From the Executive Director

Is it time to stop? By Ben Cameron

It is easy to forget how relatively young our not-for-profit professional theatre field is.

I'm often met by gasps of surprise when, in speeches, I note that fewer than three dozen of today's not-for-profit professional theatres in the country were in existence when TCG was founded in 1961. Now, 45 years later, the landscape as we know it is radically different. While some of that original three dozen or so have ceased operations, the theatre field has exploded, gathering speed and momentum in the wake of the unprecedented funding and civic pride of the 1960s and 1970s, creating a universe of more than 1,400 such theatres today.

Given our relative youth, many of us are now confronting issues of succession and departure of leaders for the first time. Indeed, a quick snapshot of our membership in 2003 revealed that some 45 percent of us still had at least one founder at the helm. Not surprisingly, funders now increasingly press us about "succession plans," and consultants regularly urge boards to create such plans for the health of the organization.

Hidden in these discussions is all too often an unexamined assumption that a theatre should continue. As a culture, we tend to prize most highly those organizations that have a long legacy. Indeed, in Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap...and Others Don't (Collins, 2001), Jim Collins identifies longevity as one of his primary criteria for greatness (inordinate profitability being the other); "short-lived" somehow can be seen tantamount to failure.

Well, let me be heretical for a moment: Is longevity everything it's cracked up to be?

The ultimate test of a not-for-profit (as Collins notes in his superb 2005 follow-up monograph, Good to Great and the Social Sectors, the exploration of how his business principles apply to our not-for-profit realm) is not cash profitability but mission fulfillment--a critical distinction that separates us from our for-profit colleagues. While clearly any not-for-profit needs to take in more than it spends in order to stay alive, the ultimate validation of a homeless shelter lies in its ability to house the indigent, of a school system in its ability to educate its students, and of a church in its ability to inspire faith and provide meaning to life, not in the ability to generate excessive surpluses and reserves.

In the not-for-profit theatre, our theatres began with the dream of an artist (or group of artists) impelled by vision, by urgency, by passion--an artist who called upon others to share that dream, to invest in it, to strive to see its fulfillment through their own dedication and stubbornness and sacrifice, a triumph of collective energy and will.

Every succession moment asks that collective to assess, measure and project the future of that central artistic energy. When the generating artist leaves an organization, what will now be left behind? Do we understand not only the implications of our current values for making the choice of successor but that the new arriving artist will inherently bring a different vision? And, frankly, do we have the dedication to increase, in all probability, our dedications of time and energy and resources to this new work?

Such understanding demands that we ask first those critical questions that are strikingly absent from many plans I've seen. Why do we need to continue to exist? What is the urgent, positive, galvanizing need we will fulfill--a need that will energize others and gather them to us? Is there a social need (e.g., to bring joy into children's lives), an artistic need (to see the creativity of specific artists reach its fullest potential)--a need that can be clearly defined, embraced and framed?

In asking these questions, we may decide that we have had the joy of seeing the work of the artists we have known come to fruition, but that we have reached the end of a road--indeed, that we should now shutter our doors permanently and yield our place in the landscape. I have such profound respect for Patty Lynch of Brass Tacks Theatre in Minneapolis, choreographer Bella Lewitzky and most recently choral master Dale Warland, all of whom decided that the remarkable organizations they founded would cease operations rather than continue. In moments of solvency, they said, "We're done," marking a completion not occasioned by financial failure but by a sense of mission fulfillment--a decision that, rather than mitigating a claim to greatness (with all deference to Mr. Collins) actually enhanced it. Would I consider a medical nonprofit dedicated to curing a disease any less great if it found the cure and then disbanded--in essence, fulfilled its mission and chose to stop? Of course not.

For me, the conscious decision to outlive the energy of the founding artist--a decision that suddenly places priority and responsibilities on different planes--is the moment when a group shifts from being an organization to being an institution. In considering those who elect to forgo the path of institutionalization, we should celebrate the work that they have offered us, considering ourselves lucky to have lived in such a time. The resources they have amassed--human, physical, financial--can be rechanneled, we hope, back into the community to benefit a new generation of artists. And for those who elect to persevere--perseverance born of new urgency, of new passion, of new commitment--that new self-awareness and the ability to articulate their new drive in new terms will inevitably serve them well in an increasingly competitive world.