When did being pro-artist make one anti-institution?

I attended the Theatre Communications Group conference in Boston a couple weeks ago. On the first day of the conference Michael Maso, managing director of the Huntington Theatre, was presented with an award recognizing his contributions to the American theater. Towards the end of a humorous and lovely acceptance speech, Maso switched gears and used the opportunity to share thoughts on those that would question the priorities and processes of large institutional theaters. He said:

Over the next few days we will be engaged in an exploration of new ways to sustain our movement. I wholly endorse that exploration. We need new ideas. But we must not forget that this movement is one of the great success stories in the history of American theater. […] Our job, each in our own way, is to empower artists to make great art and to share it as widely as possible. And in that fundamental task our theater has not failed America. I’m not arguing for complacency. I believe that we can more fully integrate artists into our institutional lives. I believe that we can expand our audiences so that we’re serving more of our citizens, not just those that can afford dynamic prices. But I will admit my impatience with critics of our theaters, who seem determined to drive a wedge between individual artists and institutions. I hope over the next few days, and in the conversations that should follow for years to come, we can resist finger-pointing and ideological purity. Real conversations require a foundation of mutual respect and understanding. And fundamentalism is just as dangerous in the theater as it is in religion or on the Supreme Court.

So I am here to confess. My name is Michael and I run a large institutional theater. Yes, we built new spaces with multiple performance halls in order to produce new plays and create programs for local playwrights and provide first class facilities to other local theaters. Yes, we sell tickets to get an audience. Yes, we raise money because tickets alone don’t pay the bills. Yes, all of that takes people. Does that make us overstuffed bureaucracies? Bullshit!

The first thing that popped into my mind when I heard Maso’s lament was a TED talk by Clay Shirky, “Institutions versus Collaboration,” in which he remarks that institutions hate being told they are obstacles and that when an institution is told it is an obstacle it generally goes through something like Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief over dying: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance.

It would appear Maso is somewhere between stage one and stage two.

Second, I wondered “Who are the ideological purists and fundamentalists to which Maso is referring?” These terms are loaded. Perhaps they were chosen for dramatic effect but, having chosen to use them, Maso might have given a few examples.

Third, I shook my head when I heard the phrase “determined to drive a wedge between artists and institutions.” I don’t even understand this idea. I see many people trying to encourage institutions to make deeper commitments to artists and bring them further into the institution. Are these the dangerous, fundamentalist, wedge-drivers to which Maso is referring?

With rare exception, artists (in this instance meaning writers, actors, directors, and often designers) are not generally part of the institution (meaning resident theaters). Administrators, marketers, and development staff have a home. Production and technical staff have a home. Literary managers and dramaturgs have a home. But artists are not part of the institution. They are jobbed in as needed and then sent home to live their precarious lives, unattached (in every sense of the word) to theater institutions.

How does one drive a wedge between two things that are not attached?

The artistic director of a large institutional theater referred to me as “pro-artist” a few years back. It was meant to be a derogatory comment. When did being “pro-artist” make one an enemy of resident theaters? When did large theater institutions begin to see their own interests as threatened by the interests of artists? And do we think this is a positive development for the American theater?

I find it disturbing that those that have attempted to shine a light on the needs of artists and the fact that those working in institutions have fared rather well relative to the artists they employ over the past thirty years, are now seen as divisive.

When I write about artists like Ethan Lipton, who has had to work a day job his entire life to continue working as an artist, I’m not trying to drive a wedge. I’m asking what I believe are quite legitimate questions—Can we do more for artists? Can we rethink where the money goes? Have we prioritized buildings over art and artists? Have those with access to the budgets and the board looked out rather well for their own welfare and fought not quite as hard for the welfare of artists?

And yes, I am specifically challenging large institutions—which own large buildings and have large staffs—to do more for artists and to take more artistic risks. The primary goal of the institution is to self preserve. And as institutions grow they become increasingly risk averse. This is not an American theater problem. This is the nature of institutions. It is a pattern one sees over and over again in industry after industry. Does the American theater think it is immune to such things?

It’s not.

I will continue to ask questions about where the money goes and whether more of it can go towards the art and the artists.

I am not trying to drive a wedge.

I’m trying to ask what I believe are important questions.

And I welcome responses. I welcome debate. I welcome the opportunity to sit around a table and break bread and talk about the financial challenges of the American theater.

I agree with Michael Maso that we should be respectful of each other—which is why I won’t call bullshit on Michael Maso. I will simply say, “I hear you.”

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  1. says

    I see this undercurrent as evidence of a classic economics problem. It boils down to a pervasive mistrust and confusion over who controls the means of production. Very literally, any institution controls the individuals who do the work. That’s true for sports teams, automobile manufacturers or theatres.
    Since there can be no full communication among people with unequal power, it’s a short hop to a us vs them mentality. I imagine salary disparities are widening. What’s the avg salary for actors compared to avg salaries for development directors, etc.
    You are right to keep asking questions. Artists need the support of audiences and essayists every bit as much as the orgs that showcase and present them. It’s good to remember where art originates. And that’s with the artist.

