Art Will Out
Can we put the art back into our institutions?
By Jaan Whitehead
The deepest essence of theatre is the connection of the actor to the audience. You do not need sets, lights, costumes or even a stage to create this connection or to create theatre; you just need an actor speaking to an audience. We tend to think of our theatre institutions as the means by which this connection takes place, the means by which we gather resources to produce the art and gather an audience to witness it. But we do not think very much about the fact that the theatre institutions we create are not a neutral means for doing this, that the institutions themselves affect not only what art is presented to what audience but which artists create the art and how it relates to the wider community. Because our institutions are so familiar to us—they seem so natural and inevitable—we do not ask the probing questions about how they affect and mediate the art. In fact, in seeming to be the obvious answer to the issue of how to produce theatre, the institutional model becomes a mask that obscures these deeper questions.
In recent years, there has been a growing chorus of voices expressing concern that, despite their many advantages, things are not well with our theatre institutions. The most commonly expressed concerns are that seasons are too bland, audiences too homogeneous and investment in new work inadequate to sustain a vital theatrical future. Usually, discussions of these problems tend to look outward at such things as the economy, the influence of television or conservative trends in the country. But I think we can see more clearly if we look inward, if we look inside our institutions and explore how they are, in fact, affecting the ways we develop and present our art. Rather than accepting institutions as inevitable, we can ask how their considerable resources are being used.
When you do ask this question, when you go behind the institutional mask, I believe you find that there is a dynamic in how our institutions developed that has undermined many of their original advantages. For, as theatres grow and become more institutionalized, they generate their own sets of needs that are separate from the art. With time, these institutional needs can become dominant, diverting resources from the art and altering sensibilities and values. Rather than being a means for producing art, institutions become ends in themselves, the art now serving the institution rather than the other way around. There is now an imbalance in how the art relates to the institution, a dissonance that pushes the art and the artists into a subservient role that is antithetical to the health of the theatre.
When this occurs, I think we honor our institutions best by challenging them, by asking how they actually are affecting the ways we practice our art on a daily basis. For instance, how does institutionalization affect the kind of work we do and the ways we develop our audiences? How does it affect the distribution of power in our theatres and how decisions are made? How does it affect our dreaming and how we plan for the future? And how does it affect the choices new artists have as they attempt to enter the field?
In this essay, I want to explore these questions, tracing first how this particular institutional model developed and why I think it causes distortions in how we practice our art. Then I want to look at what artistic alternatives already exist, alternatives that do put the art first and generate different kinds of institutional structures. Finally, I want to look at what might happen if we could break out of the framework of traditional institutional thinking and ask the fundamental question of whether we can use the advantages of an institution—its ability to gather resources and give visibility to the work—for the benefit of the art rather than the institution.
Over 40 years ago, a group of pioneers founded the American regional theatre movement as a reaction against the growing restrictions of the commercial Broadway theatre. At that time, most professional theatre originated in New York and then spread out through the country in touring companies. The works of Arthur Miller, Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams all were first seen in the New York commercial theatre. But as costs increased and popular culture changed, Broadway began to shy away from untested new work or serious classical work that might or might not draw an audience.
Frustrated with Broadway and wanting to step out from under its shadow, a small group of pioneers—Margo Jones, Nina Vance, Zelda Fichandler, Tyrone Guthrie—founded theatres outside New York where they could continue to develop new work and produce the classics. Supported by the newly established National Endowment for the Arts and innovative funding from the Ford Foundation, these theatres started a movement that grew and became part of the larger artistic renaissance of the 1960s and 1970s. Now, there are hundreds of large and small professional regional theatres spread out across the country.
In the early days of the movement, a particular model emerged as the institutional surround for these theatres—an artistic director and associates to produce the plays, a managing or executive director to lead the administrative side of the theatre, and a board of directors, who represented the public and carried the fiduciary role of seeing that the theatre’s financial affairs were in order. It was a dichotomous structure—the artistic energy on one side and the administrative energy on the other.
As theatres grew, organizing themselves around longer seasons and larger audiences, a pattern emerged in which the administrative side became more and more prominent in how a theatre operated. With longer seasons, you needed development and marketing departments; with larger audiences, you needed box offices and outreach programs; with more complex budgets, you needed business offices and new administrative personnel. As institutions grew, boards also expanded, taking on more fundraising and community-liaison roles. And, as the field matured and theatres moved on to second- and third- generation leadership, the role of choosing the new leaders also fell to the board, which was drawn ever more deeply into the setting of artistic missions and institutional policies.
