Building a Sustainable Theater: How to Remove Gatekeepers and Take Control of Your Artistic Career

Chapter 1: How We Got Here

I’m writing this chapter on a July morning in 2023. Over the past couple weeks, I’ve seen a flurry of announcements of closings of regional theaters across the United States. Here is the list as I write:In my neck of the woods (Western Massachusetts), the Williamstown Theatre Festival (Williamstown, MA) and the Westport Country Playhouse (Westport, CT) have basically become roadhouses who occasionally do play readings. And I’d add the Brooklyn Academy of Music (Brooklyn, NY), who cut their staff by 13%.

And of course, it’s not just the large theaters who are struggling. American Theatre published an article by Gabriela Furtado Coutinho called “BoHo Theatre and the ‘Brutal Calculus’ of Chicago Storefronts,” which describes the closing of the 20-year-old BoHo Theatre. Couthino provides a list of Chicago casualties: “In 2023 alone, First Folio Theatre, Sideshow Theatre Company, The New Coordinates, and Interrobang Theatre Project shuttered after grappling with these exacerbated issues.”

Peter Marks, theater critic for the Washington Post, published an article on July 6 entitled “Theater is in freefall, and the pandemic isn’t the only thing to blame.” What was notable about Marks’s article were the quotations he has included from various experts in arts management concerning their beliefs about the seriousness of the crisis and its causes. For instance, Michael M. Kaiser, the former head of the Kennedy Center who now chairs the DeVos Institute of Arts Management at the University of Maryland, said “It’s happening more and more, and it’s going to be an epidemic. I’ve always believed that we were heading for a time that we were going to lose a whole lot of midsized cultural organizations. And I still believe that’s true.” Amy Wratchford, president of the arts management consultancy Wratchford Group, goes even further and makes a truly alarming prediction: “By this time next year, I think the industry will shrink by half.” Gulp!

She continued, in what is surely a phrase designed to send chills up and down the spine of arts leaders everywhere, that the nonprofit theater is suffering from “donor fatigue,” which Marks explains is “a reluctance by some financial supporters to continue to shore up struggling institutions.” Apparently, there is a limit to the number of times you can ask donors to reach into their pockets to keep you afloat before they start asking whether you might need to change the way you’re doing things. “What we’ve got,” Wratchford says, in what seems to me to be an understatement, “is a disconnect between theater and the people who fund it.”

To me, the term “donor fatigue” combined with what has always been scant government support for the arts says, in effect, “the party’s over” for a nonprofit model founded on the constant generation of unearned income from a donor class drawn from the rich. Michael Kaiser, without coming out and saying it, blames the financial crisis on some theaters becoming “woke” (not his word) without “bringing their audiences or their doners or their boards along with them…And as a result, I think we’re seeing some serious loss of audience and board support and donor support.” I have my doubts, but maybe there’s some truth there—after all, the rich donor demographic is not noted for being particularly liberal in its politics. It may be, and probably is, something else entirely, but what is undeniable is that we are seeing what seems to be more than what people in the stock market call a “correction.”

There are some who might suggest that publishing a book on how to start a theater at this precise moment in theater history might be unwise, to say the least. But I disagree. In fact, I’ve been rushing to get this finished as soon as possible, and it is why I am making it available free of charge.

Why? Because this book describes the exact antithesis to the nonprofit model that has dominated the theater since the mid-1960s, which came into being when the arts, thanks to the presidency of John F. Kennedy, were considered cool, and when a couple major foundations, mainly the Ford Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation, were pumping money into the theater sector at a stunning rate. But it didn’t last long. Joseph Wesley Ziegler, writing in 1973, only eight years after the founding of the National Endowment for the Arts, in his book Regional Theater: The Revolutionary Stage, said “the 'cultural explosion' had already proved to be largely a myth: the natural increase in population and per capita income had given the appearance in the early 1960s of increased interest in the arts, but the percentage of people interested in the arts had not grown significantly.” But an entire movement was built on assumptions that the Ford and Rockefeller money would continue indefinitely. It didn’t. And we’re paying for it today.