  2. says

    Thank you for this, Diane. Your observation about those who have an institutional home and those who do not is poignantly accurate. In that sense, I have recently become artistically homeless. Traveling Jewish theater, the company I found 34 years ago recently closed. I was among a fortunate minority of artists in this country who was able to build a home, though it was only large enough to accommodate a few artists as well as a few administrators. The sad part is that in the years leading up to our decision to finally close down, it seemed as if we were being punished for our commitment to be a home for artists. Some foundations and consultants implied and sometimes said straight out that to attempt to have artists at the center of the company and pay them a living wage was frivolous, unrealistic and irresponsible. Perhaps. But as economic conditions forced us to change that basic aspect of our identity, it became harder and harder for us to accomplish our mission of creating and presenting original work. When we recognized that the only way to even have a chance of surviving was to become one more theater producing plays that could just easily be done by a host of other companies, we saw no reason to continue. On May 14, this year, we held a final farewell event. A few hundred people came to bear witness to the meaning and impact of 34 years of artistic creation. They made it clear that the home we had made was larger than it appeared. The intense feelings that evening inspired are still with me. I find myself asking many the same questions about the future community, the economy, cultural change that you pose on this blog. But having at home for 34 years, I find that rather than feeling homeless at this moment, my sense of home has expanded. In my decades as part of a collaborating ensemble, I learned to become comfortable with not knowing what comes next and recognized it as the vital starting place of creativity. For all this, I am grateful beyond words.

  3. says

    Arlene Goldbarb emailed me a comment to post as Word Press seemed to be having some issue posting her comment. Here it is (thanks, Arlene):

    Nice, Diane. It’s irresistible to point out the comparison with big business spokespeople who, when questions of workers’ economic and social conditions come onto the table, cry “Class warfare?” (i.e., driving a wedge).

    Whatever else it means, it bespeaks a view in which the current order of things is natural and right, and anything that might change the balance a little amounts to overturning nature. What I find so interesting is that this charge seems to set the terms of debate. Of course you aren’t “driving a wedge.” You don’t even have to answer that silly charge (does the person making it imagine that artists have no feelings on these questions until someone like you challenges the status quo? To me, the best reply is to look deeply at the fact that the charge is being made, by whom, and what that serves. Cui bono: always a good question, hm?

  4. Laurie McCants says

    Thanks, Diane (and Margot and Corey and Arlene). I, too, was a bit perturbed by Michael Maso’s wedge-driving language, but I shrugged it off as maybe mostly pointing a finger at Mike Daisey’s “How Theatre Failed America”, a monologue I found amusing but highly selective. Mike made no mention in that monologue of the many ensembles and community-based theatres that are doing great artist-centered work. all over our nation. And I have no basis to judge his criticism of large institutions, because I really don’t know anything about how large institutions work. I’ve never worked in one. I’ve worked all my professional life in a small ensemble in a small town, where I’ve been employed full-time and felt fully-supported by my fellow artists, my administration, and my audience. It saddened me to read Corey’s story about Traveling Jewish Theatre being pressured by funders, consultants, and economic conditions to forsake their mission of providing their artists a home and a living wage. I hope that what is evolving now in our field and amongst our funders is the recognition that institutionalizing is not the only way to go. Don’t get me wrong. I’m very grateful to our larger institutions for breaking ground and hanging in there– especially those who provide a home and a living wage for their resident artists. And my own theatre is its own small institution. But as the great diversity (ethnic, geographic, economic) at the TCG gathering should make clear, great theatre comes in all kinds of packages, and big is not necessarily better.

    • says

      I appreciate the deeply felt and well-thought posts here. Yes, Laurie, many have been saddened by TJT’s closing among other theatres that have recently ended. But I agree with Jeremy about the need to recognize when organizations — and not just the big ones — are ready to, er, unmanifest. In our case, sure, economics were the proximate cause of the closing, but other factors existed too. In the end, we could no longer do the work we existed to do within the organizational model of the small-non-profit-theatre. The cultural eco-system that existed in 1978 is now gone. (A big part of it for us was the NEA’s pre-culture-wars robustness. Anyone remember their “Advancement” and “Challenge” grants? Or the NEA funding of state arts councils that, at least in California, subsidized touring fees which allowed the larger university and community arts presentors to book at least a couple of less commercial, riskier, newer, groups or individuals every year?) Can we talk about an ecosystem in this context today? Is one emerging? I heartened that these questions are being asked here.

      I’ve been quoting Harold Clurman a lot these days. It’s actually my paraphrase of his words at the end of my play, In the Maze of Our Own Lives, based on the Group Theatre’s story. It was our second-to-last production:

      “Someday the accountants are going to look back at what we did and try to come up with a balance sheet for The Group Theatre. Success. Failure. Screw ‘em.

      An impulse moved through us and it changed America.

      If it’s finished with us, it might be a relief.