While the administrative side of the theatre expanded into a permanent institutional structure, the artistic side followed quite a different path. Although there was some expansion of the permanent staff, mainly artistic associates and dramaturgs, most of the growth took place through artists who were hired for the production of a particular play. Directors, actors and designers were all jobbed in, and, although theatres often developed longer-term relationships with particular artists, using them on a regular basis or bringing them in through residency programs, most artists really were pieceworkers who had little control over the evolution of a theatre’s work. Larger theatres did create their own in-house production departments with set, costume and prop shops. And a few theatres had permanent acting companies. But both the shops and acting companies were quite removed from the institutional decision-making center of the theatre. Rather than becoming a fixed part of the institutional structure, many of the artists had little presence in the theatre on an ongoing basis—and little institutional power.
As theatres evolved along these separate paths, they became caught in a dynamic that reinforced the separation of the artist from the institution. For, when a theatre grows, the very elements that generate the growth—income from ticket sales and fundraising—need to be reproduced each year for the theatre to be sustained. Theatres become more and more dependent on the box office and on the marketing and fundraising departments that generate this income; maintaining the effectiveness of these departments becomes essential to the survival of the institution, and more and more resources go toward this effort. The institution now needs to feed itself as well as fund its art. I think you see this most clearly in times of financial stress, for when a budget needs to be cut, it is much easier to cut the artistic costs that vary with each production than administrative costs that are firmly lodged within the institution; it makes more sense to choose a play with a small cast and few production requirements—the proverbial Love Letters—than to undermine the fundraising and box office that produce the theatre’s income. The art becomes the flesh, while the economic imperatives become the bones of the institution. And, as the art becomes increasingly subject to the economic needs of the institution, the institution starts to drive the art rather than the other way around. The theatre now produces institutional art; the institution, not the artists, determines the ecology of artistic creation.
It is this imbalance between the art and the institution that I think causes many of the disturbing tendencies we see in our theatres today. Because we have such a wide variety of theatres, each with its own rich history, geography and values, these tendencies affect different theatres in different ways. Many theatres may not see themselves reflected in these tendencies at all, while others see themselves reflected very clearly. But I think the forces of institutionalization have affected enough theatres with enough force that the tendencies have become relevant to the field as a whole.
The most obvious, and the most often remarked on, tendency is for the process of institutionalization to insinuate itself into the very heart of the theatre, into the intimate connection between the art and the audience. Too often, the art is packaged into a season of plays with short rehearsal periods and prescheduled runs, while the audience is packaged into a group of season subscribers. Art and audience become two sides of a symbiotic process, each side dependent on the other and each a constraint on the other. The subscription audience is needed to finance the season, but the season has to be attractive enough to draw the subscription audience. It becomes a treadmill—find the plays to attract the audience and attract the audience to finance the plays. The box office now mediates the relationship between the art and the audience, too often becoming the definition of that relationship. What began as a success—the achievement of using subscriptions to build audiences and stabilize cash flow—often ends up reducing artistic options, rather than freeing them.
A less obvious tendency in institutionalized theatres is for power to shift away from artists toward administrators and board members. Power means who asks what questions of whom—who frames the questions and who answers them. A good way to see how this works is to look at a theatre’s budget, the budget being an X-ray picture of a theatre’s priorities—how choices are made among scarce resources. If you think about the budgeting process and who is most closely involved—who brings what priorities to the table—you see that the different constituents in the theatre have very different access to and power over the budget table. Think of how the different people in a theatre relate to each other, how well they know and understand each other and how they do, or do not, interact. What you see is that the people working in a traditional theatre tend to fall along a continuum, with the board at one end and the shops at the other. Where people fall on the line depends on whom they work most closely with and whose activities they best understand. So, next to the board, at one end of the line, is the administrative staff, particularly the executive, marketing and development directors, who work closely with the board on a regular basis. Moving along the line, the administrative staff, particularly the executive director, is most closely connected to the artistic director who in turn is most closely connected to the resident artists, then the production and technical staff, and finally the shops. So ranged along the line are the board, the administrative staff, the artistic director, the resident artists, the production and technical staff and the shops.