During the same week that newspapers were filled with stories of shuttered theaters, Andy Horwitz at the Culturbot website wrote an essay entitled “The Theater(s) We Need Now” that included the following paragraph:

Be real about money: Unless you are willing to charge exorbitant ticket prices (Broadway, commercial touring houses), then the performing arts are not a “sustainable” business, much less profitable, and they’re not supposed to be (learn about Baumol’s Cost Disease, read Lewis Hyde’s The Gift). Embrace the idea that non-profit theater is a money-losing proposition that we must subsidize as a public good, for the public benefit, and plan accordingly, change the ways in which you ask for support, who you ask for support and what you ask them to support.

And I just couldn’t. I had to stop.

As far as I’m concerned, all of the other recommendations in his essay, as admirable as they are and as much as I agreed with most of them, are negated by this point. If the only way you can create art is by dreaming of the day when money falls from the sky, then you should just give up now. I’ve been hearing this song for almost 50 years now, and I even sang a few verses myself when I was younger, but singing it in 2023 in the midst of the smoke and rubble of the theater crash is embarrassing. It’s like basing your finances on asking people to applaud for Tinkerbell. And it certainly isn’t being “real about money.”

To make matters worse, Isaac Butler, on the Opinion page of the New York Times no less, scanned the wreckage of the theatrical landscape and came up with a brilliant solution: all we need is for Congress to approve a massive bailout for the theater (a half a billion annually for five years ought to do it), and for the NEA receive a huge budget increase. Gosh, why didn’t I think of that?

Here’s what’s real about money. We in the arts have spent decades playing Blanche duBois, relying on the “kindness of strangers.” How well did that work for Blanche? Yeah. About the same way it’s worked for us. In 1980, Ronald Reagan cut the NEA budget to $143M; now in 2024, Joe Biden requested $211M, a 7.5% cut from the previous year.

As far as spending power is concerned, compared to Reagan, Biden looks like a skinflint: in 1980, $143M had the same spending power as $561M today, more than two-and-a-half times Biden’s proposed appropriation. Yet arts advocates like Americans for the Arts show up every year to drone on to Congress about how important the arts are to a civilized society blah blah blah ad infinitum. [Since I wrote this chapter, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Phylicia Rashad just delivered the same damn speech to Congress (by which I mean three Senators total) when they requested--wait for it--half a billion dollars for five years]. Congress remains unimpressed. (I am convinced that the only reason the NEA keeps getting funded is so politicians can kick artists around each year at budget time in order to look tough and impress their constituents.)

Let’s get serious. We’re drowning, and there is no lifeguard to save us. It’s time to learn to swim. It is time to reclaim our self-respect, our agency, and figure out a way to save ourselves. We need to get our self-respect back, reclaim our role as artists, and figure out a way to make things work without having to rely on rich people and the government.

You want to be real about money, that’s real.

And that’s what this book is about. I believe that it is only in the midst of a crash that people are shocked into considering a new approach. Which is not to say that there still aren’t people desperately holding on to the railing while the ship sinks. This book is not for them. I wish them all the best of luck, but I’m letting down a life raft for people who want to try to survive under their own power.

So what should be done? For starters, we need to abandon the nonprofit model based on deficits (see Chapter 10: For Profit or Not For Profit (That's a Pretty Easy Question) for more detail) , and instead build a new model from the bottom up based on a firm commitment to leadership by artists (not boards of directors) and to a firm commitment to financial, artistic, and personal sustainability. While I will go into this is much more detail in the following pages, we should start with Peter Brook’s oft-quoted but rarely followed opening sentences of The Empty Space:

“I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged.”

Start there, and then don’t add another element until you know how you’re going to pay for it without resorting to unearned income. Stop when you’re about to become unsustainable. It will be hard, and it will require that you forget all of the indoctrination you’ve received about all the “stuff” it takes for an “act of theater to be engaged,” but I also believe you will find that the freedom that comes with this conscious act of economic self-control will increase your imagination and your sense of agency.

I think the theater across the nation can be saved by the creation of new, smaller, independent, agile, audience-specific, and artist-friendly theaters filled with artists who want to devote as much of their life as they can to the creation of art for an appreciative audience. Theater history provides us with many models from which we can learn, and contemporary entrepreneurial ideas can enhance those models and bring them into the 21st century.

Regardless, “the woods are burning,” as Willy Loman proclaimed long ago in Death of a Salesman, and we can’t keep on waiting for the fire brigade to come and save us. We must do it ourselves.

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