      But if that impulse — that passion to tell the forgotten stories — dies out, then it’s a gaping goddamn wound – a fatal wound – in the American soul. “

  5. Dominick Balletta says

    Interesting time to be having these conversations – check out the discussion between Michael Kaiser and Adam Huttler going on right now http://www.fracturedatlas.org/site/blog/2012/06/29/new-models-redux/
    Many things could stand to be improved on both sides (artists learning how to create within the confines of an organization that relies on five-six 8 week slots annually as its models and organizations learning that your most creative artists can’t create new work on demand), but there needs to be a realistic conversation about what each side brings to the table.

  6. says

    Agreed–a fantastic response. The relationship between artists and institutions is complicated, if for no other reason than Diane’s point that “those working in institutions have fared rather well relative to the artists they employ over the past thirty years” That’s the key. I don’t doubt the commitment of arts administrators to the form and the artists they serve, but it’s also true that for the administrators, the continued existence of the institution becomes the primary goal. I’ve written skeptically about institutions in the past, not because I consider myself an enemy of them, but because I think that the value of an institution is primarily how well it performs its mission to support the art. Some institutions do, eventually, seem to outlive their usefulness (I think the Intiman in Seattle, as it previously existed, was a fine fine example–it needed to go, not to be saved). That’s a very important consideration, and one arts administrators aren’t always able to make themselves.

  7. says

    At the same time you have to ask if the institutions are serving artists either as individuals or as communities.

    I volunteered at the TCG conference and was quite struck by how TCG had (perhaps unwittingly) driven a wedge between themselves and a.) the local Boston theatre community that was hosting them; and b.) the low-to-moderate income artists who were only able to attend as volunteers. For all the talk about “inclusion” there were many needless displays of class and institutional privilege that were perpetuated by TCG policy:

    #OccupyTCG or How I Finally Discovered the Utility of Twitter, Part 1

  8. Mark Lord says

    Thanks. I’ll file this under Why I Don’t Go to TCG.

    Pretty clearly whatever “wedge-driving” occurred happened a long time ago when it was decided that some people need to be paid middle class salaries (The Staff) and some people (The Artists) don’t. Any honest person who has ever worked at one of these theaters will admit that their primary reason for being is to guarantee that the institution can make payday for The Staff and that all other considerations and activity are subservient to that. I’m not shocked or appalled that that’s the case. But I’d pause before I referred to this structure as “one of the great success stories in the history of American theater.”

  9. Leonard Jacobs says


    Michael is a nice man, but sometimes when people’s egos are threatened, they use verbal and rhetorical gymnastics to obfuscate the fact that they take these criticisms personally, which is an unfortunate but consistent byproduct of the horrible slog a person has to go through just to rise to one of those leadership positions. The Michael Masos of the world believe, moreover, that they’re always deepening the relationship and commitment between their institutions and artists; their standard go-to when a critique is leveled is to respond, as he seems to, that the person making the critique doesn’t know enough about how institutions work or doesn’t have all the “facts” or doesn’t get it, which is why Mike Daisey is such a threat.

    In this sense, then, the Michael Masos of our world are not unlike politicians, whose job is to deflect criticism and try to “lead,” whatever that means. It takes a really courageous person to actually listen to critiques without internalizing them — which is also why, by the way, Ian Thal makes his point in the comment you published up above. TCG, of all theatre-related institutions, should set the example and the standard for the field, not be the exemplar of artist aparteid. Indeed, you can’t expect the Michael Masos of the world not to lash out, hit back or warn about a “wedge” when the national service organization to which his institution pays hefty dues is itself doing just that.

    Thank you for your post — you’re quite right. I’d merely caution to see Michael Masos commentary for what it is: a symptom of a larger problem, not the problem in and of itself.

  10. says


    I literally nodded in agreement through your whole post. My own response to Michael Maso’s comments “not arguing for complacency” was two-fold. On the one hand, I’m sure he believes in the work his theatre is presenting. On the other, that theatre and the many others like it are no longer — let’s face it — non-profit institutions in the sense that they were when established 30 or 40 years ago. Granted, those theatres’ leaders are not pulling in seven-figure salaries (plus bonuses) like their big business contemporaries do, but they certainly are making well above $100,000 a year and in some cases over $200,000. While I don’t begrudge them their incomes, we live in a culture that does not even acknowledge the work of artists as a necessary part of it. I don’t see that changing at the instituional theatre level, where the daily staff make a living working on the few plays selected for production each year. This problem is much bigger than they are.

    Meanwhile, those lucky few of us who’ve managed to land tenure-track positions at colleges and universities can continue writing the plays we want to write and stubbornly put them on ourselves aside from the occasional production at a “large institutional theatre” or an intrepid, albeit endangered, smaller one.

  11. John Frisbee says

    Institutions and “institutionality” aren’t the problem, really – at least not in and of themselves. At some point, though, the imperatives of the nonprofit model led us to start thinking – and telling everyone else – that the institutions were more important than the art being presented. This led to a long series of financial, marketing, and messaging decisions being made, decisions that in the long run didn’t benefit artists (or, in the long run, audiences.)

