I’m scared that the regional theater, by the time it’s matured, will have bored the shit out of millions of people all over the country.—attributed to Andre Gregory, 1965
We all know that the success story of the post-war American theater was written by the big resident, flagship theaters, which altered the way communities outside New York engaged in the theater, and revolutionized the kind of plays that ended up in the canon. But many of us closed the book before finishing the story, because we’ve forgotten that success came with a price. The bigger and more influential the resident theaters became, the more assets—buildings, employees, and audiences—they had to protect. Tightly clutching their copies of Danny Newman’s 1977 bible, Subscribe Now!, they fled from risk in the hunt for subscribers.
This isn’t a bad thing, but it’s a fact we need to get over—all of us. Theater makers of every kind—patrons, supporters—all of us. Because here’s the good news: artists responded in the 80s and 90s by launching a revolution (without the benefit of social media!) in places like Chicago, Minneapolis, Seattle, San Francisco, and New York, creating theaters devoted to risk. New play theaters—among them black theaters, gay theaters, avant-garde theaters, Latino theaters, disability-themed theaters, and theaters for young audiences—were at the center.
And the best news of all? The ones still hanging around are now mid-sized, and they make up America’s largest theater segment.  (As Executive Director of the National New Play Network, I’m lucky to know twenty-five of them pretty intimately.) And as far as I’m concerned, they’re still at the center…where they’re going to be for a while.
Molly Smith’s Pile
A lot of folks must not agree, judging from the dozen blog posts and hundreds of comments written about Arena’s closed submission policy. Here we are in the twenty-first century, and many playwrights still believe that the only thing standing between them and a flourishing career is getting to the top of Molly Smith’s reading pile.
Really? Did these folks miss the revolution? Are they still tethered to landlines, waiting for the phone to ring?
It’s not only early-career or unproduced playwrights who’ve missed the boat. The conversation brings to mind an anecdote told to me by Seth Rozin, Artistic Director of Philadelphia’s InterAct Theatre Company. Seth was President of the National New Play Network at the time, and represented NNPN at a convening of new-play folks at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in 2007. Around the table sat six “A-list” playwrights, all of whom had achieved some off-Broadway notoriety, frustrated by the lack of production opportunities available to them at the country’s largest nonprofits. Seth asked whether any of them had submitted a play to the theaters of NNPN:
One of the writers asked me pointedly, “what is the deal you are offering?” to which I responded, “what do you mean, deal?”
“What is the financial offer your theaters would make?”
“Our theaters range in size from $250,000 to a few million,” and I named a handful.
“Well, that’s why we don’t send our plays to your theaters. We can’t make enough money.“
Sure, a single production at a LORT A theater is going to make more money for its author than a single production at a mid-sized company. But it’s a numbers game, and a lot more mid-sized theaters produce brand new plays each year than those operating on LORT A contracts. I don’t have field-wide stats, but I can tell you that the twenty-five theaters of NNPN—almost all of them mid-sized—produced more than 250 first, second, and third productions collectively in the past five years. That’s just twenty-five out of the 2,000 nonprofit theaters around the country.
So ask Tom Gibbons—whose play Permanent Collection has racked up thirty-five productions since its Rolling World Premiere through the country’s mid-sized companies—or Deb Laufer—whose play End Days went the same route, and is approaching that number even faster—whether they’re pleased with their financial deal.
It’s time to quit obsessing about the flagships. There was a time when getting to the top of Zelda’s pile was the only way to find success. That’s not the case anymore. Give up your landline and invest in the mid-sized new play theater.
Hold On: Aren’t the Flagships Devoting a lot More Resources to New Plays Than They Did Before?
Yes, funding for new plays is currently in vogue, and the big regional theaters are getting on the bandwagon—for which I heartily salute them. Many of them—theaters I love like Steppenwolf, the Alliance, the Taper, and Arena Stage—have recently altered their business models to play a more proactive role in the new play field with major festivals, competitions, and active new play wings. I really hope they succeed. But the cost of risk shows no sign of shrinking, and these theaters have big assets to protect. Even with the best of intentions, those large theaters will face mounting pressure to keep their new play activities at the side—not at the center—of their institutions. (The sad truth of this was just borne out when Arena Stage—which I believe has demonstrated exceptional commitment to new plays in production—recently cancelled its production of Mary T. and Lizzie K. due to a loss of funding.) So I’ll say it again: it’s a numbers game, and when we’re talking about new plays that don’t come pre-packaged with off-Broadway ballyhoo, the numbers for new play makers and new play lovers are decidedly in the mid-sized segment’s favor.
