Today, many challenges facing theatres and theatre companies both in the United States and abroad. Local and Federal governments have made large cuts to arts budgets, arts councils have increasingly slowed or cut off their funding, and donors have begun to hold tighter to their wallets. Consequently, the withdrawal of these traditional streams of support for have threatened the existence of many theater companies. However, despite these factors, the constant influx of new non-profit and commercial theatre companies has not stopped. Rebecca Novick highlights this conflict in her essay, “Please, Don't Start a Theater Company! Next-Generation Arts Institutions and Alternative Career Paths,” Novick notes that “In the past fifteen years, the number of nonprofit theater companies in the United States has doubled while audiences and funding have shrunk.” This is most definitely a major problem, however, while theatre companies continue to fight more and more for the same piece of the pie, new artists and arts leaders are made everyday, and artist have a tendency to create.
As these new artists and arts leaders enter the overly saturated theatre industry, many find themselves creating their own companies. Novick says, “...there is now a critical lack of opportunity for emerging artists and leaders, leaving the next generation of artists no alternative but to start companies of their own, companies that often replicate the problems of established theaters on a smaller scale.” This being said, incoming artists and arts leaders theatre must change how companies operates and use their resources. Theatre companies must be redefine what a theatre company means and these factors are necessary to ensure success.
Structure should be at the forefront of this change and is my first recommendation. Non-profit theatres companies traditionally have boards of directors that makes the necessary decisions for the company. When things go well, the glory goes to these board members, but when things go bad, everyone else is to blame. Board members are often seen as a required fixture in non-profit theatres, but they need to be rethought. We saw how the private interests of the board of directors were what caused The Public Theater to cancel the Freedom Theater's production of The Siege due to the Israel and Palestine conflicts. I believe that a modern theatre company should reflect the times and so should its board. The refusal of the Public Theater's board to cancel The Siege, is part of a larger problem. The fact that their board had the power to ruin such a powerful production out of for no justifiable reason, should never be the case.
A modern theatre company should not base its decisions on a board of old and mostly white, board members that are out of touch and far too concerned about their wallets. My proposed 21st century theatre company would instead be ran through a revolving door of artistic directors. This system would allow for artistic directors to be trained, regardless of age or experience, through a revolving door system in which every 5-10 years the artistic director is replaced with one trained under the tutelage of their predecessor. This would allow for new visions and ideas to constantly be introduced and put in practice. These limits also solves the problem of an artistic director becoming out of touch. Also, in terms of structure, my theatre company would function as a theatre company that is in of the community, similar to, but not a community theatre. I would say it is a theatre company that holds “community theatre values, with commercial theatre tastes.”
Despite the negative connotations, many community theatres are actually successful, non-profit theatre models. This proposed theatre would be involve the grassroots collaboration between community members and professional theatre makers and artists, to produce work. Ultimately, this will allow the theatre to not only enjoy the benefits of being a non-profit, but it will also allow for the theatre to act as a cultural center that produces a season of plays ranging from popular and well-known shows and musicals, to new and experimental works. I also believe that a 21st century theatre should not be confined to four walls. Borrowing from traditional models of community theatres, my proposed theater would have productions that vary in size and scale, and range from performance in borrowed spaces to main stage productions. In many ways this is similar to Jenin's Freedom Theatre, over a ten year span, the Freedom Theatre has managed to produce over twenty-five plays, both well-known and original, trained a new generation of artists and arts leaders, and held workshops and presentations in countries around the world.
This model will allow for communities to invest their own talents and money into the theatre and make each member community feel as if they own a stake in the theatre whether as artists or spectator. Too often theatres ignore making art accessible. Being apart of this community would begin the work to make theatre accessible to the community, whether it be matinee shows reserved for community members, or a percentage of tickets every show reserved for them. The theatre will serve as a resource that allows people who are often discouraged from attending traditional theatre productions due to price or subject matter, the resources and support to improving the lives of their community. On a social level, the theatre will also serve as a space that gives professional artists and community members the ability to create dialogues on the larger social and political issues impacting them. The stories they tell and social contexts they bring to the work are essential to the cultural health of these communities, especially for communities of color.
