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For Institutions: Is Art the Bottom Line?

Eight thCynteatre professionals consider the question

a discussion moderated by hia Mayeda

In her essay “Art Will Out” (Oct. ’02), commentator Jaan Whitehead asked whether the evolution of the theatre field in recent decades has brought about “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.” In Feb. ’03, eight theatre leaders gathered at the TCG offices in New York City to discuss this provocative topic, with Cynthia Mayeda, deputy director for institutional advancement at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, as moderator.

The following is an edited version of their conversation.


BETH EMELSON is the producing director of New York City’s Atlantic Theater Company and a member of Naked Angels Theatre Company. She was previously the producing director of Classic Stage Company and associate executive producer of Lincoln Center Theater

NAOMI GRABEL, currently the vice president of marketing and communications at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts in Philadelphia, was until recently the managing director for the Wilma Theater, also in Philadelphia. She previously spent 10 years in marketing and communications at Houston’s Alley Theatre and South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, Calif.

IRENE LEWIS is currently in her 11th year as artistic director of Center Stage in Baltimore, Md. She previously served as associate director at Connecticut’s Hartford Stage Company and artistic director of Philadelphia Theatre Company.

MICHAEL MASO is in his 20th year as managing director of Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company and president of the League of Regional Theatres. He previously was managing director at Alabama Shakespeare Festival in Montgomery and a freelance arts consultant.

JONATHAN MOSCONE has served for the past four years as artistic director of California Shakespeare Theater in Berkeley. He was previously the associate director of Dallas Theater Center

JIM NICOLA has served for the past 15 years as the artistic director of New York Theatre Workshop. Previously he spent 10 years as producing associate at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., and was associated for five years with the New York Shakespeare Festival.

JAMES STILL, a Los Angeles-based playwright and director, is currently in his fifth season as playwright-in-residence at Indiana Repertory Theatre.

PAULA TOMEI is currently in her 23rd year at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, Calif., now serving as managing director. She is president of the board of directors of TCG.

CYNTHIA MAYEDA: Where in Jaan Whitehead’s piece did you recognize your experience? 

JAMES STILL: For the most part, I don’t feel a deep separation in my own artistic life between the process of the organization and what’s on stage. Maybe because, as a freelance writer and a playwright-in-residence, I have feet in several worlds—or maybe I’ve purposely gravitated toward organizations with more inherently holistic connections between the artistic and the organizations. While there are some theatres where I’ve worked that have certainly struggled with production and administration feeling like separate worlds, I’m also aware of enormous effort that’s gone on to help those two groups feel more creatively connected in as many ways as possible. In my experience, it’s been that effort that’s key to managing the potential gap.

JIM NICOLA: I found myself, in one way or another, in every sentence of the article. As the artistic leader of a theatre, I obsess every day over the imbalances that Jaan seems to find in the field of theatrical institutions. In looking at the article more closely, I thought that Jaan was very boldly framing a challenge to all of us about the very nature of our collective institutions. She questions not only our fundamental assumptions beneath their structures, but also the ideas we have about the nature of the art found within them.

IRENE LEWIS: The word “institution” feels pitted against artists in a puzzling way. And yet institutions are made up of people, people who are artists, people who are your staff. They have mortgages to pay and they have to eat. And there’s a constant scramble on the artistic side—the responsibility of the artistic director: How do you not edit yourself, how do you not be paralyzed by the fact that your decisions determine the health of the building and affect the lives of all those people? 

PAULA TOMEI: I don’t know why “institution” has become such a bad word, but it symbolizes something negative, as opposed to a support system and a lifeblood for people, for artists. It means health benefits and abilities beyond just paying a small wage, wages that can grow over time, and then you can embellish, hopefully, with other amenities, that help people make a life in this business—make a home, as opposed to having to come and go. 