    The only way that institutional arts organizations are going to start really relating to artists again is if 1) we begin to accept a common set of ethical parameters as the basis for running our institutions, parameters that START with “this institution should be a home for art and artists” and 2) we develop a healthy level of self-awareness and self-criticism based on these parameters – instead of a sense of rah-rah about the never-ending progress and success stories of our sector.

    To put it another way: shouldn’t there be some peer-led movement toward humility amongst administrators (and I’m one of them, incidentally)? I don’t think it’s a bad thing, every once in a while, to say to yourself: “You. Are. Not. The. Point.” (To be somewhat blunt about it.) And THEN make some decisions for your organization based on that.

    • says

      This comment makes such plain sense that in my farmer days my parents would have called it “horse sense”. Primarily, you have offered that part of the lifeblood of the healthy institution is self-awareness and self-criticism. This is precisely the thing that is foreclosed by the skittishness of the conversation at the top these days– or if not foreclosed then drowned out by the rah-rah and the talking points. Humility, yes. Ethics, yes. Empathy, yes please. And a reminder that we, none of us– not even the artists– IS. THE. POINT.

      Here’s Zelda Fichandler in the early days of this movement, testifying before Congress on behalf of the attempt to extend non-profit status to American theaters:

      “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 the same world as the university, the museum, the church and became, like them, an instrument of civilization.”

      I think, perhaps, “recouping some corner of the universe for our understanding and enlargement” might be the point. Or closer to it, at any rate. Perhaps our ethical statements could start with that premise? And then, given your institution’s role as an instrument of civilization, and the resources under your stewardship, what is the best that can be done today with those resources to reclaim or protect some corner of our universe for understanding and enlargement?

  12. says

    The lack of established, institutionalized voices for artists–ones that cross discipline lines–has always been with us. There are local examples (NYFA comes to mind), and at one point NAOA (National Association of Originating Artists) seemed to play a larger role than it does now. The unions have their roles. Americans for the Arts is focused on advocacy and public relations/support for the arts but leaves the advancement of institutions to the other national service organization. So where does that leave individual artists?

    Since the service organization world seems destined to forever be divided into disciplines–perhaps the path should be to more deliberately and fully integrate the needs of artists into the missions of these groups. MOST are dominated by their large budget members–which is the case of ANY association, profit or non-profit. Which makes sense because the larger institutions have infrastructure (websites, event planners, secretaries!) and time to attend meetings. With no support, individual artists have a difficult time crafting a unified voice.

    This dilemma crops up over and over again. The very people that make the cultural trains run are most likely to get left out of the engine room. Ideas?

  13. says

    Friends, perhaps Mr. Masso is responding more directly to Todd London’s study, Outrageous Fortune, than to Mike Daisey’s insightful rant (a show I liked 10 times better than the Steve jobs piece). Scarcity breeds struggle: see Karl Marx. And there is scarcity out there, where we find ourselves competing against each other for audience, donors, recognition. I stopped writing plays for an entire year after reading Outrageous Fortune.

    The only way I can deal with it as a playwright, is to not get sucked into the vortex. Let other people fume about what we can’t get. I have to focus on what is available to me. If the Huntington becomes available to me, happy day! But if it does not become available to me, then I can either curse the darkness or light candles. Much happier lighting candles. And most of the time, the candles are plays, plays that nobody can prevent me from writing.

  14. says

    I’ve always been one for lighting candles. Cursing the darkness gets old fast. But I don’t think that Diane’s original post in this thread, nor many of the replies are doing that. As I understand it, the original impulses that gave rise to TCG and the regional/resident movement were all about lighting candles rather than cursing the scarcity of any real alternatives to New York for serious theatre work. More recently, NET (the Network of Ensemble Theatres) was born out of the difficulties many ensembles — usually smaller, artist-run companies creating as well as producing theatre — were having in feeling heard within TCG. NET began with a handful of groups and has grown to over a hundred last time I checked, (I haven’t been keeping up as well as I’d like to.) Making theatre, forming alliances, inventing ways to get it done rather than waiting for some imprimatur from on high that we’ve been told we must have is a long and honorable tradition. At the same time though, I believe that responding to Maso or, to Michael Kaiser, as Adam Huttler has been doing on the Fractured Atlas blog is vital. It’s hard for artists’ to find the time to not only light our candles and get the work done, but to also articulate why it has value, what it brings to the culture, why we need to get paid a living wage, and on and on. So when people like Diane Ragsdale, Adam Huttler and other in these parts are able to eloquently give voice to these concerns, I am grateful and inspired. Simply to be reminded that I am not alone in a country that has always been suspicious of “art,” is a step toward reframing the narrative that tells us that art is a luxury and artists are children in need of parental discipline

  15. says

    As a result of your article, Diane, I am mulling over just what the class issues are in American theatre — not plays or theatre about class, but the class dynamics underlying the non-profit theatre itself and the institutions that support it. Not just about race or gender or age (though it’s certainly about these), but certainly about money too — and more, the entire social construct of its operation, from going to the right schools and getting the right degrees; having the right family and professional connections, participating in nepotism; when it’s “right” to criticize and when to be silent; dealing with internal and external criticism; transparency; and having the resources to support a life in the theatre. And how all of these determine what is presented and represented on American stages, and what is not.