What is important is that, in most institutional theatres, the budgeting process takes place mainly at one end of this line, for it is usually the board that passes the budget and the administrative departments that prepare it with the artistic director. These are the people who sit at the budget table, and the further you are from this nexus of board, administrative leaders and artistic director, the less impact you have on the budget and, thus, the less power in your theatre. Because we tend to value the things we are most familiar with, it is not surprising that the urgency of your needs lessens the further down the line you are. And, of course, the actors, designers and directors who come in for each show are not on this line at all. To bring a better balance to the budget dialogue, the straight line would need to be curved into a circle, with greater connection and understanding among artists, administrators and board members and with more artists at the table.
Planning documents are also X rays of a theatre’s values and priorities, and a third troubling way I think institutionalization affects our theatres is that planning tends to replace dreaming—or at least constrain dreaming—in the life of the theatre. Planning for art is different than planning for an institution; to plan for art you would have to ask what is needed to make art flourish, to develop the art’s potential, not just its survival. You would have to ask what is needed to support and nourish playwrights—and actors—and directors—and designers. And what is needed to support the development of new plays and to sustain vital productions of existing plays. In institutional planning, such wider questions about the potential of the art tend to be collapsed into questions about the survival or growth of the institution. The support of theatre buildings, administrative structures and education and audience-development programs all become fixed costs that take precedence over the art. In the end, planning often becomes a more sophisticated and long-term form of budgeting. But, because we really do believe in our mission statements and the value of our art, we tend not to see this, or, if we do see it, we justify it on the grounds that, without the institution, we would not be able to support the art. What this does to dreaming is to contain it within institutional planning; if the dreams cannot fit within the parameters of the institution, they become “impractical.”
Finally, there is one last consequence that I find disturbing in how our institutions have developed: Because the funding infrastructure that has grown up around the field has come to expect theatres to take what is now the traditional institutional form, that form seems to be the only path new and emerging theatres can follow if they want to grow and gain financial stability. The regional theatre movement originally flourished with the support of the NEA and the Ford Foundation, because both of these funders were not only open to the ideas of the new theatres but actively sought their input on how to fashion programs to help them. The artists and funders built the theatres together. Forty years later, our funding community is not only much more entrenched; it is deeply invested in our traditional institutions, sharing many of their assumptions and values. Today, funders usually require new theatres to develop administrative structures along the lines of the traditional model before grants are forthcoming, inadvertently pushing them along the path to institutionalized art. It is very difficult for new theatres that do not have—or want—this institutional structure to break into the funding world, and traditional theatres do little to help them.
These are some of the problems that I think occur when theatres become dominated by institutional concerns. I am sure there are more. In many ways, the historical cycle is repeating itself; as our theatres have become more and more institutionalized, they are throwing the same kind of shadow over the art that Broadway did all those years ago. And, as before, a growing number of artists, particularly young artists coming of age in a new generation, are chafing to get out from under this shadow.
Alternative ways of creating theatre do exist, and have for a long time, but the importance and richness of these alternatives have been marginalized by the overwhelming dominance of institutionalized theatre. What identifies these theatres, what makes them alternative theatres, is that they have remained artist-based theatres, theatres created and run by artists who choose what work they want to do and what audiences they want to reach. Despite the constant battle for funding and recognition, they have chosen a path as independent as possible from institutionalization in order to preserve artistic control over their work and their lives.
Within the world of alternative theatre there are two distinguishable traditions, traditions that, although remarkably different, present revealing contrasts with institutional theatre. One is the tradition of experimental or avant-garde theatre, theatre that constantly pushes the art form in new directions, breaking boundaries and redefining ways of creating theatre. Provocative and challenging, this work is defined by its artistic aesthetic; it is art mediated almost entirely by the artists that create it. The other tradition is that of community-based theatre, theatre deeply rooted in a particular community, which itself is an essential partner and collaborator in the work. Not to be confused with the local amateur groups that are often called “community” theatres, the community-based theatres I am talking about are professional theatres, usually ensemble theatres, that choose to work and live in a particular community, articulating the voice of that community through their art. Going back to the central connection between the art and the audience, in both of these traditions, it is the artists who create and preserve this connection, experimental theatre devoting most of its creativity to the integrity of the art and community-based theatre to the integrity of the audience.