JONATHAN MOSCONE: It means that you’re fighting in the marketplace. That you have a place at the table, that you’re not marginalized. That one day you can give health insurance to people. That’s a huge thing for me to be able to know I can do at the end of the day. And do I consider that an equal value to my rehearsal? Yes, I think I do. And I sometimes feel like a hack when I think that way, because I think I’m not being an artist, but I don’t really care. Because that’s where it gets to.

STILL: I think “institution” is often used as a code word for “larger organization.” I recognize that there are a lot of cities where there is one larger-sized theatre and then a group of smaller theatres. It’s easy to look at the large theatre as “the big house on the hill.” I hear it from the actors; I hear it from the audiences; I hear it from board members. And so there’s a split—a sense that they get everything and we get nothing, an “us versus them.”

NAOMI GRABEL: I had the privilege of partnering with two extraordinarily talented and extraordinarily visual artists. They care deeply, not just about audiences and actors, but about sets and lights and costumes and sound and the resources around the actor and the words and the audience. And they built the Wilma Theater from nothing to what it is today. [Wilma co-artistic director] Jiri Zizka and I once had a conversation about the theatre they had started in, which was probably no larger than a conference room with 10-foot ceilings and no wing space and no fly space. He said, “After 17 years, I was depressed. I had done that kind of theatre for as long as I could and gave it everything, but then I wanted wing space and fly space. I wanted technical tricks and stage magic and all of the bells and whistles that an institution offers.” Two artists at the core of the Wilma built the institution. 

LEWIS: And to be able to pay the artists!

GRABEL: That’s right!

MICHAEL MASO: Even the things that may seem institutional spring from the artists. There is sometimes criticism when a large theatre decides to build a second stage to do new plays: People will say, “They don’t need to do that.” But that’s not the opinion of the artists at the center of the institution who think we must in order to do this work. Organizations take on enormous challenges, like new facilities, in fulfillment of a vision that comes from the artist who is at the core of the organization.

NICOLA: I think we all might agree that, in the last 10 to 20 years, theatres as institutions have had to get much better at marketing and fundraising, much more sophisticated at presenting themselves to their communities. But in looking at the art, however good it is, it isn’t so easy to perceive any comparably significant shift in tone or quality or shape. The work hasn’t experienced the same kind of easily visible transformation that the fancier, bigger, louder advertising has produced on the marketing side. And, therefore, what we most easily perceive is the growth that is necessary to get the dollars and the audiences in the seats to survive. Whether it’s true or not, it may be easy to perceive that the marketing sophistication has come at the expense of the art.

BETH EMELSON: I can see how a lot of people would perceive that.

TOMEI: As you grow, obviously, yes, you learn more about how to market and get more sophisticated in general, but it still all comes down to the art. I mean, if your art isn’t good, it doesn’t matter how pretty your poster is.

MASO: But, Jim, do you think that’s accurate—that marketing has come at the expense of art? With regards to your institution or any institution you know?

NICOLA: I believe it is easy for some to perceive that. In reality, I think it is probably true for some theatres and not true for others. I think the truth is only to be found case by case.

MASO: I worry about our willingness to be sure about the problems other theatres have. It’s easy to perceive that someone else is making wrong decisions because perhaps we don’t like the work or we don’t like the artists they support—but maybe they are making those decisions for reasons we don’t see.

EMELSON: At our theatre, when it comes time to balance the budget, we find ourselves saying, “You know what? I don’t think we can actually afford to do that third workshop, that developmental piece. We can do the first two workshops and we can do the six mainstage shows and we can get the children’s productions up. We can say yes to all of that, but that thing we’re going to have to say no to comes from the worry we’re not going to make our rent.” It’s difficult, sometimes having to say no. But it’s a compromise. You can say yes a lot—it’s preferable to say yes.

TOMEI: It seems that we all look for ways to be able to say yes, as opposed to no. We always offer options, rather than shut down the artists in our institution and say, “You can’t be at the table.” 

