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?
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.”