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The Sweet and Sour Smell of Regional Theatre Success

Scentoftheater_shutterstock A little over three months ago, President Bush signed the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2008, authorizing a $20.1 million funding increase for the National Endowment for the Arts, bringing its budget to $144.7 million -- its highest level since 1995. Not that a lame-duck chief executive would pander to artists to bolster his political fortunes, but the increase did earn Bush some upbeat press. Since studies have shown that every dollar of federal, state, and local arts appropriations has a measurable economic impact on communities, the nonprofit world -- including regional theatres -- rightly rejoiced.

But a funny thing happened on the way to fiscal nirvana. In the mainstream press and in the blogosphere, the mood has turned sour. Monologist Mike Daisey, for example, recently published an essay in The Stranger, the Seattle alt-weekly, called "The Empty Spaces: Or, How Theater Failed America." He argues that nonprofit theatres have become too corporate, too top-heavy with administrators and nonartistic personnel. Worse, he says, their mission has morphed into a risk-averse hash of the original intention of the regional theatre movement: "to house repertory companies of artists, giving them job security, an honorable wage, and health insurance." Blame the "increasingly complex corporate infrastructure" of these organizations, Daisey declares; blame the expanding marketing and fundraising teams that raise "millions of dollars from audiences that are growing smaller, older, and wealthier." Frankly, these assessments seem reductive: There's no founding document stipulating that all nonprofit theatres must be repertory companies, nor is there conclusive proof that young companies aren't being formed every day, drawing in young audiences and young (or younger) donors. What's salient about Daisey's essay, however, is the growing sense that artists are increasingly becoming an afterthought in a business model that too often prioritizes the corporate over the creative.

Here's an example of what we mean. Referring to Daisey's essay, a recent New York Times feature noted that while theatres such as the Guthrie in Minneapolis; Arena Stage and the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C.; the Signature Theatre in Virginia; and Berkeley Repertory Theatre in California have raised tens of millions of dollars to build new homes, politicians don't see these projects as artist-centered but as forms of urban renewal popular with their constituents. For high-level donors, the projects are seen more as a way to affix their names to buildings than to provide havens for artists. Is there something wrong when millions of dollars are raised and spent on building projects while artists remain largely underpaid and underemployed?

Yes, this is an old squall: No artist or staffer ever feels adequately compensated for his or her work. Speaking of which, on the listserv of Dramaturgy.net, the literary manager of a major regional theatre and an Off-Off-Broadway director have been mixing it up on the topic of internships at regional theatres. While no one expects the rare internship stipend to pay the rent, the debate is about ethics: Is it right for regional theatres to rely on cheap labor when top administrators (i.e., artistic and managing directors) often earn six-figure salaries? Indeed, was the nonprofit business model meant to make people rich?

Daisey's solution is a wholesale re-evaluation of the regional theatre system. Others -- noting the recent bankruptcy filing of Buffalo's Studio Arena Theatre -- believe some retrenchment is in order and that we should lobby for more public and private arts funding. Truthfully, all these ideas have merit. We ask industry leadership organizations, such as Theatre Communications Group, to consider Daisey's criticism seriously; perhaps they could convene a special conference to address whether administrators receive outsized shares of the funding pie, thus denying theatre artists appropriate compensation. Daisey also notes that regional theatres too often import actors from New York. That too should be a prominent part of the agenda.

Yet we also call on everyone to sell the public on giving generously to your local regional theatre. The American theatre community is depending on it.

-- Back Stage Editorial Department   

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I've posted a response to this article here:


Hi - What you are doing looks to me like it supports "regional community." My region, the Northern Shenandoah Valley of Virginia has the Wayside Theater. The Director, Warren Crocker spoke to the Front Royal Rotary Club a week ago saying that they had 60 or 70% of their income from ticket sales, an uncommonly high share. A link to this post will be in the April 9, 2008 issue of Regional Community Development News. It will be on-line April 10 at http://regional-communities.blogspot.com/ Please visit, check the tools and consider a link. Tom

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