put forth. My data brought to life the hypocrisy and lack of focus within the nonprofit theater sector that has fueled a disenchantment amongst myself and my peers in the project of the nonprofit theater.
My hope is that this data makes a convincing argument for a change in priorities of organizational leadership and long-term movement. No longer can growth and sustenance be the driving force behind a theatrical organization’s functioning, and no longer can dissolution possess the stigma of failure. In this historical moment of incredible social and economic change, I believe it is time to flip this failure paradigm to allow new theater to flourish. In the thesis, I mostly target the nation’s largest institutions such as The Alley Theatre, American Conservatory Theater, Manhattan Theatre Club, Lincoln Center Theater, Berkeley Repertory, Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Denver Center, Goodman Theatre, Huntington Theatre, McCarter Theatre, and Steppenwolf Theatre (all of which have an annual operating budget of over $10 million), as the problems of mission/action hypocrisy are clearest in them. I also target those smaller institutions—from established ones like the Geffen, Hartford Stage, About Face Theatre, Arden Theatre Company, and Kitchen Theatre to fledgling, unknown upstarts who strive to one day be those large institutions. I attack the aspiration of largesse that I believe to be one of the major factors in the limp sector we see before us. I take under assumption that something is broken within the structure, or that it was never fully competent in the first place.
Look for Annah Feinberg’s complete thesis and the data she collected as a report on HowlRound to appear Spring 2014.