    I would like to see the culture and institutions that are responsible for this situation admit, publicly, that there is a problem. My understanding is that they are aware of it internally, and discuss it in hallways and offices, but the lack of public acknowledgement of these issues, and the reluctance to engage in debate with outsiders about these issues, makes it very difficult to believe that this status quo will change any time soon. These institutions and the individuals who lead them have a vested interest in maintaining the current structure, for the well-being of their institutions and their continued employment. Some artists — who are the victims of this class dysfunction — ironically pay lip service and defend these institutions in the interests of currying some future status in that very same system.

    This is not true across the board. On the very basic level of executive compensation — such a red-button issue in the current economic climate — some are modest and some are doing quite well, as a few hours with the Guidestar database of Form 990s, submitted to the IRS and a matter of public record, attests.

    What do they talk about in those hallways and offices, I wonder? And are they right? Deeper discussions of this from the outsiders’ perspective — those not represented by TCG or the Howlround folks — are hampered by our lack of knowledge about this internal dialogue. So the first step is to make it external. Only in this way can misunderstandings about the extent of this class system be avoided. If we are to have new models, and that’s all anybody seems to talk about these days, they should include dialogue with outsiders as well as approaches to fundraising. Otherwise the academic/institutional complex that determines so much of what appears on American stages will have no real reason to change.

    • says

      A lot of these issues were discussed at length in the Todd London book Outrageous Fortune, published by TCG a couple of years ago. Everybody should read it; a good number of playwrights have read it.

  16. says

    Before I launch into this, let’s be clear. Michael Maso and the Huntington have many highlights to point to in their work to show that they have done good on behalf of artists. Their Playwright Fellowship program is a great model that could easily be replicated at sister institutions, for starters. So I don’t want to generalize here and call bullshit on Mr. Maso’s whole body of work any more than I appreciate his doing it to people like me who are, at times, publicly critical of the current state of the field.

    I do not believe that the field is so fragile and in such peril that we cannot survive open, vigorous, and rigorous debate about the very same questions so widely debated in the culture at large: the unprecedented imbalance in the distribution of resources; the evolving effectiveness of legacy models in light of the pace of change in the world; the burgeoning democratization of access to the conversation; the radical lurch of the Supreme Court in equating the corporation to the individual; the unchecked triumphalism of the market; the capture of the commonweal for private gain. Can our official position as a field really be that all of those questions and upheavals are irrelevant to the American theater, or, “bullshit”? It seems that Mr. Maso had the uncomfortable task, being that he was given the microphone, of establishing a theme for the conference on behalf of the “big theaters” against the non-specific wedge-drivers who would question these institutions’ benevolence, effectiveness, openness or what have you, toward artists. And, in the summary of the conference prepared by Theresa Eyring, Executive Director of TCG, in which the new vision statement of our national membership organization is unveiled we hear the theme repeated: “This vision statement rejects the counterproductive dichotomy often made between theatre institutions and individuals.” The discourse itself , apparently, is “counterproductive.” Nicer, perhaps, than “bullshit”, but a threat. Mr. Dowling of the Guthrie, in responding to criticisms about the announcement of the 50th anniversary mainstage season, used a cousin of that word when he told the Minneapolis Public Radio interviewer ” this kind of – it’s mostly been conducted in social media – this kind of drip drip drip of complaints about the Guthrie – I’m not certain that it’s constructive.” And then there’s Michael Kaiser’s echoing of the criticism of the Occupy Wall Street folks: if you can’t tell us what you would replace this model with you have no right to question it. I picture him, perhaps unfairly, super-imposed in the photo of the young lions of Wall Street sipping champagne from their balcony overlooking the protests.

    Listen, I am not sure I would be bothered by this flurry at all if these were just coincident but isolated examples of defensive posturing from a handful of individual leaders reacting to being personally stung by the conversation. It can get brutal in the social media world, don’t I know it! (And thank you, Gus Schulenberg, for the very centered reminder about bullying in the blogosphere this week: http://augustschulenburg.wordpress.com/). There are parts of both Ms. Eyring’s statement and Mr. Maso’s statement that I agree with– to wit, that many of the people caught up in the “broad generalizations” they are talking about are genuinely doing important work to advance both the discussion and the outcome. That cuts both ways, though, and people like you Diane, and Adam Huttler, and Todd London, and Polly Carl, and others are equally doing important work, in large part because of these questions. But these “bullshit broadsides” are not isolated, coincidental examples of recent attempts to deride or foreclose conversation. And stringing them together like this is not simply a case of constructing some bogeyman where there is none. At a TCG Town Hall a couple of seasons back a manager of a leading regional theater aggressively confronted the moderator (a well known theater writer who frequently asks questions in her online writing) about her framing of the gathering “driving a wedge” between artists and administrators and challenging her right to convene the meeting. This was a TCG initiative, these were TCG’s guideline questions and he was a sitting member of the Board. The conversations had been happily, and apparently constructively, taking place all over the country. Why the public bullying of this moderator if it was convened as part of a field-wide initiative led by an organization he was part of? In what sense was she not qualified to convene it? By virtue of her thoughtful and probing presence on line? Around that same time, in a letter from a spokesperson for these same institutions, written to the Chairman of the NEA no less, I was specifically called out as “silly” and “unqualified” to be a spokesperson on issues in the New Play sector and a list of approved leaders was helpfully included. I was later warned by field leaders that to speak of that publicly would jeopardize the non-profit theater in a high risk climate. Following the “Scarcity to Abundance” convening of the New Play Institute, an invite-only meeting at the NEA that was called by the same tiny group of leaders in the field aimed to close down the discussion channels in the realm of social media in the name of protecting the field from unwieldy criticism (though inviting Theater Ideas blogger Scott Walters resulted in the effort being made public:http://www.arts.gov/artworks/?p=6017). I resist names here simply because I don’t want to believe it is personal, but perhaps it is. I think better of my calling and of my colleagues than that, in general, and remain confident we are stronger as a whole than these individuals fear we are.

