There are “givens” involved in any enterprise. All New Yorkers know they must provide more than loose change for their apartment building’s staff at Christmastime if they want any service in the ensuing year; contractors erecting buildings in Anchorage, Alaska know that, because of permafrost conditions, excavation costs are going to be greater there than in Miami, Florida; and anyone running a business in Chicago knows that the going wage for Windy City typists is higher than that of their counterparts in Dubuque, Iowa. In each case, the price differential is factored into the local Cost of Doing Business.
A new phrase has crept into our lexicon—the “artistic deficit.” It’s a useful phrase, describing the artistic price of allowing economic survival to predominate over aesthetic concerns. The ramifications of “artistic deficits” were explored thoughtfully in a front-page article in the March 14 issue of The New York Times under the headline “Financial Problems Are Compromising Nonprofit Theatres.”
The reality is clearly even worse than “compromise,” for that word implies that a certain level has already been reached. The nonprofit theatre, a very young institution in America, is actually in a state of arrested development. As Lloyd Richards, Yale Repertory Theatre’s artistic director, told the Times, “In 20 years, we in the nonprofit theatre have proven we can create viable institutions—viable in the sense that we can survive. The question is whether survival is enough. Survival alone certainly wasn’t our dream.”
The common denominator that brought the nonprofit theatres together in the 1960s to develop a separate contract with Actors’ Equity Association was the assumption that nonprofit theatres would be companies of artists and that the existing “per-show” mode of production employed by the commercial theatre was inimical to the investigative process deemed essential to develop a body of work over a sustained period.
While we now have well-established producing mechanisms, we have not developed the indigenous artistic communities to both support and inform the institutions. In short, we have the form—the mold. The complex mix of artists needed to let the “factory” function has not yet materialized. The theatre in its current state is not unlike a restaurant outfitted with the latest and best equipment, but which serves only vegetables because meat, poultry and fish are too expensive. In the restaurant business, of course, that would be unheard of, since the sum of all the necessary culinary ingredients is automatically considered part of the Cost of Doing Business.
New York’s Lincoln Center was designed with the knowledge that the Metropolitan Opera building had to be constructed to deal with opera’s essential baggage—room for a full orchestra, chorus and principals, to say nothing of the administrative and technical staff necessary to support the work taking place on stage. There was never a thought of building the new hall for the New York Philharmonic without the ability to serve adequately the more than 100 members of the orchestra.
The Vivian Beaumont Theatre, on the other hand, was constructed with only a vague idea of how large an artistic cadre was necessary. Both opera and symphony had an institutional track record spanning over 100 years. We simply did not know, in this country, what it takes to create and staff a Nonprofit Professional Theatre Company. Our only point of reference was the commercial theatre operating on a project basis with no continuing staff. Small wonder there is talk of an “artistic deficit,” when the artistic “engines” moving our theatres are tiny Toonerville Trolleys!
The Cost of Doing Business in the theatre needs to be escalated. Not because of inflation, the rising cost of living or any arcane economic formula. Rather, because the cost now merely reflects the “survival” of a mechanism, and is not centered on securing a hospitable environment in which art can be nurtured and sustained.
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