With being in and of the community such a vital part of this theatre company, another important recommendation is making sure people of color are at the center of it. Like Heena Patel explained in our discussion, many theatre companies and arts organizations have thrown money to whoever they could in an attempt to draw in audiences of color. Although this change is mostly due to changing racial dynamics, the arts are slowing beginning to notice the need for greater diversity. Traditionally, theatres have always encouraged and championed westernized, eurocentric, programming with a few token works set aside and labeled as “diversity.” Every major theater company has most likely has performed a piece written by August Wilson, or performed Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun. These productions allow for audiences to see glimpses of the experiences of people of color, but ultimately these productions take resources, funding dollars, and audiences that could be better used at theaters ran for and by people of color.
Why should people of color come out to a show if they cannot truly see themselves authentically reflected on stage? However, as long as the management structures continue to favour work that maintains whiteness as the status-quo, as the racial composition of the country continues to shift, many of these theatre companies will find themselves lacking the resources to bring about radical change. Instead of joining theatre companies and working with them to make this change from the inside, the best solution is to create one that acknowledges a multiracial America. A theatre company called, New Perspectives, is a shining example of this. New Perspectives was founded in 1991 in New York City, and it is “a multiracial ensemble dedicated to using theatre as an agent for positive social change.” In its over twenty five year history, New Perspectives has produced and developed new plays by playwrights that were mostly women and people of color as well as presented productions of previously produced plays in a manner that reflects on contemporary issues.
Pushing aside the gatekeepers and making room for diversity will lead to new talent, new plays, new conversations, and new audiences, too. However, this type of work would also involve a diligent effort to build the financial strength to support a diverse theatre company. Many theater companies and arts organizations of color unfortunately have not successfully built the networks and donor bases that are a vital part of a successful arts organization. Because these organizations did properly not invest the time to build the support necessary, these groups are often dependent on grants and government support for their programming. My proposed theatre company will employ all the necessary efforts, through traditional and modern means to build these networks.
To lessen this dependency on grants and government support, my last recommendation would be to would borrow from the film studio model. Though the company is a nonprofit, for-profit models can be an effective means to address this problem. Major Hollywood studios have a financial strategy that lessens their risks. Studios release “Tent poles” that are widely released, big budget, heavily promoted, films that are expected to result in large profits. An example of a tentpole film would be any of the Marvel or DC blockbusters that are released every year. These films are almost guaranteed to bring in large audiences, double or triple their profits, and allow studios to take risk in producing art house films that are less likely to do so. Emerging theatre companies must be ready and willingness to take on and embrace new strategies and methods in an ever changing industry. Brian Newman highlights this in his essay, “Inventing the Future of the Arts: Seven Digital Trends that Present Challenges and Opportunities for Success in the Cultural Sector.” Newman suggests that nonprofits take on what he calls a “with-profit partnership,” he says;
A with-profit partnership would allow a nonprofit to continue to serve its underlying mission, and maintain its tax status, while providing a vehicle for exploration of profit-making activities. For-profit partners (or divisions) could bring in investments, explore more robust marketing and program development with other for-profit companies and maintain an eye on the ‘double bottom line' of profits and mission. Such alliances are not uncommon in the health and science sectors and should be considered by arts organizations as well.
This with-profit partnership, could allow for both sectors to profit. Bigger productions could go on to commercial houses and allow for the company to continue to make new work. Newman says “The most famous example might be the Public Theater in New York City, where daring nonprofit productions became a laboratory for Broadway, at times with much success.” We saw this with Hamilton and Fun Home, that the Public still receives profit from.
While predicting the future is difficult, I believe a 21st century theatre company should be at the forefront of trends and help sculpt the decades to come. It should be committed to producing high quality theatre that shares important work, that is accessible to all audiences as well as serve a model to others. Some people believe live theatre is dying, but society needs theatre, more now than ever.
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