LOS ANGELES: One day in 2003, a fashion director/editor and performer named Terence McFarland finished a Suzuki training session with SITI Company near downtown L.A., changed from his workout clothes into a suit and tie, and walked to a job interview in a high-rise on Figueroa St. The position was the job of marketing director with LA Stage Alliance (LASA), a nonprofit organization comprised of, and designed to support and advocate for, the town’s big and small theatres.
McFarland landed the job, and not long after became LASA’s CEO, leading it through a decade-plus period of economic upheavals, new initiatives and a changing philanthropic landscape (he also got a theatre degree and did several more SITI workshops). When he left the job on April 30, McFarland ended a stint as the longest-serving Theatre L.A./LASA leader to date; his predecessors included William Freimuth, Alisa Fishbach, Lars Hansen and Lee Wochner. In June he’ll start his new job as associate executive director at Valley Performing Arts Center at California State University in Northridge.
We spoke with McFarland recently about his tenure and about the unique quandary of nurturing theatre in a sprawling film and TV town.
AMERICAN THEATRE: What did you expect when you took the job, and why leave it now?
TERENCE McFARLAND: I’m a bit of an odd fit; my background is in fashion and PR. I ended up accidentally at an arts service organization. I went back and got my theatre MFA at CalArts while I was here. The reason I went back to school, and the reason I’m leaving, is that while I’ve loved being part of an arts service organization, I’ve missed being close to making art—being there at that moment when the art and audience connect.
One of the things that’s been really eye-opening for me: I hadn’t realized how many accidental arts administrators there are—people who didn’t set out to run companies but are. So what we’ve wanted to do is raise the floor and build capacity for those folks. What we’re seeing is that there’s not enough time to build capacity at the pace that technology is changing, so we’ve tried to see what kinds of aggregations of services could happen.
For many years LASA was cooperating with the L.A. Times on group advertising, but that program ended. But we’ve looked for other ways for artistic leaders of these small companies to partner; the warehouse co-op, where they can share storage and rehearsal space, is an interesting example of that, though it’s still not paying for itself. We can help with basic accounting and nonprofit compliance. We need to look to a new version of a united arts fund—some entity that’s fundraising on behalf of entire community. Arts for L.A. does a good job at that, but they’re focused on municipal dollars. Were there to be a united campaign like that, might the reach be broader and supplement limited funding that small and midsized theatres get?
How has the L.A. theatre landscape changed during your tenure?
The biggest change is a lack of institutional support for the development of new work. There used to be Audrey Skirball-Kenis Theatre Projects, the labs at Center Theatre Group. EdgeFest morphed into the Hollywood Fringe Fest, kind of. But that piece is missing, and I think it’s a crucial component of the ecosystem that someone needs to address. This is not to say that new work isn’t developed—that actually happens here at various theatres. I’ve often said I would love to subscribe to the season that happens at Rehearsal Room A at the Taper Annex. But the broader institutional support isn’t there.
The other big shift I’ve seen in the last few years is a shift away in philanthropic support from “quality” and “excellence” to “engagement.” It used to be enough to put on your show and do your work, but not anymore. So this brings up a really interesting question when you’re talking about mission-based nonprofit companies. It will be up to those companies to clearly define who they’re serving. Once they say what their mission is, funders will say: To what end? Until they can articulate that to stakeholders, funders, it’s easy to fall into the culture of lack of support so present in our community. When the numbers are so small, it’s easy to be dismissed.
Here’s an eye-opening figure: There are more than 3,000 arts nonprofits in L.A., and the majority operate at $75,000 or less. That calls into question: What’s a business? What’s a professional? Because we’re a rich, robust diverse region, it’s a nuanced discussion.
Another thing that’s changed is that Kickstarter and crowdfunding and fiscal sponsorships have changed the dynamic, so that the public at large is donating to projects that may or may not be nonprofit. Now you can have an upstart company who, with crowdfunding or fiscal sponsorship, has the tools or means to put on their show without all the nonprofit aspects of business. In some ways the barriers to start have lowered.
What do you feel you’ve accomplished in your last 11 years on the job?
As an accidental arts administrator myself, I realized how tough it was for these folks to run companies on fumes, so we started training them. We realized that our strength revolved around aggregating. The annual Ovation Awards aggregate focus. Our ticket services have aggregated audiences.