    To Corey: I am really glad to see you here and to be able to share in some of what you are thinking in the post-TJT era. And so glad you find it centering to be engaging in this way. Say more– and say it more often. Glad, too, to be reminded of Clurman– our history goes back further than the regional theater movement and comes in many different guises (I can’t help but wonder what the firebrands of the Federal Theater Project would think of all of this hand wringing about dissenting opinion…)

    To George: I hear your questions about the mysteries inside the walls of the institutions. It’s a thing we’ve been working on around the #newplay discussion—transparency. So, here: what we, (and it is “we” because I am still the salaried employee of an institution), what we talk about in the hallways and at the water coolers is largely this same stuff—there are people in every organization asking the questions about efficacy and access and artistic homes. And we debate them, often passionately. And yes, sometimes the artistic priorities lose out to the financial realities of keeping the lights on and meeting payroll. And we wonder—sometimes out loud– is that the right outcome? And sometimes the primary concern of our discussions is the security and welfare of our staff, not of the artists nor of the community we are chartered to serve. And we have different opinions about that. But somehow, all we are comfortable presenting to the world are “institutional talking points”– what John Frisbee called above “the rah-rah”– that say that this institutional model is absolutely the best model for achieving the full potential of theater that can possibly exist– has been since the start of “our movement” and ever shall be, no matter the changing social context of our work– and anyone who says otherwise is bullshit.

    • says

      So good to “hear” your voice in this discussion, David and thanks for the shout-out. To pick up your theme of the dangers of over-generalizing, I wonder if there are any examples of some of the “big institutions” undergoing any sort of transformation in response to our changing world. I’m aware that certain ones have, for the last few years, been led by people who have come up through the ensemble/alternate/activist world (Bill Rauch and Oskar Eustis come to mind.) Have been able to bring anything new to the table? I imagine that’s what you were/are trying to do, though I’m not up to speed on the organizational changes a while ago at the Arena. I did know about season of guest runs by smaller DC companies at the Arena last year — didn’t you curate that? From way out here, that appeared to be a move in the right direction. I also wonder if NET has been able to have any “trickle up” effect, or are they still seen as marginal by the bigs? To be continued.

  17. says

    Strictly from my POV and coming at this from a community organizing angle, there seems to be a lack of clarity about the ways in which members of the community holds itself accountable to the rest of the community.

    So, I suppose my question would be: how do you hold yourself accountable to the people you are trying to serve? How do you hold yourself accountable to the broader theatre community? How do you honor the interdependence of the theatre community?

  18. says

    Friends, I am moved by both the quality and quantity of comments that have been posted over the past week. I have a hectic schedule today and tomorrow but want to post a part II to this post sometime this week, in light of the comments made. There is so much here to respond to. Thank you all for taking the time to share your thoughts.

  19. says


    Thanks, as always, for your thoughtful response and for your link to my personal blog. I think it’s worth clarifying that the line in Teresa’s summary about TCG’s vision is not meant in any way to stifle discussion, but rather reframe it. That’s why the word “counterproductive dichotomy” is used instead of “counterproductive discourse.” Rather than an us vs. them dynamic, the vision recognizes that institutions are run by theatre people, many of whom also identify as artists, and that part of TCG’s role is encouraging a more wholistic approach to that discussion, hence the “Model the Movement” theme of the Conference. Here’s Teresa’s recent post about it for the whole thing:



  20. Michael Maso says

    Hello all! This is Michael Maso, whose speech at TCG seems to have launched this very interesting discussion. Given the seriousness with which you have all approached this conversation I felt that some answers to the questions raised and a response to the original post was warranted. You can find that reply at the following link, along with a link to the full text of my speech for those who are so inclined. Thanks!


    • says

      Thanks so much for weighing in. I’m on vacation with my family so may not post this week, but I wanted to acknowledge that I have read your post and sincerely appreciate hearing your thoughts.