The first strong burst of American experimental or avant-garde energy occurred in the 1960s and 1970s in downtown New York. This was experimental theatre in its most radical form, challenging everything from the relevance of the written word to methods of acting, the role of audiences and the physical use of a theatre space itself. As part of the counterculture of the time, this theatre was political in its approach and communal in its creation, much of the work coming from ensemble groups of writers, directors and actors who wanted to create new forms of theatre as well as shocking audiences out of their complacency. Influenced by the powerful theories of Antonin Artaud, Jerzy Grotowski, Bertolt Brecht and Peter Brook, they wanted to break open the fourth wall and make theatre an authentic experience of transformation. Julian Beck and Judith Malina’s Living Theatre, Joseph Chaikin’s Open Theatre and Richard Schechner’s Performance Group were the most influential of these early groups. It was theatre that was both deeply intellectual and emotionally explosive.
Soon a second wave of experimental work emerged, partly in reaction to what was perceived to be a growing loss of rigor in the earlier work—a tendency toward emotional and physical excess—and partly due to changing times as the counterculture came to an end and a more individualistic and self-absorbed culture emerged. This new work tended to be visual and associative rather than linear and narrative, a reflection of the changing ways people were perceiving and absorbing information in the new age of technology. And, rather than being communally created, most of this work came from the vision of a single artist, an artist who often worked with a company of actors and ongoing collaborators but whose own vision dominated the process. Robert Wilson, Richard Foreman, the Wooster Group, and, more recently, Anne Bogart and her SITI Company are all examples of this wave of experimental energy. But, like earlier groups, these artists maintain a minimal institutional structure, create original pieces over long developmental periods and have an artistic aesthetic that is dynamic, not static, evolving with their work. And they continue to have close connections with international artists like Ariane Mnouchkine and Tadashi Suzuki who share their abiding interest in exploring the forms and meaning of theatre.
The other, so very different, tradition of alternative theatre is community-based theatre, which really had its origins in the Depression but has experienced its main growth in the past two decades. The Community Arts Network calls this “art made as a voice and a force within a specific community of place, spirit or tradition.” The aim of community-based theatres is to become an indigenous part of the community, creating a theatrical voice for that community but also becoming one of its civic institutions, like schools and libraries. Many of these theatres reach audiences that have never experienced theatre before, and the relationship that develops between the artists and their audiences is very alive, a process of mutual creativity. And, although much of the work has intellectual roots in the ideas of the same thinkers who inspired the avant-garde such as Artaud and Grotowski, community-based theatres have added to their work other influences, such as commedia dell’arte, storytelling, folksongs and other more populist forms of expression.
These theatres have extended the geographical reach of the regional theatre movement, residing in many small towns and rural areas around the country and also in under-served neighborhoods of urban centers. Not unexpectedly, the tradition includes a rich variety of theatres—from the Roadside Theater of Whitesburg, Ky., which creates original work from the oral histories and songs of its Appalachian community; to the Cornerstone Theater Company, which originally created work in different rural communities and now works within and among the diverse communities of Los Angeles; to A Traveling Jewish Theatre and the San Francisco Mime Troupe, which create specific kinds of theatre that tour here and abroad. Despite these differences, however, these theatres are unified in how they practice their art. Almost all are ensemble theatres whose artists collectively create the work; decision-making rests in the hands of the artists, and resources go toward supporting the artists and the artistic process—a very different model from the corporate one that dominates American theatre.
Both experimental and community-based theatres are important because they show clear alternatives to institutional theatre. But they also are important because both have experienced new bursts of energy in recent years and are claiming a stronger voice in the theatre community. Community-based theatres have begun to organize nationally, creating connections across geographical boundaries and establishing their work as an authentic movement that should be made known to young people coming into the field. And they have begun to create exciting collaborations.
For example, in the summer of 1999, the Touchstone Theatre of Bethlehem, Pa., created a play about the shutting of the steel mills in their town and the devastation this caused. Although conceived and produced by Touchstone, the play, Steelbound, was written by Cornerstone’s Alison Carey and based on Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound. It was directed by Bill Rauch, also of Cornerstone; the costumes were designed by April Bevans of Pennsylvania’s Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble; and the lighting was done by Ken Rothchild of New York’s Irondale Ensemble Project. Presented in the bold structural remains of an empty iron foundry, the play included three choruses of local people in the Greek tradition—one of steelworkers, one of women and one of youth—whose voices were central to the play. Expected to be a requiem for the losses to the community, the play turned out to be a healing experience, a beginning as much as an ending. This is just one example of the vitality that is energizing community-based theatres today.