Obviously you do need to compromise. Working in the theatre is not so clear cut; compromise is necessary on all sides. How many theatres dedicated to amazing new work out there are doing A Christmas Carol, often in wonderful productions—but in part for financial reasons: What amazing new art is Christmas Carol supporting? At South Coast we do four or five new plays a year, and we do A Christmas Carol. And we know there’s an equation here and that this is actually a great compromise: It serves the community, and, through the income it provides to other projects, it serves the art.

LEWIS: And some people won’t and shouldn’t make that compromise. These are all individual decisions. Almost all the plays I present, I’m dying to present, for the most part. And I decided not to do A Christmas Carol. I know it can pay for a lot of things, I just won’t do it. If somebody believes there isn’t enough money, I prefer them to say to me, “Irene, something’s got to go. What do you want to do?” I don’t want to be told what’s going to go. So, I want to see the single seat numbers that are projected. 

MASO: Artists have differing desires in participating in the budgeting process. Some artists are interested in the nuts and bolts of administration, as you know, so they really are at the table. But some run in horror from the table. They want to be in the rehearsal hall. And we build institutions to support both kinds of these people. 

MOSCONE: For me, the question I hear in the essay is “the inevitability of being an institution” but not the question of “the inevitability of being an artist.” The realization that has been occupying my mind is that I’m dichotomous; the theatre is dichotomous; my partner is dichotomous. We both think about the same things—we think about the health of the building, we think about what it will take to be sure that people do not have to be laid off in this climate. And that’s artistry, I guess. In these times, I’m not sure what the lines are that divide the artist from the institution. 

LEWIS: The creative juices are needed in every aspect of the theatre and can’t be isolated to the artists. There’s such creativity needed in the business office, in fundraising, and those people get so little back. We as artists are in the rehearsal hall, while they’re at a dinner trying to raise money for us.

MOSCONE: Yes, yes. And so I found it more useful to think less about putting the “art” back in our arts institutions than about putting the mission back. Then it became a kind of question for everybody—to ask how we make that mission happen and how we don’t, how we conspire against that mission and how we don’t. All the problems that you face are related to that root of mission: If you have to make a cut, it must be conceived in relation to that mission. Cuts must work within that: It is the only way to make it through the horrors of everyday life.

What factors go into making the decisions that come out a season?

NICOLA: I think the question of predictability and the pressure of subscription and how we tend to make our work in the same way are things maybe that we all could think about. 

We just did a production of Caryl Churchill’s Far Away, with Stephen Daldry directing. We had to postpone it twice because of Stephen’s schedule. But I have worked in theatres where we had to announce to our subscribers that King Lear is opening on January 15 and if our director becomes unavailable, we’ll get someone else: We’re saying King Lear will open on January 15 no matter who is directing. But because we specifically wanted Stephen we had to look our staff and our members straight in the eye and say, “We’re going to have to really bite this.” The staff ultimately gave its wholehearted support to this messy inconvenience, as did most of our members. But we did have some audience members who were furious that we dared substitute Martha Clarke’s Vienna: Lusthaus for Caryl Churchill’s play. The relationship with them was built on predictability.

EMELSON: Being in New York is a different kind of problem than many institutional theatres outside the city have. We don’t look at our seasons as “a comedy, a musical, a drama, a classic” and so on. If you want to see exciting and edgy, you can come to Atlantic; if you want to see classics from a contemporary point of view, you can go to Classic Stage Company; if you want to see a new Caryl Churchill play, you go to New York Theatre Workshop, and so on—which is really great. You find your own niche and your own voice. But it can make the field a little narrow for you, too. Last year, we did Hobson’s Choice, an 1800s English comedy. We had a great time with it, and it was very successful for us. But there were people who said, “Why is the theatre that was founded by David Mamet doing Hobson’s Choice?” We had been defined; we couldn’t move outside the box. And that can be very inhibiting for us.

