EVEN WITH A WEALTH OF POTENTIAL BENEFITS ON BOTH sides, the not-for-profit world and the commercial sector have two different missions at their core: the nonprofit to nourish art and serve a community, and the commercial producer to make money for investors. What’s more, commercial producers see a project as their baby, while for a nonprofit with multiple shows on the season slate, it’s just one child in a family of four or six or eight.
It’s enough to make any relationship thorny.
All agree that problems arise when the goals of the nonprofit and the producer don’t align for the project on which they’ve partnered. “It’s different every single time, and every one of these partnerships is like a marriage,” says Christopher Ashley, the La Jolla Playhouse artistic director whose first production at the San Diego theatre was Memphis, which went on to have a Tony-winning run. “You have to figure out the expectations upfront. The marriage vows need to be very clear.”
Nonprofits must retain ultimate control of a project while it’s under their auspices, not just as a matter of integrity but also as a legal requirement of nonprofit status. “But it’s naïve to think that a commercial producer won’t have some kind of input,” warns Roche Schulfer, longtime executive director at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. “That’s being a co-producer.”
Hal Luftig, the Kinky Boots producer who enhanced the Old Globe’s recent production of the Jeff Buckley musical The Last Goodbye, makes it a point to tread carefully in the territory of a long-established organization with its own ecosystem, community and politics. “When I take a show to a regional, I always say to my team, ‘You are a guest in someone’s home,’” he says.
There can be serious pitfalls to such arrangements. For a not-for-profit, one of the worst-case scenarios involves making a deal with a producer and moving forward on a production only to have the money fall through on the commercial end at the last minute.
Barry Edelstein, the artistic director of the Old Globe, faced the commercial collapse of The Honeymooners, which had been scheduled to premiere at the theatre in the fall of 2013. “That left me in an unbelievable jam three months into the job,” he grouses.
His only option was to find a production on a similar scale and with a corresponding commercial potential, which is where Last Goodbye came in. “The business model of this theatre depends on a certain number of shows selling an enormous amount of tickets,” he says.
It’s a bind, Edelstein admits, but it’s one that’s rooted in the theatre’s longstanding tradition of producing musicals. “There’s an audience in San Diego for high-quality, lushly produced musical theatre. I can’t say, ‘No more commercially produced musicals,’ because my audience would abandon me.”
The predicament that so many in the nonprofit realm fear is of getting to the point where the theatre’s survival relies on commercial money. Managing directors do all they can to ward off that kind of codependence.
Every nonprofit leader contends, at least publicly, that they never budget an “enhancement slot” into a season’s budget. In addition, an extremely conservative estimate of commercial revenue is usually figured into the bottom line, even at a theatre like ART, with three shows on Broadway at once.
“I tell people, ‘This is not the norm! It’s all cyclical!’” says Billy Russo, ART’s managing director. He knows from experience. He was executive director at New York Theatre Workshop as Rent wound down its Broadway run.
“Suddenly we knew Rent was going to go away, and it was a big adjustment to make,” he recalls. “We had to prioritize. What’s most important? What needs to go on hold?”
Projects that are the servant of two masters, one nonprofit and one commercial, can also suffer during the creative process. “The challenge can be keeping the artists in the room, and making sure they don’t turn like little sunflowers toward New York,” says Arena Stage artistic director Molly Smith.
For most artists, the trick lies in not thinking about it. “Every producing entity has their own way that’s right for them, and I can’t think about it too much,” says Jeanine Tesori, the songwriter whose work runs from not-for-profit outings Fun Home and Violet (revived by the Roundabout this spring) to commercial titles like Shrek the Musical. “Everything I’ve done has given me things to put in my tackle box, artistically. For me, it’s all about getting the needs of the piece met.”
“When you’re working on a $20-million musical, there’s no denying there’s considerable pressure for it to be a hit,” says Robert Falls, artistic director at the Goodman, whose commercial projects have included Aida. “That can be energizing, but as a director, I have to approach the work the same way as I would if I were directing something for my home audience at the Goodman.”
Not-for-profits can’t begrudge artists their commercial paychecks, since that money usually represents a major step up from resident-theatre wages that are, to hear nonprofit leaders like Eustis tell it, unconscionably low. “If they want to make a living in the theatre, artists need an advocate beyond a show’s initial run to create value for the show,” says Kevin McCollum, the producer of Rent, Avenue Q and Motown and a former exec at Minneapolis’s nonprofit Ordway Center. “That’s my job as a commercial producer—to create value for the author.”
But some argue that the minute the carrot of commercial success is dangled in front of an artist, the work shifts.
“It does change your writing a lot to know you have to swing for a fence that’s much farther away,” says composer Brown. “A commercial piece of theatre has to serve the money somewhere, and you write differently when you’re there to serve the money. There’s a Broadway aesthetic, just as there’s a Steppenwolf aesthetic and a Goodman aesthetic and a Guthrie aesthetic.”
Negotiating the profits and the pitfalls of the nonprofit-commercial exchange is the price of doing business these days, according to many in the field. The controversies are so hard to resolve in part because the ultimate decision to program a work is an entirely subjective one.
“I have little anxiety about anything in our season as long as I can, with a truthful, straight face, say, ‘I want you to come to this show because I believe it’s a good show and it’s an important show,’” says La Jolla’s Ashley. “When I can’t say that is when I would have trouble sleeping at night.”
“Choosing plays is a matter of conscience,” agrees longtime director and producer Gregory Mosher. “Only the person choosing the plays knows for sure whether he or she chose it because there was something about the world right now that made the play valuable and worthy of artistic expression, or whether he or she had a hunch it would sell a lot of tickets.”
With the nonprofit-commercial interplay as entrenched as it is, resident theatres can look to peers for best practices to see how other theaters manage to benefit from commercial revenue without depending on it.
Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company found itself significantly enriched by the success of Tracy Letts’s August: Osage County, but leaders Martha Lavey and David Hawkanson refused to spend the windfall on day-to-day operating debts. “We put all of that money aside and created an enhancement fund so we could, on our own, produce larger productions like August was,” says Hawkanson. He lists Frank Galati’s The March, Letts’s adaptation of Three Sisters and Zinnie Harris’s The Wheel as shows that have since benefitted from the surplus.
Nonprofit leaders, worried about the increasing focus on commercial success, have proposed pushing for new definitions of success outside the parameters of a Broadway splash. But for now, absent alternative markers of achievement and sufficient government subsidization, partnerships with the commercial world must be done to survive, most agree.
But not all do. “Everybody always says, ‘You have to do this,’ but you don’t have to do anything,” opines Carey Perloff, artistic director at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater, which in recent years has largely eschewed commercial partnerships in favor of pooling resources in not-for-profit co-productions. “We are the leaders of this field. We can do something else, if we want to.”
Until the theatre industry figures out what that something else is, the debate looks destined to rage on.
“It’s irresolvable,” Brustein concedes. “But the fact of the debate is important. The worst thing would be if we all just accepted it without examining and investigating it and challenging it.”
“My board, my audience, the critic in the San Diego Union-Tribune, all of them will keep my feet to the fire about what I’m doing,” says Edelstein from the Old Globe. “And that’s exactly how it should be.”
Gordon Cox is the legit theatre editor at Variety.
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