Much has been written about the evolution and flowering of the nonprofit theatre. Zelda Fichandler has most eloquently described the “long revolution” through which the nonprofit theatre industry has emerged as the dominant theatrical producing force in America. The essence of this “revolution” is usually seen as one in which an aesthetic motive has replaced a profit motive as the reason for producing theatre. There has been, however, another fundamental change taking place within the theatre industry, a change made possible by the use of the nonprofit corporation structure: the owners of theatre facilities and the producers of plays have become the same entity.
Not since the mid-19th century has the American theatrical scene been permeated by owner/producers. It would not be too great an exaggeration to describe the nonprofit theatre movement as an explosion of theatrical real estate. So great has been the force of this construction/renovation boom, that an entire support industry of “theatre consultants” has sprung up. There has so far been little recognition of the impact of theatre ownership on artistic mission—but in truth, the development of real estate and the maintenance of facilities has evolved as a second implied mission for the nonprofit theatre.
In the explosion of the performing arts over the past 50 years, the theatre is distinctly different from symphony orchestras, dance companies and operas. It is implicit that a nonprofit theatre company will control real estate, whereas the other performing arts exist separately from a real estate mission. Concerns facing theatres today are similar to those faced by the managements of auditoriums and cultural centers. Facility managers need to keep their auditoriums active year round. They have to replace carpets and lighting control boards. These are the same issues which occupy substantial time and energy at trustee meetings of nonprofit theatres around the nation. Energies applied in this fashion make sense—ownership of real estate represents an enormous fixed asset for a theatre company, and it is not unusual for a theatre’s balance sheet to show a larger annual expense for depreciation than for directors’ fees and authors’ royalties combined.
How did this second mission emerge? Conceptually, the nonprofit theatre corporation is one which will exist in perpetuity. From that perspective, it was natural that the quality of space for the artistic process and the audience became a priority. In one theatre company after another, a tremendous energy was discovered that could develop millions of dollars for the creation of new artistic spaces. America’s leading architects were called upon to design “the perfect theatre.” Since 1980, major theatre facilities have opened in Indianapolis, Syracuse, Seattle, San Diego and Cleveland, with other major projects underway in Los Angeles, Houston, Rochester and Milwaukee. As a result of three decades of facility development, permanence can today be defined more by real estate than by artistry.
It is little wonder that artistic directors have become concerned. Maintaining “product” in a multi-million dollar facility places a weight of responsibility around the neck of artistic ambition. This responsibility is extraneous to the art of the theatre. Artistic directors properly are attracted most by process. Needs such as more rehearsal time and the development of artistic companies are frequently described in grant proposals and public forums as the most immediate and pressing concerns facing theatres. These needs, however, pale before the force of maintenance of real estate.
The role of trustees in the life of theatres is frequently characterized negatively as artistic conservatism or a lack of sensitivity to the artistic process. Such a description misses the point. For the trustee, the perpetuation of the institution can easily, even organically, become more important than the art it produces. Trustees are charged with maintaining a massive community investment. Certainly, trustees want the art housed in these wondrous spaces to be dynamic and important. Aesthetics, however, are ephemeral and buildings are real.
What is emerging for many companies is a crisis of mission. Which is more important, the house or the family that lives inside? Does a beautiful house, however, insure the health of that family? Is a family with lots of friends a family with a meaningful life? The answers to these questions are obvious. But is anyone seriously asking them?
Resolution of this crisis will be as difficult as the crisis of survival faced in the early days of the movement. In those years, however, there existed the undeniable force of the artistic entrepreneur. Most of these founding forces have moved onto other challenges, and the theatres which they have left behind are moving through second and third generations of artistic leadership. The general weakening of the artistic impulse which created these companies—and the coincidental rise in the priority of permanence for permanence’s sake—is related to transitions in artistic leadership: it is with each leadership change that the self-perpetuating elements of organizational structure get stronger. It is difficult to imagine the impact of a major theatre facility on a new artistic director. How many new artistic directors have within themselves the fortitude to mold such imposing structures around their own artistic imaginations? Wasn’t it, in a way, easier for the founders of the movement to start with nothing than it is for today’s artistic director to overcome what exists?
It is interesting to compare the dilemma which modern dance companies will soon face with the crisis now confronting theatres. What will happen to the Merce Cunningham Dance Company when Merce Cunningham retires? No doubt serious questions will be raised about whether or not the company should continue. Such questions are now being raised about the future of the New York City Ballet. But continuity was never a question when Tyrone Guthrie passed away. The reason is that the nonprofit theatres of this country are in fact also real estate developers. Just as it is difficult to imagine the Paul Taylor Dance company without Paul Taylor, it is difficult not to imagine an Arena Stage, even without Zelda Fichandler.
While today’s situation is not directly analogous to the era of the stock companies of the 19th cen-tury—hundreds of these companies had resident acting troupes and owned or leased their facilities—there are enough similarities for lessons to be drawn. The most important of these lessons is that as the companies weakened and disappeared—a development which effectively separated theatre ownership and theatrical producing in America—it was the artists who left the theatres. With the advent of the “star system” and the establishment of profitable touring companies, called “combinations, actors in local troupes found that there were greener pastures elsewhere. Today’s theatre artist knows that lesson well. More and more the talented professional is weighing the financial sacrifice of working in the nonprofit theatre against more lucrative work in the commercial theatre, film and television.
These artists see, all over the country, palaces created for their art offering wages which insult their craft and experience.
The nonprofit theatre movement has brought forth major talent. There is a substantial body of work of which the movement can be proud. There are a meaningful number of companies which regularly produce significant theatre art. None of this, however, lessens the urgent nature of the crisis which the movement faces. It is, once again, a crisis of mission.
Will the aesthetic power that generated those theatres across the country be consumed by the driving force of the need for permanence? Will the responsibilities of real estate development and management become master of the artistry? Or will theatre spaces become resources for the artists for which they were intended? These are central questions. And it is the artists themselves who have the power to reassert the movement’s original mission.
Benjamin Mordecai is managing director of Yale Repertory Theatre and co-chairman of Yale School of Drama’s department of theatre administration.
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