Last month’s issue reflected the profound effect that visiting international theatre artists and companies have had on the American theatre this year. We have had a taste of how, given time and money, resources can be galvanized to produce extraordinary results. Add to this the response by theatres to two National Endowment for the Arts initiatives—grants to assist Ongoing Ensembles and the continuing Challenge Grant program—and one senses an effort by theatres to try to extricate themselves from the show-by-show and season-by-season sensibility and to find ways to buy time so that work can be planned, developed and supported over an arc of time.
All of this came into focus when I recently saw the thoughtful and provocative brochure prepared by Washington’s Arena Stage for its endowment fund campaign. In it, producing director Zelda Fichandler writes, “Once we made the choice to produce our plays, not to recoup an investment but to recoup some corner of the universe for our understanding and enlargement, we entered into the same world as the university, the library, the museum, the church, and became, like them, an instrument of civilization.” The brochure describes what being an “instrument of civilization” requires and puts price tags on a number of essential artistic development programs: to develop new playwrights; to translate and produce new foreign plays; to fund “chairs” for resident directors, designers and composers; to provide scholarships for interns; to develop a training program for the acting company; to provide for additional rehearsal time; and myriad other categories to create adequate—not lavish—conditions. After 30 years in our nation’s capital, Arena Stage is still scrabbling simply to exist; the same is true for theatres throughout the country. We have developed a great many producing entities, but we have not yet been able to forge instruments of civilization.
Money alone is never going to produce art, any more than money can “buy” winning baseball teams. But money does buy the tools that are essential, and it buys the “farm system” that baseball teams maintain for their development. Arena’s endowment brochure lists the components necessary for “farming,” the tools one must have if research and development are the goal rather than simply a marketing phrase.
Last spring, I discussed with Gordon Davidson, when he was helping select international productions for the Olympic Festival, the fact that choices and commitments could be made—over a year in advance—because the theatres were functioning as companies and maintaining a repertoire. Looking in this issue at the annual nationwide Season Schedules section, it’s significant how few instances we see of theatres with an accumulated body of work in their current rep. The ability to retain—and maintain—major productions is only possible when theatres can support actors over a sustained period of time, just as orchestras and dance companies support their artists. And not merely a handful of actors but a company of actors.
When the nonprofit theatres were being established, virtually all envisioned they would be operating in repertory rather than in successive “runs.” It was acknowledged that this mode of operation would require more actors as well as extended rehearsal periods. Of course it would be expensive. More important, it could no more be paid for solely from ticket income than the cost of operating symphony orchestras or opera companies could be covered by the box office. In our efforts to stay alive, have we lost sight of our dreams?
Arts Endowment chairman Frank Hodsoll wrote perceptively about “artistic deficit” in his recent five-year plan, raising the concern “that financial stability is being achieved at the expense of the art form.” He is absolutely right; artistic deficits need to be redressed.
Our theatres are only the kazoos of civilization today. To transform them into Zelda Fichandler’s full-fledged instruments, we need to structure them so that they can plan and develop organically. Just as libraries and museums have endowments to function effectively, so do theatres need the same protection.
Reliance solely on the box office is not much different from being a commercial enterprise; fortunes rise and fall according to the taste of the marketplace. Yet annual dependence on charitable contributions for too great a proportion of our income has often proved unpredictable, and at times disastrous. A major, reliable source of ongoing income that theatres control themselves is essential. While development of endowment funds is initially very costly, once in existence, they would allow our theatres to capitalize on the foundation that has been laid over the past 20 years.
Arena Stage’s goal is to establish an endowment of $6 million. Were this money to be found immediately, and the endowment made operational, it still would not provide the resources that Ariane Mouchkine’s Théâtre du Soleil, Giorgio Strehler’s Piccolo Teatro di Milano and other foreign companies have had in place for many years. Nonprofit theatre companies were unknown in the U.S. a short time ago. Institutions capable of collectively developing “A Theatre” for America now need to develop from what is presently a bare framework. We need to put the issue of artistic deficits, so clearly enunciated by Mr. Hodsoll, into perspective and recognize that all instruments of civilization require appropriate support. And through the establishment of endowments we can possibly gain some measure of control over our own future.
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