      • says

        As always you have launched a vigorous and amazing debate! So much to be considered here– I just want to raise a question that I have been curious about for years– why is it impossible to find a funder who is interested in supporting an acting ensemble at a large institutional theater? I have fought to keep a group of actors permanently employed at ACT because I believe that for the kind of theater we are making, it deepens the work to employ artists who are used to collaborating, and who help set the repertoire for our institution, much in the same way a jazz ensemble or a dance company functions best when commit to playing together over the long term. I realize this is not a model every theater is interested in, but in all the years I have been at ACT and fought for the resources to keep together a band of artists at the center of the institution, I have never come across a funder who is interested in supporting the idea.Is it because actors are considered at the bottom of the food chain, or because we believe actors have so many other options for support (hah!)? Are there certain artists we think are more crucial to our institutions’ lives than others? I am just curious about what everyone’s reactions to this might be. I am constantly trying to figure out ways to “uninstitutionalize” my institution and always learn a lot from following these threads of conversation. THANK YOU.

        • says

          I think the reasons are similar to why it’s difficult to find funders who are interested in supporting artist residency programs. Process and collegiality are critical to what cohesively and cogently makes its way to page, stage and museum wall. Unlike the scientific funding structure, we don’t enjoy a broad understanding by funders of how necessary this kind of experimentation and R & D work is for the creative process to work successfully in the arts.
          The other issue is a perennial one for funders and grantees alike–e.g. short time horizons. Institutional change and long-term visions are impossible in a year-to-year funding cycle. As is any hope of sustainability. Until we have more funders willing to partner on 3, 5 and even 10 year relationships, it’s difficult to plan or measure the difference these kinds of investments in artists and the artistic process can mean.
          We end up with a focus on OUTCOMES–the play, the concert, the dance–rather than understanding and tweaking and supporting the process by which these things happen. I think this is one of many reasons artists sometimes feel a disconnect with the institutions they work with. They are pieceworkers, jobbers, not part of “the staff”. We don’t have the infrastructure to support a more integrated model. Yet.

          • says

            Margot: you’ve nailed one of the most important underlying disconnects between funders and artists/arts orgs. It’s as if people with two different ways of experiencing were trying to describe the same thing — the old elephant and blind men parable. Outcome vs Process. In the July 9 New Yorker in an article by Nathan Heller on the “Ted Talks” phenomenon, he uses a metaphor to illuminate two ways of thinking: the sunflower and the bougainvillea. The sunflower stands for ideas that can be briefly and easily articulated, that are, like sunflowers, easy to pick and put in a vase. Other kinds of ideas, though, are more like bougainvilleas. They have more complex, interconnected leaves and blossoms. Their complex structure doesn’t make them good as cut flowers. They can’t be separated from their context. I read this with a nice little frisson of recognition. The bougainvillea, as Heller describes it, is how I feel when I try to talk about theatre process. I’ve gotten pretty good at translating from one way of seeing to another, but what a strain! And so much is always lost in the translation. How many times has my heart sank when I got to the inevitable question on a grant application that asked about “measurable outcomes.” Neither word makes much sense in developing a new work of theatre, whether as a single playwright, or as a writer/performer in an ensemble. The work isn’t measurable. And if the outcomes are known in advance, the work will probably turn out pretty flat. Now if they asked, “What are the questions that are driving this work?” I wouldn’t have to translate.

        • says

          Carey, you’ve asked the same question I’ve been asking for almost forty years. Your efforts to build an ensemble are well-known and deeply appreciated by all the actors I know in the Bay Area. Still, the fact that even an AD of a large, successful theatre, with your track record, values and intentions can’t find the money for an ensemble is a pretty clear sign of one of several wounds in the American psyche. At the risk of appearing obsessed with the Group Theatre (even if I am), I’ll mention that even as what we’d call an “artist run” company that achieved so much, they never really found a way to realize their overriding vision: a permanent company of theatre-makers being paid year-round, working together consistently to create a body of work. From here, it looks as if they managed to pull it off, at least for a while, but fin fact, they were under relentless pressure to produce the next successful play that would support the company through another season. From 1931 to 1936 they managed to pay all company members, (around 30 actors!) whether they were in the current production or not. But the strain of doing that — especially in an era where the only model was the commercial one and subsidy was virtually non-existent — proved to be unsustainable. The Group, mainly through the voice of Harold Clurman, were, arguably, the first to articulate the vision of a permanent ensemble dedicated to creating theatre of the highest artistic standards that would meet its audience in the deepest layers of their lives. I believe that desire still drives many of us. Has any theatre in America been able to do that in any kind of sustainable way? That’s a real question. My hunch is we’ve all experienced moments of if, promises of reaching it, and that may be what keeps us going. Even if all the funding were in place, a permanent company sustaining vital work for a couple of decades, say, would be hard enough to pull off. Unfortunately, we’ve not really had a chance to find out since the funding is most definitely not in place. I’ve always found that almost all funders — individuals or foundations — are more willing to fund anything other than actors’, directors’, or designers’ salaries, with actors being on the bottom of the heap. Funding playwrights’ commissions has become more possible, it seems. Feasibility studies, strategic plans, bricks and mortar, audience development, etc etc, seem to make funders less nervous than the thought of actually putting cash money into the hands of the people who make the stuff. Is this a reflection of the US tradition of not valuing art and culture, the frontier attitude that such things are fripperies? Is it a consequence of a type if capitalism that requires labor to be undervalued? Is it built into the structures of both the commercial and non-profit sectors? Probably all of the above.