Four More Reasons Why You Should Give Up Your Landline
First, an acknowledgement: mid-sized theaters, especially those that focus on new plays, have it rough in this climate. They’re not as nimble as they once were, and they’ve got a smaller margin for error than the flagships. You’re thinking you should keep away from them until the economy gets better. But the silver lining is that they’re also uniquely positioned to take advantage of four vitally important field-wide trends.
You don’t need to leave your living room to dance with the stars or blog about Arena’s submission policies… but you can’t Occupy Anything (much less Wall Street) unless you leave the house. With so much access to global events, local stories keep us grounded. That’s why more and more art will be generated locally in the coming years—by local artists, with local connections, and local interests. Trisha Mead’s recent article on the topic, and A.C.T. Artistic Director Carey Perloff’s provocative comments about “locavore theater,” flagship institutions, and the perils of enhancement money, demonstrate the trend is hardly unique to mid-sized theaters. But mid-sized companies—historically denied first or second runs of big hits from Off Broadway—have been cultivating playwright communities where they live for years. Unicorn in Kansas City has produced five plays by local Ron Simonian; InterAct in Philadelphia has produced eight plays by local Tom Gibbons; Southern Rep in New Orleans has a longstanding commitment to local writer John Biguenet (which led to a Pulitzer Nomination for his Katrina cycle). The list goes on and on. That kind of programming and relationship building between local artist and local institution is essential for the future of theater making. When a theater invests in the livelihood and artistry of a local writer, it connects more deeply to its audience, makes its community more attractive to artists, and grows the sector. Geocentric theaters are already ahead of the game.
Back in 2009, Celise Kalke of the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta said, “We have to dream nationally (with ambition, creativity, and excellence) but produce locally (inviting audiences to help nurture new work and innovative artists).” I agree 99 percent: just add the word “local” before “artists.” Then I’ll agree 100 percent with her conclusion: “American theater can dramatize a changing America, neighborhood by neighborhood, city by city, region by region, in the 21st century.”
A side note: playwright residencies are part of the geocentric trend. They are revivifying the regional theater’s (long moribund) promise by making those communities hospitable and welcoming for generative artists.
This one ought to be a no-brainer. As David Dower keeps reminding us, we live in a time of great abundance in the new play sector: development organizations, festivals and new play contests have proliferated, but they’ve outpaced production opportunities to deleterious effect. Part of the problem is that the field replicates its efforts, wasting resources to reinvent the same wheel. Pioneering collaboration—especially in a tough economy—is one solution, even if it means that theaters have to rethink their priorities, share world premiere credit, or let their artistic egos get bruised.
I have to brag on NNPN a bit here, because the Network’s main program is a great example of this trend in action. (I wish I could take credit, but it wasn’t my idea.) In 2004, NNPN piloted the Continued Life of New Plays Fund, which supports three theaters that choose to mount the same new play within a twelve-month period. The result is a “Rolling World Premiere” through which the playwright develops a new work with three different creative teams, for three different communities of patrons, ensuring the resulting play is of the highest possible quality. And with three productions in a single year, the play attains the momentum it needs to join the repertoire of frequently-produced new American works. The program eschews the problem of territorialism by requiring that all three theaters share world premiere credit—hardly a semantic issue, given the overweening desire so many theaters and their leaders have for ownership over a new play. And it’s a great alternative to the New-York-down method of play dissemination that’s so dominant in the country, and which can be financially and emotionally damaging for playwrights.
NNPN might have codified the model, but other theater consortia are multiplying its impact with radical ideas. Check out Lark Play Development Center in New York: they’re bringing together productions of Marcus Gardley’s The Road Weeps, the Well Runs Dry in Juneau, Minneapolis, Los Angeles, and Tampa by telling the stories of their production journeys through a spectacular online journal, The Road Weeps Bulletin.
The easier it is to be part of a giant crowd virtually, the more important it is to be part of an intimate crowd in reality. Another reason why mid-sized theaters have been the fastest-growing segment in the field is that people crave intimate access, and that craving will only increase the more we embrace technology. New plays (for many reasons) continue to be written for spaces where performers and patrons are face-to-face, and those theaters which provide that opportunity, where “no seat is more than” a short distance from the stage, will continue to dominate new play production.
