The Problem with Theatre in America, Pt. 2: What Service do Non-Profit Theatres Provide?

Happy belated Thanksgiving to my handful of readers out there. I survived the mounting of two productions and scheduling of a third, and now have some brain space to blog about theatre again. Huzzah!

So, due to the nature of my job and career, I talk to a lot of people about financial investment in theatre, in various forms. For the most part, I hear a lot of polite excuses about tough economic times and cutting back, etc. Rarely do I hear another reason for infrequent donations or dropped subscriptions, but a couple of weeks ago I spoke with a man who thought non-profit theatres should be for-profit and charge an amount that would pay for the total cost of the show. For one thing, this steeply undervalues the artistry involved in a full show, which includes paying actors a living wage (if you are a large enough company), paying designers, having a budget for set and costumes, music, and royalties, etc. If we charged what all of these artists are worth, in most places in the country, the tickets would be outrageously expensive, so even the very wealthy couldn’t afford it. Grants, both private and public, as well as individual small donations (or, in rarer cases, large donations) helps to offset the costs and keep theatre running.

So, I strongly disagree with this guy. Large and small houses alike would tank. But, it brought up some interesting questions for me about the nature of non-profit theatre in the US (which makes up the majority of theatre companies in this country — for-profit theatres are seen pretty much only on Broadway, and if you think tripe like “Tonight’s the Night” (the Rod Stewart musical) and “Legally Blonde: The Musical” are making money for any reason other than name recognition, you are sorely mistaken). The non-profit model generally requires a board of directors, which oversees the financial stability of the company (often bringing in new donors, as well as donating personal funds, in times of crisis), with an artistic staff on the other side of the line. Ironically, larger non-profits also spend a lot of money on fundraisers, which lavish warm fuzzy feelings and elegant dinners and various other rewards on the largest donors. In large non-profit theatres, and many mid-sized theatres, the productions themselves are not seen as a culturally valuable service, so much as a money-making venture that usually loses at the box office. And, because of legal guidelines plus social pressures, large non-profit theatres provide educational outreach of some kind, which is often lauded as having a huge impact on children or particular social groups in the community. Since the majority of the kids reached are already educationally and financially privileged, with supportive and educated parents, the actual impact of these education programs is suspect (I can’t think of a single one that actually reaches a truly under-served, low-income, even minority population). But, the fact that the programs exists at all justifies to educated, privileged ticket buyers and donors that their large, money-draining, local-culture-smothering theatre company is actually giving back in some way, because clearly, they are not giving back to the culture through their original medium, the stage.

Basically, while I think education programs are great, I think the majority of these “outreach” programs have failed, and theatres should be justified enough in contributing to our cultural heritage. But, if they don’t have outreach programs or some other special project to help them beg for money, couldn’t they just rely on market forces to draw large crowds into lavish, beautiful stage creations?

I have found, in working for some large theatres over the past few years, that part of fundraising for “annual funds” is to help support the high cost of running a large company. This makes sense if you are a charity and your entire mission is outreach and you use a huge number of volunteers, AND have no other income. But non-profit theatres have additional income: they have ticket sales. Something I used to hear a lot at one of the companies I worked for was “Help us keep ticket prices affordable with a donation,” when ticket prices were clearly way out of my income range! Their version of youth ticket prices was still too expensive for my meager funds, and I worked there! If ticket prices are so high, shouldn’t these companies be making at least enough to pay all the artists and technicians involved in a production?

The answer is no. Large (and some mid-sized) non-profit theatres in the US are stuck in a weird gray area where they have a generous income from ticket sales that still does not help them make enough money to pay their support staff and run general day-to-day business of the company. To this end, they also solicit donations from all sorts of donors, and create outreach programs that help increase community visibility and justify the amount of funds they gather (and, for the record, I think some of these programs make a difference — I don’t think they are all money-making schemes, and I don’t think any of them started that way). On the whole, non-profit theatres break even most years.