Though the recent burst of activity in community-based theatres comes mainly from already-existing theatres, the new burst of energy in experimental theatre comes from the emergence of a whole new generation of artists who want to shake up the theatre world now, as their predecessors did before them. The range of the new experimental theatres is eclectic and, following the expansion of theatre to encompass the whole country, is spread out geographically rather than being concentrated in New York City. These small and energetic companies, created by artists in their twenties and thirties, place themselves in direct opposition to institutional theatre, deeply critical of the effects of institutionalization on the art and the life of the artist and shunning pressures to be pushed down similar paths.
Many of these theatres are close in spirit to the early wave of avant-garde art because they are deeply concerned with collapsing the distance between the artists and the audience and with issues of democratic community. They consider the idea of theatre space fluid, changing with the needs of a particular play, an environment for the actor and audience, not just a performing stage. And much of the work is multimedia, including film, music, dance and the visual arts, and, like other such original work, needs to tour to extend its life. These new artists want to reinvent a theatrical sensibility that is alive, not mediated by institutions as to form or content or place.
Of course, it is not possible to know how these experimental theatres will develop over time—where they will head artistically or institutionally—or how many will survive. Today they live with very few resources outside their own talent and energy. But they are the first real computer generation, collapsing geography with websites and e-mail and creating new ways of communicating and working. And they are consciously trying to develop a vocabulary that expresses who they are and how they work—a vocabulary that will better identify their differences with institutional theatre. But, perhaps most important, they are filled with the kind of anarchic energy that has always had the potential to create change.
Looking at how experimental and community-based theatres operate demonstrates that there are alternative ways for artists to be connected to their art besides the mediation of institutional structures. But, since it is still institutional theatres that dominate the field and absorb most of its resources, I think you need to circle back to the traditional institutions and ask what their potential is for change. And to ask how we can imagine such change taking place. We tend to think of our institutions as finished projects, but they are not; they are always in a state of becoming and can be sculpted with the same thoughtful creativity as our art.
Breaking It Open
Obviously many traditional institutions are what they want to be—happy in their mission and their audiences, while their audiences are happy with them. Many of these theatres, particularly the larger ones, are more than just theatres; they are cultural anchors that play important social and economic roles in their cities. In many cases, they are the main source of theatre education in school systems; they are important and visible political advocates for the arts; and they contribute in significant ways to the economy of the community. As cultural leaders and prominent institutions in a community, their sense of identity and worth has a broad base that goes beyond the theatre they produce; they have genuine stakes that make them less likely to move toward radical change.
There are also theatres that obviously sense problems with institutionalization and, consciously or unconsciously, are making efforts to counter these problems. In a number of theatres, connections are deliberately created between artists and boards, with artists giving presentations at board gatherings, artists actually serving on boards and, in some cases, board members becoming interns for the production of a play, following the play from the original design meetings to opening night—all attempts to deepen board members’ understanding of the art and the artistic process. Many theatres have drawn more artists into their permanent operational structure as dramaturgs, artists-in-residence and education artists, adding more artistic voices to the institutional mix. One theatre I know has a family dinner each spring, gathering together everyone from stage managers to carpenters to box-office workers to board members, attempting to transform authority relationships into human relationships. And some of our best institutional thinkers, particularly Nello McDaniel and George Thorn, have worked with theatres to develop alternate ways of organizing themselves—replacing hierarchical structures of authority with concentric circles of participation—and urging theatres to extend the collaborate artistic process of the rehearsal hall to institutional decision-making.
Finally, there are theatres, particularly some younger theatres and theatres with new artistic leaders, that are generating fresh energy in the field by forging alliances either with other theatres in this country, including some of the more experimental theatres, or with international artists who bring exciting new sensibilities to the work. And some of these alliances are beginning to cross traditional cultural lines, revitalizing audiences as well as the art. These theatres are finding ways around their institutions to connect with their art.
