The potential demise of the Pasadena Playhouse was announced just as Rogue Machine readied the first of its yearly fundraising appeals so I read both Mr. McNulty’s and Mr. Shirley’s response with considerable interest.
We all agree that theater is in crisis and has been for years. The reasons are complex, so complex that every assertion I’d like to make comes with inherent contradictions and many unanswered questions.
I believe any serious consideration must begin at why we do theater; what purpose does it serve?Â After mentioning that Glenn Close compared the opening of a new theater to the founding of a church, Mr. McNulty says: “The idea was that theater serves an analogous function in our lives – for group reflection, confession, expiation and celebration. The South African playwright Athol Fugard echoed this sentiment in a more secular way, stressing “the central importance of theater to the psychic well-being and sanity of a society.” Those of you who have read my infrequent blogs know I agree with Mr. McNulty. We hope theater is an integral part of the community; that it holds the mirror up so we can see who we are.
He also says, rightly so, the “consumerist model continues its stranglehold.” Years ago, my wife Ann and I subscribed to the Mark Taper Forum and we contributed a meager amount as well. Those days Gordon Davidson and friends had made the Mark Taper one of the most important theaters in the country; an integral part of both our local and our national community. We went to see the plays because they were riveting, must-see productions that made us think.
Today the major theaters and many of the smaller ones in Los Angeles seem to be locked in the consumerist model; not only in their choice of material but how they produce and how they cast. “The play’s the thing” no longer holds; butts in seats is the thing.
I believe theater that does not serve the play does not serve the community. It seems an oxymoron but theater that panders to its audience risks destroying its audience. Quick fixes like getting movie stars to perform, often to the detriment of the play, don’t sell future tickets. When we went to see Angels in America or The Kentucky Cycle we did not go because there were celebrities in the cast. Occasionally I went, and still go, to New York to see actors in a play but that was and is because they were and are actors who could illuminate the play; not because they were celebrities.
More importantly, quick fixes do not address what’s actually wrong, why we are in crisis. Theater must have leaders with vision and specific purpose who remember the play is the thing. Whether they are seeing musical comedy or tragedy, what’s important to the audience is the story we tell and how well we tell it.
On Fundraising, Boards and Subscription audiences:
Danny Newman, the Johnny Appleseed of subscriptions, deserves great credit for his contribution to American theater. Subscriptions were an ideal tool for theaters. They guaranteed butts in seats and a democratic donor base. They provided statistics; proof of attendance and importance within a community for foundations and larger donors. They had and have inherent problems as well but the bottom line was and is if you have subscribers, you have a community.
There are many reasons the subscription model is failing. We’re a society that needs flexibility. We change the channel, we shop events not production entities. We have too many choices. Subscription tickets were our parents’ model not ours; our parents wanted to be a favored member of the community; they wanted good seats and they got them at a discount. They had faith in the theater. We’re too busy. If something’s good, we’ll hear about it and we’ll go. Right?
All these reasons and all the other reasons for failing subscription sales are logical but I keep returning to the notion of faith in the theater. I have no faith in Los Angeles subscription theaters. We don’t subscribe. Yes, I know subscription tickets no longer appeal to most of us or fit into our lifestyles but I also know if the Mark Taper Forum were still doing the work it once did, even once or twice a season, Ann and I would still be subscribers.
I spent the last couple of months trying to woo a big CTG donor to join the board of our small theater. My understanding is that every year he writes a check to the CTG which would fund our theater for the whole year. He had seen an original work we did last year and responded to it very favorably but ultimately decided he couldn’t afford the time. He does head another charity which does very important work in the world so his decision is certainly understandable but his desire to continue giving his time and his money to the CTG grates.
The CTG has an annual budget of more than 40 million dollars. If we took the CTG’s 40 million dollars and established a trust for Los Angeles theater the trust could give more than 2 million dollars a year to LA theaters without diminishing its principal. Imagine the impact that might have on the Los Angeles community, the excitement in both the larger Los Angeles community and the theatrical community. Such a change could generate a Renaissance, reviving not only the arts but our tired and broke town itself and maybe even help the Pasadena Playhouse survive. Consider the impact the CTG now has on the quality of theater in Los Angeles. This exercise in wishful thinking does give us perspective.
I suspect we must rethink the model of regional theater as the heart of American theater. Some of the problems theater faces exist because these institutions have become behemoths. Market based consumerist models become necessities as these theaters scramble to fill 500 to 2000 seats a night. The purpose of the theater is forgotten; plays are selected to get butts in seats; paradoxically fewer people come. These theatrical institutions, like the CTG, are the equivalent of the giant banks, like Bank of America; they cannot fail or be allowed to fail. Consequently, for them, there is no artistic accountability. These behemoths need more and more funding and every dollar they receive diminishes the dollars available to other arts organizations.
I’ve been on the boards of small theaters; I’ve run small theaters and I talk to other artistic directors. Fundraising is one of a board’s most important responsibilities. Even boards that work have trouble raising money for their theaters and they’ve had that trouble for years. To build a community based theater you need artistic vision and proof of product. You need continuity. Even the better established theaters have little or no security. Paying next month’s rent is always a problem.
Mr. McNulty says: “Give the people something they really need and they’ll find a way to afford it. The challenge is getting them to sample what they might not know to be good for them. Once theatrically bitten, twice shy. But courage is contagious, and loyal support will follow when souls are nourished.”
We live by this mantra at our theater and so do many other small theaters in Los Angeles. We’re quite sure, if we can survive long enough, support will come.
The better LA theaters do demonstrate artistic courage. We fall on our face and stand up bloodied ready to go again. We succeed more often than we fail. We do not fear failure but recognize it as fundamental to growth. More importantly, unlike the big organizations, our failures mean something. I think what Los Angeles needs is courage from community leaders. We need funders willing to take risks; funders who see that if they truly want their money to affect art in the community, here is where they need to invest.
John Perrin Flynn is artistic director of Rogue Machine Theatre.