LEWIS: Well, I select plays that I’m dying to do. I have a rather pragmatic viewpoint in that I like a lot of different kinds of plays. I like The Investigation next to Peter Pan next to Police Boys. I like that range. I know that in Baltimore for this serious sort of challenging theatre we can expect between 13,000 and 14,000 subscribers. We’re never going to deliver any more. Now, do you have to be canny if you want to do two premieres out of six? Yes. And how are you going to pay for those? This year I had Peter Pan and Ain’t Misbehavin’ pay for them, even though my vision of Peter Pan was doing a dark version. With only 13,000 to 14,000 subscribers to worry about, I don’t have to compromise too much.

TOMEI: It’s not just “the season” that you find yourself thinking about; there are other parts of the organization that are artistic—there’s education and issues of how to reach new communities, all of which goes under the umbrella of artistic. At a certain point, you put it all out on the table and see how much it will cost. There may be a dialogue about some shifting in all aspects. Artistic planning can’t be taken in isolation. 

MASO: In planning we start with the works that are most exciting to the artistic director. We talk to the artists we want to work with, directors, sometimes actors, sometimes playwrights: What do we want to do? How do we want these relationships to build? And there can come a point in the season planning where we say, “Oops, we can’t afford to do all this. What are we going to do?” Sometimes we figure, “Oh, we can do a bigger thing if we share it with other people.” That’s how we solve the problem—we co-produce. And sometimes it’s: “We need to find something small now, so we can do all the big stuff.” That is a compromise that doesn’t always feel great—but sometimes it’s the best we can do. Your ambitions and your willingness to stretch and take a chance come to some point where there has to be compromise. I don’t see that as meaning that the artist isn’t central to the decision-making. I don’t think that’s about institutionalization either. I think that’s about life—and for theatres of all sizes, small as well as large.

LEWIS: But the burning desire of the artist has to come first, not issues of how it’s going to be perceived by the audience. And that frequently does get lost.

STILL: The IRT perspective is slightly different than a lot of these scenarios, because it’s the only LORT theatre in the state. Some people drive three hours to come see a play. Over a nine-play season, you want to provide both bridges and challenges to that audience. We consciously (and without apology) think about our audience. Does [IRT artistic director] Janet Allen believe in every play? Absolutely, even though there are compromises; there are deals we make with our audience. I work closely with Janet on season planning and I watch how plays fall off and come back on the season. Is some of it driven by budget? Of course; we can’t afford to do two 20-cast plays. So is she going to drive the theatre into debt because, by God, she’s going to do two 20-cast plays? Of course not, because that’s not good management, which she’s also responsible for as artistic director. We aren’t just passionate about the plays we wish we could put on our stages—we’re passionate about everything that we do put on our stages. 

NICOLA: That’s true, I think. I’m in the middle of a big rumination about the concept of “the season.” I’m hoping to throw it away, to not think that way. I think the essay is challenging us, is equating institution with predictability and continuity, and art with adventure and surprise. Those are two things that are in every human soul—and we want both.

MOSCONE: I’m trying to create a triangle between the artists, the subscribers and the plays. What are they subscribing to? What are they becoming members of? What is your philosophy? Where are you taking them? It’s easier for a theatre that is more niched, like Shakespeare, where there’s already a consistency, a given. But where I’m going to take them—is that what they’re signing on for? 

NICOLA: How do you get people to wrap their minds around our output if we think in terms of seasons in the marketplace? Instead of thinking in terms of “the season,” we’re thinking about the rest of our work this year as the idea of the journey the American family is making from the end of the 20th century to where it might be at the end of the 21st century. We’re taking chunks of work that fall around ideas: You can get tickets for this show; you can be part of that event. There’s a symposium about the year 2050 and what scientists and economists, demographers and health care workers think the family is going to look like. We’re going to have to do a big shift, though. 

I think intuitively in seasons, about what I want to say, about diversity of experience. I try to think about what things “on the stove” are the “hottest” and the most compelling together. But as old habits really do die hard, I still unconsciously think about our work in a construct of a “season.” I’m trying to break free of that “season” thinking, because it’s never really worked for us.