These are just a few examples of the creative ways in which theatres are changing how their institutions operate. But, because these strategies do not change the basic dynamic of the institution, they do not reverse the tendencies they are trying to overcome. They are working from the outside in, ameliorating many of the problems of institutionalization but not reversing the institutional processes that cause the problems. But what if you wanted to create more fundamental change—to work from the inside out, rather than the outside in? What if you wanted to really break open institutions, creating new ways of working and new relationships to the art? What would you do? How would you begin?
If theatres really want to change, or even explore the idea of such change, I think you need to start where all theatre starts, with the artists. You need to bring the artists to the table, not in a token way but as vital and respected members of the dialogue. The obvious reason for doing this is so their needs and priorities are included in the theatre’s decision-making. But, actually, I think there is a more compelling reason, which is that artists think differently from administrators; their imaginations, creativity and values come from a different internal place, making them more likely to bring whole new perspectives to the table. At a minimum, I think artists will identify many of the dissonances that exist between the art and the institution. But more significantly, I think they can open up a new dialogue, a dialogue of possibility in which alternative institutional realities can be explored. Not being so hampered by institutional baggage, artists are freer to turn the kaleidoscope, revealing alternative ways of defining and fulfilling a theatre’s needs.
For example, maybe, if you look really hard, you would find that your mission statement has become empty as the real driving force of the theatre. If so, how would you change it or how would you change the institution to restore its vitality? Or maybe the box office has become too much of a stranglehold on the central relationship between the art and the audience. How could you redefine that art/audience relationship in ways that would, in turn, redefine the role of the box office? Or maybe you really are not sure what the term “governance” means. Who is governing whom about what? Is it enough for a board to hold the institution in trust—i.e., the financial integrity of the theatre—or should it also hold the art in trust? If so, what does that mean? Once you let the institutional imperatives be only one part of the dialogue, many new questions and possibilities emerge.
And there is one more reason I think artists belong at the table. In the press of institutional development, artists have inadvertently given over the guardianship of their art and lives to others. But it is their work and their lives that are at stake. One of the most important things alternative theatres show us is that there are artists who are willing to go to extreme lengths to maintain that guardianship. Artists should not be pieceworkers, occasional visitors to their theatres. They should have a dignified and integral role in those theatres and in the guardianship of their art.
Bringing artists to the table can change the scope and sensibility of the dialogue. But I think more is needed; I think you need to change the environment as well, to change the whole atmosphere in which the dialogue takes place. To do this I would move the table—figuratively and maybe even literally—out of the boardroom, the development office and the box office and onto the stage. It is on the stage—the very heart of the theatre, where the art and the audience live—that I believe a theatre can best find its bearings, where it can best see itself in terms of the art rather than the institution. I would put the planning table on the stage—and the budget table and the funding table and the board table. And sitting at each table would be artists and artisans, as well as administrators and board members.
If you are on the stage, the pressure is to look at the theatre through the eyes of the artists, for it is on the stage that artists have authority. This begins to put balance back into the power relationships at the table, the artists now having their own authority, not authority derived from others. So concerns about the art come to the fore. Planners have to ask what they really are planning for. Budgeters have to ask what they really are budgeting for. And board members have to ask what they are holding in trust for the community, what “fiduciary” means, beyond its narrow legal meaning. If it is the art that is being planned for, budgeted for and held in trust, then the knowledge and authority of the artists take on real meaning. Where before it was mainly administrators who defined the theatre’s reality, now the question opens up: Whose reality is being created at the table and why? Whose views have authority and why? The conversation becomes a true dialogue.
And then there is one last step I would take in the effort to open up possibilities for change: to look outward to the larger environment in which the theatre operates, for change rarely happens in a vacuum. To imagine different kinds of theatre institutions, you also have to imagine a different kind of landscape for these institutions to live in, one that is more open, more multidimensional and has more points of entry for artists, audiences and new theatres.
Although there are many aspectsto this wider landscape—cultural change, technological change, public policy, international influences—the most important has to be the funding community, for little significant change can happen without this community. So the real question is to what extent funders are willing to become partners for change. Obviously, the funding community is just as diverse as the theatre community, so there is a wide range of sensibilities and resources among the foundation, corporation, individual and government funders who make up this community. And, within this community, there already are a number of funders working creatively with theatres to support artistic and institutional change. But there are many more who remain tied to traditional approaches. To achieve the degree of change in the theatrical landscape I am suggesting, more significant breaks with traditional patterns, by a greater number of funders, will be needed. How might this happen?