The things I’m most proud of: One was that we took the big list, the mailing list shared by midsized and large organizations, and flipped that—we turned it from an arts census where 300 organizations share backend information on 350,000 households to 4 million unique households, one of the largest databases in the country. Yet the program wasn’t successful, because the smallest companies didn’t have time to learn the database. We created this amazing resource, but looking at usage, the only people still using it were midsized and large theatres. We thought: This is going to change everything, there will be full houses everywhere! But just because we’re giving them a tool didn’t mean we were giving them enough time to learn to use the tool. What will change the landscape so these administrators have more of the precious commodity of time? The answer is money.
Similarly, our largest philanthropic program was the launch of Patron Manager, a salesforce CRM. We were able to raise funds to provide it to 80-plus organizations in the region. Are they taking full advantage of it? No, but it’s technology that can help them with ticketing, donor development and marketing.
I’m proud also of being able to leave having just secured that Bill Bordy gift to bring back our online publication, L.A. Stage.
Another piece I’m proud of: When I inherited LASA, it was 98 percent earned income, from ticket service fees, the L.A. Times ad program, our company’s membership dues. As the lead grant writer, I’ve secured foundation support from Irvine, Duke, Mellon—I think we’re about 40 percent contributed to 60 percent earned.
It’s an odd time for L.A. theatre right now, with the current war between Actors Equity Association and the town’s small theatres.
I do have ideas of what LASA could be in a post-99-seat-war world. But what better moment for there to be new leadership of this arts organization than this one?
Did you anticipate this current battle?
We felt some rumblings, and that’s why we facilitated 42 meetings that led to the formation of the producers’ leagues. We knew it would get to a point where we couldn’t be part of the conversation, because we’re not a collective bargaining entity; so we worked to bring people together. I actually had to step in as a facilitator at one point in those meetings; I wasn’t the original facilitator. We did everything we could to bring our membership together to have these conversations. There have been assertions that my staff was colluding with Equity; as far as I knew that was not happening.
What do you mean by “rumblings”?
The same thing you must have heard when you were in L.A.: the poking fun at the $9-a-performance rate under the Equity 99-Seat Plan; those jokes were happening more frequently. It was all hearsay, but you could sense that the tide was turning, something was happening. We’re not positioned to be across the table in these conversations. Theatre L.A. and LASA were actually the result of a merger of he Los Angeles Theatre Alliance, a service organization founded in 1975, and the League of Producers and Theatres of Greater Los Angeles, a trade association founded in 1983. So we said, “Let’s do what we can to bring back a producers’ league.”
So the questions around quality and excellence and professionalism that we, as a service provider, can’t define—those conversations were heating up. What we felt was missing was categories beyond the umbrella of 99-seat; that’s too big to encompass everything that’s going in intimate theatre here.
One thing we’re working on right now: There are two consultants from Claremont University who are drilling down into two years’ worth of Cultural Data Project (CDP) data of the business models of 99-seat theatres, and they’re going to be able to point to different categories that have existed.
Right, many people wish that the Equity 99-seat battle had waited for that data to emerge. How do you feel about what’s going on?
I’ll say this: I’ve been heartened and emboldened by the new leaders that have been identified from within the community this time. As someone who has fought hard for this community for 11 years, and I’ve seen folks who’ve been fighting for decades longer than I have, it’s thrilling to see new leaders emerge who’ve been thoughtful, focused, can unify and speak about the issues and forward progress. It warms my heart.
You mean folks like Jeff Marlow, Rebecca Metz, Leo Marks.
How do you think this will shake out?
I know this community can be brilliant and savvy in navigating a tricky ecosystem, and I’m thrilled to see how they’ll navigate this, and what role of LA Stage Alliance will have in helping them thrive. But there’s going to be damage, and it’s going to be difficult for people to heal.
L.A.’s biggest challenge has always been, and will always be, our breadth. Geographically we’re a mega-region, and to think of us as a single community is tricky at best. As an alliance we deal with that. People are always reaching out to us to speak on behalf of the community and our membership, but there’s no singular approach or a single statement you can make.
Conversely, what’s amazing about L.A. is its diversity. In an attempt to heal after these 99-seat wars, it will fall to our communities to embrace the diversity and find the strengths in our commonality.
It’s been great. I’ve loved this job. There were always new challenges, new opportunities. There’s no lack of work to be done.