“Institutions” do try to be continuous and become a permanent part of their community. Fifty years ago, when you looked at any city in America, you saw a library and museum and a church and city hall—civic institutions that gave identity to the community—you did not see a theatre amongst those institutions. That’s been the intent of many of these organizations: to be there, in the community’s heart—and that’s been achieved. But there are other ways to do it. As time has passed, the nature of our community identity has changed, and perhaps we need to find new ways of being in the core of our cities. I’m trying to find those other ways.

MOSCONE: I think that’s the key question: keeping the relationship with the audience to your advantage, while remaining free at the same time—as free as you can.

NICOLA: I’m thinking a lot about how we do it—how we make the work in certain traditional ways. The idea of a four-week rehearsal is universal in this country. I’m not making a judgment about whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing: It just is.

MASO: Is there never a show where someone says, “Listen, we need an extra week on this. Can we do it?”

NICOLA: Yes, but it’s very hard for us to respond to such a request—and it’s definitely outside the box of how we do it. It’s not the amount of time per se; it’s the uniformity. I’ve been to theatres in Eastern Europe where they rehearse six months as a matter of course. Then, you see, at the end of the day, the productions tend to come out looking like the one that came before, because they have made it in the same way. I think it would be great if we could all start thinking about how we could not do it in just one way. How do we get organizations, our partners and the unions to help us to try something different? One of the problems within this, too, is that we’re trying to run things in extraordinarily impecunious times, where we as artists are regarded with suspicion or even hostility. We don’t have a lot of room for flexibility or miscalculation.

STILL: At IRT, we had never had a playwright-in-residence before. In many ways, we had to educate the staff and the audience about what that might mean to the institution. This season we opened with a new play of mine commissioned by IRT. And while people didn’t know what the play was about, they knew it was my play. That’s why many people came to see it—because they have a relationship to an artist in the community.

MASO: That’s great. That’s the way it should be. 

TOMEI: That’s how it works, in my experience, over the years of watching plays of different writers shift from a second theatre to a main audience, and now going back and forth quite comfortably. We watch our audience watching the writers: They know who the writers are, they know they’re new. Some of them now are a little more established, although they were new when they started with us. But it’s wonderful for our audience, our community, our institution to grow together.

MOSCONE: How do you deal with, when you’re budgeting, getting information from the people who are the least empowered to finalize that decision? Like a props artisan, the props master, just as an example. How do you get information about what that year was like for that person and what their desires are, about how (if the future doesn’t hold more money) to think about reorganization of money? About how a budget is a philosophy, a planning document—those ideas as inherent in a budget. How do you get enough voices in so that then you can make all the decisions based on your vision for the theatre?

LEWIS: They weigh in, in my theatre.

MASO: Every organization’s going to be different. We have a structure where the production department has a place at the table, a major place. But the question may be whether there is enough communication between the carpenter and the TD and production manager—communication which may depend to some extent on the specific staff that is there.

MOSCONE: Well, I’m very interested in having the whole organism of staff and community and board understand the values of how we disperse our resources. Partly out of what you’re talking about—everyone has an opinion and they express it in various directions and they’re going to do that. But I feel I have, for myself, an obligation to try and say, “This is why we do what we do and how we do it.” 

STILL: I demanded a place at the table. I went to board meetings; I went to finance committee meetings; I went to budget meetings, because I wanted to be a part of all that. Does every artist? Absolutely not; there are playwrights who only want to write plays. But I wanted more than that, and my involvement has created a bigger relationship to the institution that has served my work and the audience in ways that I could not have had otherwise. For me, it’s the difference between being a guest and being part of the family.

LEWIS: But not everyone will step forward; not everyone wants to think about these issues. Even so, at Center Stage, a person on the board, a personnel representative, speaks to almost every person in the theatre—asks them about the issues, asks them about their problems. And it happens every year.