The most obvious thing that comes to mind is that we invest so little in the development of our work and of our artists. In Moscow, a new theatre center is being founded just for the purpose of providing a nourishing and protective environment for creating theatre art. Named the Meyerhold Center after the legendary Russian director, the center will have no company or regular performances; it is a center that hopes to eventually enfold master classes, experimental productions, festivals, symposiums and a publishing program within its laboratory environment. It is a center for enriching art, not producing it. Can we imagine funding something like this? Or even providing more direct funding to artist groups such as playwright centers or acting companies so they could have autonomy as well as support in developing their talents. Or could we provide funding for artists, themselves, to create work that is then presented by traditional theatres, the model followed by successful experimental groups? Opening up funding to more ways of nourishing and producing theatre would certainly add vitality and depth to the theatrical landscape.
The second thing that comes to mind is to allow more people and more ways of working into the funding process, to open up funding to a wider range of theatres, particularly new and experimental ones. For instance, very small theatres could be helped if funders created pools of funds that could be distributed by local arts organizations or other neutral groups. This would save funders from having to invest in researching each theatre, an economy of scale of sorts, while providing an ongoing base for such theatres. Something like this occurred in New York City after the terrorist attacks when the Alliance of Resident Theatres/New York, the support group for New York theatres, was granted several pools of money to distribute to theatres, particularly small theatres, that had been badly hurt by the attacks. Or funders could provide more support for touring—one of the crucial needs of experimental and ensemble theatres that create unique work that cannot be easily duplicated. A good example of this is the National Performance Network, which was created to help such theatres form collaborations and tour as a way of expanding the reach of their work. More efforts like this could make a difference. Or perhaps funders could give traditional institutions incentives to include young artists and small theatres in their programming. They could be given grants to present this work during the summer, or at nontraditional times of the day, or in festivals drawing together a number of these groups. It would be exciting to walk into a theatre complex and be able to choose from a noon reading of a new play by a small theatre, a 6:00 multimedia performance by an experimental theatre, an 8:00 traditional performance by the host theatre and then, perhaps, a midnight jazz cabaret. What a diverse audience would be passing through the doors and what a wonderful mix of energies would be filling the spaces!
Finally, there is the question of the distribution of funds within the field. In a survey done for the year 2000 by TCG, 145 theatres of different sizes provided information on their total assets, including physical assets such as land and buildings and financial assets such as endowments, cash and securities. The results were that the 40 theatres in the survey with budgets over $5 million owned 79 percent of the assets; the 69 theatres with budgets between $1 million and $5 million owned 20 percent of the assets; and the 43 theatres with budgets under $1 million owned 1 percent of the assets. Put another way, the top 30 percent of the theatres held almost 80 percent of the assets, while the bottom 30 percent held only 1 percent. Obviously these numbers reflect the particular theatres in the survey, but, if anything, the skewed distribution is understated because there are hundreds of other small theatres and only a few other large ones that were not in the survey. Even acknowledging that the theatre field is deeply undercapitalized in the first place, it still seems clear that the scarce resources available to the field are concentrated in too few large theatres. So, a more even distribution of resources is certainly a further way funders could change the theatrical landscape.
Nourishing the art, inviting a wider range of artists and theatres into the funding process, allocating funds more evenly to theatres already there—these are just some of the ways the funding community could help open up the theatrical landscape, and many funders are already contributing to such change. But how do you accelerate the process? How do you think bigger? How do you show that the form or size of an institution does not determine the quality or value of its art?
Today we appear to be at another point of vital change in the American theatre, a time when the energies of new generations and changing times are again challenging how we create and present theatre. There are more questions and voices of dissent, more pressures from new artists coming into the field, and more consciousness of the need to move out from under institutional shadows. As our theatres settle into middle age, the time seems ripe for a new age of pioneers, pioneers who can put the art—and the artists—back into the heart of our theatres.
Jaan Whitehead currently chairs the board of the SITI Company in New York City. A former executive director of Theatre for a New Audience, she has worked as a staff member or trustee at numerous theatre organizations and is a member of TCG’s National Council for the American Theatre.
© - 2006 by Theatre Communications Group, Inc. All rights reserved. No portion of this publication may be reproduced in any form, or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, or by any information storage or retrieval system, without written permission from the publisher.