A few days ago, while doing research, an article caught my attention. It was written in 1936 and it was about the birth of Theatre Arts magazine twenty years earlier (in 1916). Here’s how the founding of the magazine is described in the article:***
For it began in revolt against musty tradition, its first issue proclaiming a credo that still rings in the ear: ‘To help conserve and develop creative impulse in the American theatre; to provide a permanent record of American dramatic art in its formative period; to hasten the day when the speculators will step out of the established playhouse and let the artists in.
That day seemed to have arrived with the formation of the resident theater movement–the “alternative-to-commercial” theater–30 years later. As I noted last week, Zelda Fichandler recently described the movement’s inspiration and purpose saying:
We looked at what we had – the hit-or-miss; put-it-up, tear-it-down; make-a-buck, lose-a-buck; discontinuous; artist-indifferent; New York-centered ways of Broadway, and they weren’t tolerable anymore, and it made us angry. The fabric of thought that propelled us was that theatre should stop serving the function of making money, for which it has never been and never will be suited, and start serving the revelation and shaping of the process of living, for which it is uniquely suited, for which it, indeed, exists. The new thought was that theatre should be restored to itself as a form of art.
If only achieving the ideals of the resident theater movement (the revolution, as it was called) had been as simple as kicking the speculators out and giving the artists the keys to the buildings, the business cards, and nonprofit status.
It turns out that as nonprofit theaters became successful, some of them started to look a lot like commercial producers. A 1984 New York Times article– Will Success Spoil Nonprofit Theater?–described the whys and hows and so whats of the process:
With achievement comes heightened expectations, expectations not necessarily consistent with a theater’s role of developing new plays and new writers. … Rare is the artistic director who does not hunger at some level for acclaim in New York; it is the theater capital of the nation, and Broadway, however maligned, is a part of the mythology on which theater people have raised. There are practical advantages, too. The income from a commercial transfer can virtually support a nonprofit theater … And the publicity attendant to a transfer makes it easier for a nonprofit theater to both raise money and to attract leading artists.
The problem is that the gravitational tug of Broadway is strong. There can come a point when a nonprofit theater begins producing plays solely, or subliminally, to export them to New York.
There it is again.
That “long tug of war,” referenced last week, “between art and commerce, spiritual ideals and materialistic forces …”
The resident theater was founded (and propelled forward by the Ford Foundation) at a time when philanthropists believed that the best way to organize the cultural sector was to create clear boundaries between the “commercial entertainment” and “artistic” spheres and to avoid contamination between the two. (Whether this still is, or ever was, a good policy or approach is a topic for another post, perhaps.)
If you go back and read about the formation of the first symphony orchestras (decades earlier), you can observe this same “weed out the entertainment” then “fertilize the art” strategy.
Of course there’s a difference between theater and symphony orchestras (which perhaps foundations and government agencies did not fully account for): one doesn’t see many (any?) examples of “commercial orchestras” in the US.
Not only did a robust commercial theater industry precede the resident theater movement, it continued to exist (and compete with the nonprofit theater) once resident theaters were formed. Theater exists in a mixed market, and one in which the commercial theater has held heavy sway for the past century.
So, even if we had subsidies on par with Sweden or Germany, we probably could not have kept the art and commerce theater worlds separate for many, obvious reasons–not least of which, successful playwrights, actors, directors, designers, and producers rarely work exclusively within one industry (either Hollywood, or Broadway, or Off-Broadway, or regional theater) and successful properties (plays, books, films, etc.) frequently traffic across these boundaries as well.
And while subsidies helped to fortify the lines between the sectors for 20 years or so, as many nonprofit leaders have remarked over the years, after funding fell off from Ford and the NEA, what choice remained but to do more commercial fare (whether shows aimed at Broadway or hits that had already played there)? How could theaters be expected to pursue the ideals of the movement when the beliefs underpinning the economic model were no longer valid?
So, given that nonprofit theaters exist in a mixed market, given that artists and properties cross sector boundaries, given that funding went away but the big buildings built with the funding had to be supported anyway, co-productions between the two sectors … collaborative R&D … exchange of rights … transfers … alliances … dalliances … deals between the two sectors… were perhaps inevitable.
As Bob Brustein (founder of ART & Yale Rep) remarked in a meeting in 2011 of commercial producers and nonprofit theater leaders to discuss partnerships between the two sectors:
I want to say something about commercial production [ at resident theaters]. I’ve obviously been a big enemy of that. But I’m an enemy of the frequency of it.
I think it’s inevitable from time to time. The question is keeping some sort of a constraint on it […]
Whether you want to or not, one of those shows is gonna go [to Broadway].
But why constrain it? Why tame our inner speculators? Particularly in this era of social and cultural entrepreneurship when, everywhere you look, people are making money while doing good and doing good while making money. By comparison, the legal and cultural/cognitive boundaries between the “art theater” and the “money theater” (to use Todd London’s great tags in this terrific essay) start to feel oppressive–as though they may be holding us back from reaching our full potential, from being the “entrepreneurial” organizations that governments, foundations, boards, and donors now want nonprofits to be.
I think the 1984 article illustrates why. If you start to go back in time (before even the creation of nonprofit resident theaters) over and over again you will observe that commercial success seems to breed external and internal pressure for more commercial success, which seems to be at odds with some of the core values or purposes (e.g., access, diversity, artist development, artistic risk taking, education, community-building, preservation and innovation) that “art theaters” or resident theaters exist to uphold or advance.
The question is, how to keep some sort of constraint … given that intermingling is perhaps inevitable … given the ‘gravitational pull” of Broadway … AND given that it’s great to reach more people with great theater and difficult for a new work to enter the cultural canon and discourse without going to Broadway.
At the same 2011 meeting (mentioned above), Polly Carl, editor at HowlRound, suggested that what was needed is a code of ethics. Ethics in the American theater is a running theme throughout Polly’s writing and talks. In one essay on the subject, she urges nonprofit theater leaders to prioritize the creation of an ethics statement that “answers the hard questions.”
What types of questions?
In her book, Economic Lives, economic sociologist Viviana Zelizer refers to the OED for a definition of ethics: “The science of morals: the department of study concerned with the principles of human duty.” She then expounds on the definition, writing:
In economic activity, then, ethics concerns the proper way of conducting production, consumption, distribution, and transfer of assets. For instance, ethical questions assume such varied forms as, Is it right to pay women for their eggs? Is it wrong for a supervisor to make sexual advances to an employee? May a CEO legitimately issue public reports exaggerating a firm’s economic performance? Is it appropriate for company executives to use company jets for personal trips? More generally, is it feasible to set rules that eliminate conflicts of interest between a person’s corporate responsibility and private interests? …
I could certainly imagine an equivalent list of questions for nonprofit arts organizations. And in this era in which there is increased scrutiny over the ethical practices of corporations, I could certainly see why the time is ripe (if not overripe) for this effort in the nonprofit arts.
And not because of commercial deals, per se. The ethical issues for a nonprofit theater would seem to be much broader than how to do deals or how many deals to do.
But I’m curious what others think.
Do nonprofit theaters (or other arts nonprofits) need ethics statements?
If so, what hard questions should be put on the list?
Speculators is a John Leech sketch from 1846.
***Theatre Arts at the Age of Twenty. New York Times, Feb. 2, 1936.