TOMEI: Something that’s worked well for us is that every year everyone puts in writing an evaluation—a self-evaluation, an evaluation of the institution. I end up reading everyone’s, which is great, and I discuss them with [South Coast artistic director] Martin Benson and [producing artistic director] David Emmes. Some of them are hard to read, even while it’s not meant to be a personal attack. It is meant to be an honest assessment: “What can the theatre do to make your work better?” That’s the final question. It’s amazing how the people that you don’t hear from all year sometimes come up with the most wonderful ideas and assessments. It’s a great equalizer, in a way. But it also means that you do have to respond—whether there’s going to be something you can do or not, which opens a dialogue. “This idea may not ever be possible. Let’s talk about why. Let’s see if there’s something else we can do instead.” That happens a lot as a result of the process, throughout the organization. It creates a dialogue.

You know, I find that most managers are always pushing the artists into the center, into the foreground, into the spotlight, because it is the artists who have the power—it’s the art. It’s the magic, it’s what works. As Michael said, “Our trustees like us well enough, but that’s not why they’re doing this.” Not at all. There’s no question why the community and, frankly, most employees and other artists come to the theatre. It’s not because they want to work in theatre administration: They’re looking to find the artist.

LEWIS: [Center Stage managing director] Michael Ross said to me, “Would you make an appearance at the finance committee this year and tell us what concerns you now?” He said, “The board needs to hear it from you. One appearance from you will have impact for the whole year.” So I’m gonna do it. 

MOSCONE: It was on the table at our theatre to reduce benefits by a third. And it wasn’t until I said, as the artist, “This is not going to happen” that the benefits were preserved. Once I said that—once I said it, everyone in the room chimed in with their full agreement. It wasn’t an artistic statement, and yet, in another way, it was. They heard it as such. You realize what kind of immense power one has in this position, and as an artistic director, of course you demand a place at the table. 

LEWIS: But you really have to guard yourself about getting dragged into too much of this. You’ve got to work on the art. So this has to be very carefully portioned out. Otherwise you become an administrator. Which I have no interest in being.

EMELSON: But yet you’re the reason administrators want to be at the institution in the first place.

MASO: Can we talk about trustees? Why are people trustees of these organizations? In general, the trustees whom you’ve worked with—think about them—are there primarily because they care about the artists. They’re devoting their time and energy because of their connection to the work. It’s not that mistakes aren’t made. But the notion that they don’t want to put the art at the center—and that they don’t respond with enormous energy to when the artist says, “This is critical—we have to do this next”—that idea feels wrong. When we tell them what artists need, they stand up and salute. 

LEWIS: If they’re any good. If they’ve been trained right.

STILL: If I were to ask almost any of our board members at Indiana Rep—and we have about 40—“Which would you rather do? Go to a board meeting or go to one of our plays?”—they’re going to choose the play. They volunteer their time in order to have a deeper relationship to the work and the artists and to support that relationship to the community. They don’t want to run a theatre. They certainly don’t want to lead the artists. They want to be a part of a theatre and to insure that we can continue to do art on those stages.

LEWIS: They hire you to lead them.

MOSCONE: They look for leaders; everyone in the world is dying for leadership. And, in part, that’s what they’re there for. 

MASO: The idea that “there’s now this imbalance that pushes the art and the artist into a subservient role” reflects a real tension, a tension that lives for each of us. But there is equally a tension in each of our organizations between vision and accomplishment. Dreaming and vision come crashing against the realities that can limit those dreams. I think that mostly what we struggle about and what we fail to do is to realize the artistic visions that are at the center of our organizations. 

Any of us could probably point to a lot of theatres where we could say, in our own individual opinion, “That one has bad art and that one has bad management.” But is the real issue about these individual cases? Or is it about some institutional process that inevitably rips the heart out of the art at the center? I don’t believe that’s what “institutionalization” does. 

The core issue is managing the tensions around how to support artists. But whether we do it well or not, we still have a structure that places the artist at the center. We still put these institutions in the hands of the artists and say, “Tell us how to get there.” 

NICOLA: It’s great that Jaan has provoked us—she opened a door, even if you disagree vehemently. This is a great thing.

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