This defies the popular definition of “non-profit” to me. I don’t think theatres should raise ticket prices because that would put most shows so far out of the reach of the general populace that basically no one would go see stage productions anymore, out of fear. But how to raise money to fund your company, without following the mushy gray-area model? How to pay your professional artists and technicians what they are worth without killing the value of art with business politics?

My suggestion — and I haven’t heard of anyone trying this, nor have I had the opportunity to try it myself yet — is to consider all tickets “donations.” Some large companies have forced a “preferred seating donation” on their patrons to get in the best seats in the house so that these companies have a slice of this income that is tax-free. I say, take that a step further and have all tickets on a sliding scale. Pay what you think the show is worth. This is also taking the “pay what you can” concept a step further and applying it to the entire process. For small theatres, pay what you can nights are often the most popular, because this is the night that friends and family without comp tickets get in. It is also a popular night among 20-somethings, ie people my age.

This business model, of paying or donating what you think a product/service is worth, is spreading like wild fire among “people my age.” We see most current business politics as some kind of swindling, and bristle at high prices as we feel that our money is not going to the best cause possible. This is why open source software is so insanely popular. There was also an interesting social experiment a couple of years ago when Radiohead released their latest album. Instead of producing it with a major record label and selling CD’s, plus lots of merchandise, concert tickets, and through various high-priced venues online (I’m looking at you, iTunes), Radiohead released their latest album via their website, totally online. I think there was a minimum donation of $0.01 to “buy” the album. Left to their own generally altruistic devices, fans paid an average of $20 per download! That means, of course, some paid $0.01 because they could get away with it, some paid little because that was all they had, some paid the average cost of a CD, and some, having an idea of how many people might take advantage of this situation, paid MORE than the average cost of a CD, because they support the band, they loved the idea of online release and download for donation, and they wanted to show that support in the best way Americans know how: money.

I don’t know if sliding scale or “pay what it’s worth” tickets would work with everyone. It might confuse people older than 35, to be honest. But, I think it would work frighteningly well with young audiences, and being a young director and theatre manager, I make art in the ouvre of my peers. I invite a lot of friends to shows anyway, as they hear about the shows I am involved in a lot. So, maybe a minimum donation of $1, but consider it donation? I don’t know. I think it is a social experiment worth trying and something I fully intend to try in the near future.

Considering all ticket sales to be donations would change how theatre is viewed in this country. Right now, few people know how the non-profit theatre model works (or, rather, fails) and affects their community, and how little it is actually adding to our cultural heritage. But, if it were seen as the reserve of our culture, contributing constantly to our cultural heritage with new work, family work, revised and re-envisioned work, etc etc etc, then people might not balk at high ticket prices and be more willing to pay for something that benefits everyone, every single person in the community (including the under-priviledged, low-income, under-represented, and minorities everywhere), then we might see the same sort of social altruism as with Radiohead’s online album.

Months ago, I went to Michael Kaiser’s presentation to non-profits and arts groups, and he pointed out that some of the most popular events that arts groups present are the free or inexpensive events, like Shakespeare or symphony in the park. The full spectrum of our cities can be seen at these events — it is never restricted to the primarily white, English-as-first-language, heteronormative, upper-middle class. It is instead a wide range of families, couples, friends, and singles, of all races, genders, and ages, who come to appreciate art that they almost never get to enjoy otherwise. This is another strike against high ticket prices, and the final social experiment I would like to point out. PEOPLE LOVE ART. Art provides an experience above and beyond mere cost, so anything we as artists and arts managers can do to make it accessible, to actually add to us as a species, as a community, as a nation, as a global culture, the better off we will all be for the variety of experience.

Let’s get out of that crappy business gray area, American theatre. Let’s find a way for us to do this full-time, as paid professionals, but still make sure our work is accessible to all, and appreciated by the entire community. Otherwise, what is the point of art? Is it even art if it doesn’t reach an audience? I say it is not.

3 thoughts on “The Problem with Theatre in America, Pt. 2: What Service do Non-Profit Theatres Provide?

  1. Nice article. Actually, Radiohead’s album could even be downloaded for no charge.

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