  21. Andy Buelow says


    Thanks for clarifying your aims. You do indeed ask provocative questions that those of us who run institutions should ponder. I am a little sympathetic to Maso’s defensiveness because sometimes your questions and comments get under my skin and make me bristle with discomfort! I run a symphony, not a theater, and even though we do employ musicians as part of the organization much of what you say applies to us as well.

    If it is sometimes easy to misconstrue what you are saying as “anti-administrator” or “anti-institution,” I think it is because those of us who administer for a living work extremely hard to make it possible for the artists to make art. It may seem as if it takes a heck of a lot of infrastructure to make that happen, and you are probably right that some of us fall in love with the infrastructure. But the infrastructure in and of itself is not bad; it exists to make the art happen.

  22. says

    As moved as I am by this discussion, I’m really bothered by the italics someone didn’t close. So I’m hoping to put a stop to that now with this comment.

  23. Ray Riedel says

    There’s an old adage that something is only worth what others are willing to pay for it. (Economical -not spiritual worth). Why would an institution pay more for artists, if plenty of artists are willing to take what they are being paid now? Movie studios seek actors who provide a big draw -and those actors are very well compensated. I’ve seen local bands that charge premium prices because they have created a following, and they are booked solid. If the artists can’t draw an audience by their reputation -what value do they have to the institution? Economically, they become commodities. This is only good if it’s the start of a career. Such artists have to use this time to build a following. Get a following to where you are an audience draw, you can command more money and work bigger venues. If no following emerges, that’s economics telling you you’re just not all that good at what you do. You’re not making good use of your resources -do something else.

    If the institutions have to do fundraising to stay solvent -it was mentioned above that ticket sales weren’t enough- I’m surprised they pay the artists at all.

    Figure out how to make your art more valuable if you want to be paid more. Don’t be a commodity. Otherwise, consider it a hobby and have fun.

    • says

      “Figure out how to make your art more valuable if you want to be paid more. Don’t be a commodity.” I don’t understand your use of “commodity,” I fear. Equating “value” of something with amount paid for it would seem to indicate that it is, in fact, a commodity. No? In which case, I cite Lewis Hyde’s masterwork: “The Gift” for a brilliant explication of the notion of a “gift economy.”

      • Ray Riedel says

        I agree words mean different things in different contexts. I use commodity to mean products that aren’t distinguished from others. Interchangeable. This discussion seemed to be based on the premise that artists were not paid enough by the institutions. To be paid more, logically, means to be worth more economically. If an artist’s work doesn’t draw a following, then from an economic standpoint they are a commodity. It doesn’t make sense to seek more pay from an employer who has to use fundraising to make ends meet. At that point, I would think people are just happy to have a venue and the opportunity to perform and improve.

        I do a lot of volunteer work. One example is a school newsletter with student writers and photographers. The students join for free. Our cameras are paid for through photo sales (initially I let the students use my personal equipment). The newsletters feature school sports and activities and are very popular. A friend with a printing business publishes them for free. The economic value of this activity is less than zero. But kids love to see their photos and stories. Some have become better writers, some have become good photographers. But if we ever wanted to make a living from our work, we’d really have to step it up a lot, appeal to a broader audience, and have sufficient draw to appeal to advertisers. Hobby vs. profession.

        By the way, I really like your photo on your post . Very good use of light, good composition, and captures personality. Just seeing that image makes me like you. I’m a part time photographer whose work doesn’t yet merit more than $10/hr -but I get a lot of smiles from my work.

        • cdthomas says

          This discussion seemed to be based on the premise that artists were not paid enough by the institutions. To be paid more, logically, means to be worth more economically. If an artist’s work doesn’t draw a following, then from an economic standpoint they are a commodity. It doesn’t make sense to seek more pay from an employer who has to use fundraising to make ends meet. At that point, I would think people are just happy to have a venue and the opportunity to perform and improve.

          And no one felt like discussing this destruction of the NFP arts model? I guess we’re tired. I’m not even going to mention the premise that professional art, automatically, becomes those forms that rich people can directly support. Art that’s aimed at poor people now becomes outright charity. Maybe it’d be healthier to say who buys what for whom, but isn’t that one of the things art should be criticizing — how transactions become more important than people?

          Actually, putting most of American art production on a hobby basis would benefit the artists, short-term, since at least the IRS would at least allow artists to deduct hobby losses. But once we do that, what happens to all that lovely architecture, to house hobbyists’ work? Why would any funder risk supporting hobbyist ambitions, when the bar for being a professional’s now set at a level rarefied even for artists on Broadway or in MOMA?

          As for asking all those hobbyists to get off professionals’ lawn? Too little, too late, and we’re all in this fix together, marketing language overdoses or no….


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