The importance of the desire for intimacy can’t be overstressed. For an artist, Florida Stage’s 2010 move to the Rinker Playhouse, with its thirty-foot height (nearly triple that of its previous venue) and much larger playing space, was a dream come true. But for many longtime patrons it felt cavernous, and their seats felt too far from the action. Subscribers deserted Florida Stage in droves once they sat in the space. While the perceived loss of intimacy was only one of several reasons for their closing, it was a big one.
Managing institutional expansion while staying true to a theater’s intimate roots is a huge challenge when companies try to break financial barriers. A success story I love was written by Writers’ Theatre in Glencoe, Illinois. The company, which began in 1992 with fifty seats in the back of a bookstore, traded on its intimacy between artist and patron, and within ten years had grown to a budget of $1.2 million and 5,400 subscribers. When the company designed a new space in 2003, it held on to its hallmark intimacy by increasing to only 108 seats; the company retained (and even grew) its near-capacity subscription base, and now boasts a budget of $3.5 million.
Hand in hand with intimacy goes transparency. In the Internet age, you can get what you want, see what you want, and be part of what you want in extreme ways. Patrons and artists expect immediate transparency with the institutions they work in and play at. And mid-sized theaters are uniquely positioned to be transparent.
Between artist and theater: The institutions that say, “Welcome, we want you to be involved, we want to get to know you and talk about the art we create” are the ones who are going to survive this massive cultural shift and thrive within it.
This should have been the industry’s number one takeaway from Outrageous Fortune: the mistrust between playwright and producer is hazardous, and can only be surmounted by a campaign of radical transparency. Playwrights want to feel part of the process, even if their plays aren’t being selected. And they want to feel part of the institution, too, as equal players. Simply put, the larger the company, the more challenging transparency is to achieve. It’s possible, but the mid-sized theaters have a huge advantage here. (Residencies, again! But check out David J. Loehr’s post about playwright residencies from a couple of months ago. My takeaway? The smaller the theater, the more likely a residency is to be transformative for both institution and artist.)
Between patron and theater: Writing on the Guardian’s theatre blog in November, Nick Kenyon pondered what theaters of the future will look like: “Will they be cross-purpose social spaces where art is just one of many things on offer? Will they be entirely interactive, offering experiences that continue beyond the theater walls? Will they open all hours, allowing people to visit at times that suit them?”
The answers are yes, yes, and yes. Every theater producer with a pulse is experimenting with ways of connecting more deeply with patrons and providing as many connectivity points via the built environment and technology as possible. Nonprofits have long known that providing transparent access to personnel and process is a great way to massage donors—think of open first rehearsals. Providing transparent access to patrons through technology (and through changes to the built environment), giving them opportunities to respond to the work and share those responses, is where the field is headed. I don’t honestly know if mid-sized theater companies have the capacity to provide this kind of experience, but I do know they have the passion for interactivity that more rule-bound business cultures often fear. And the larger the company, the more challenging it is to embrace new and transformative ideas.
My office is at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, where I get to sit in on their first rehearsals. And one of the coolest things I’ve seen is their design presentations. Why? A senior-level staff position, the Connectivity Director, speaks at first rehearsal about her design for audience interaction. For real. That’s a totally smart, transparent investment in the future of theater.
The Mandatory Optimistic Closing
The economic forces rocking the country will reverberate in the nonprofit sector long after the recovery gains momentum. Theaters of any size that produce a mix of new plays and classics will continue their flight from risk, which will make it more and more difficult for playwrights to survive. Some of those theaters won’t be nimble enough to survive themselves. And then there’s the question of whether the field as a whole will stop its slow death march, alongside its subscribers, by repeatedly pulling titles out of mothballs. (The good news for new plays: subscribers are going away, so the financial impetus to program Arsenic and Old Lace is, too.)
But all these factors present opportunities for the theater makers and theater lovers who invest in mid-sized new play theaters. So let’s give up our landlines. Let’s not fret about adding plays to Molly Smith’s pile. And let’s put our time, our talent, and our treasure where they’ll do the most good for new plays.
 “Mid-sized theaters” are here defined as those companies which—relative to others in their market—combine financial heft (budgets as little as $500,000 and as much as $5,000,000 per year), a lengthy institutional history, a specific programming mission, and an established (though not central or “flagship”) community position.