Steven Leigh Morris

Steven Leigh Morris

Steven is the Executive Director of LA STAGE Alliance, and is the founding editor of the community-funded digital arts venture Stage Raw (www.stageraw.com). Morris chaired the Jury for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2012, and served on that Jury in 2011. He received the Critic of the Year prize for his print reviews by the National Entertainment Journalism Awards in 2011.

Phase I of Sustaining the Los Angeles Theater Community: A Report by LA STAGE Alliance

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written by Steven Leigh Morris

Announcement: Companies and individuals region-wide are invited and encouraged to apply to NSI for funding to participate in Phase II of the program reported on below. Phase II will ask participants to explore more deeply four models that were considered in Phase I to be worthy of possible implementation. Companies/individuals are asked to choose which model(s) interest them most, and to apply with like-minded individuals/companies and a facilitator for the discussion. The application process and two of these four models will be discussed at an information/meet-and-greet session on March 12, April 16 7-10 p.m. at the LA STAGE Alliance offices, 4200 Chevy Chase Drive, Los Angeles 90039. A second session is scheduled for March 26, April 23 7-10 p.m. at the same location, to discuss the other two models. Please RSVP for one or both of these meetups to mbulkley@lastagealliance.com. Finally, if you’d like to apply for funding, please fill out our pre-application survey by March 8 April 10. Your survey input will help guide the discussions at the two meetups, where you might well find somebody to partner with. Thank you. 

UPDATE: The original dates listed above, and in the section titled “Preparing for Phase II”, for the Informational Meet-ups have been altered. Those dates are now April 16 & 23. We encourage you to RSVP to mbulkley@lastagealliance.com.

Agenda for both dates are as follows:
Monday, April 16th, 7-10pm: Discussing collaborative audience engagement models: Spectator School & TeenTix
Monday, April 23rd, 7-10pm: Discussing city-wide arts festival & residency program models

Summary

This report is on Phase I of the “Sustaining the Los Angeles Theater Community” program, a three-year, three-phase project conceived by The Ahmanson Foundation. Phase I was implemented by a partnership of LA STAGE Alliance and NPO Solutions from May through December 2017. Twelve arts organizations (11 theatres and one dance company) were invited to participate. Phase I consisted of four round table discussions and two webinars with the aim of testing the hypothesis that collaboration among arts organizations and other civic institutions can lead to a healthier environment for the arts in general, and for the theater sector, in particular. As one participant wrote in a pre-meeting survey: “As people become more and more segregated in enclaves based on their social circle and their social media participation, theater has the potential to be a place citizens value as a nondenominational space of communion.”

The aim of Phase I was to close in on a handful of models worthy of further testing and exploration in Phase II, and then implemented in Phase III.

The models that emerged from Phase I were:

  1. A city-wide arts festival.
  2. A “spectator school” to increase access to the arts among the general public – a lack of familiarity with the arts being a major barrier.
  3. A cross-disciplinary tickets clearinghouse program targeted towards teenagers (modeled on Seattle’s Teen Tix)
  4. Some kind of systematic residency program for mid-size theaters.

Phase II aims to develop these collaborative models throughout the 2018 calendar year by presenting these models to the broader LA theater community, coordinating initial meet-ups for interested companies, and helping to secure facilitators for the planning of each model.

 

Introduction and Overview

[dropcap]The challenges to the sector are not just financial.[/dropcap]

 

In early 2017, The Ahmanson Foundation recognized the need to help buttress the theater sector, which was facing increased pressure on several fronts. A cursory 10-year analysis of Southern California theaters (large, mid-size and small) by Cal State, Long Beach Arts Administration/Theatre Arts departments showed a consistent decline in income and a steady decrease in the ratio of income to expenses – a pattern supported by independent data gathered by LA STAGE Alliance. All this despite a 20% increase in audiences to LA cultural institutions, according to a 2015 report by the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance. Furthermore, new 2016 rules for Los Angeles imposed by the national actors’ union (Actors’ Equity Association) put many of the 99-seat theaters, which constitute the clear majority of theaters in LA County, at financial risk. (The new union rules have so many exceptions that their long-term impact is yet to be determined.) Meanwhile, rising occupancy costs across the region have become a pervasive issue for non-profit organizations of all sizes.

But the challenges to the sector are not just financial. They also include the lack of public awareness of the massive Los Angeles-region theater sector (over 350 companies in LA County alone), partly related to the fracturing of platforms for arts journalism into niche outlets from the once reliable mainstream press; the primacy of film/Hollywood as Los Angeles’ defining art form; and, plus, the perennial challenges of Southern California’s sprawling geography and renowned traffic has led to the isolation of theater companies, and impeded the nurturing of a centralized theater “community.”

For all these impediments, Los Angeles has a theater narrative based on a rich history (see Pasadena Playhouse Conservatory, Bertolt Brecht and the Coronet Theatre).

As a responsive grant-maker, The Ahmanson Foundation’s (TAF) philosophy of grant-making is to allow their grantees to drive the strategy. TAF is one of 16 local foundations participating in the Nonprofit Sustainability Initiative (NSI).

The Ahmanson Foundation has witnessed how many of their grantees have successfully used strategic partnerships as a tool on the path to greater organizational sustainability. Since 2012, NSI has given away $2.65 million in pooled funds (83 grants to 174 organizations – 62 grants for negotiations and 21 for implementation funds) to enable organizations to explore new and improved ways to work together, with outcomes ranging from administrative consolidations and shared programming to full-scale mergers. Inspired by the successes of NSI, TAF asked LA STAGE Alliance and NPO Solutions to design a vehicle through which the LA theater community could identify its own path to sustainability through collaboration.

There have been numerous attempts to address and redress these challenges through collaboration. Some of these attempts have been local, some national and international, some lasting, some fleeting. In Los Angeles, we’ve seen a highly successful flex-pass ticketing system that encouraged audiences not only to see the works of several theaters accessed through a single “loyalty” card – but also to explore different geographic quadrants of the city at the same time (from the San Fernando Valley to Santa Monica to Hollywood). We’ve seen a hugely successful international festival, the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival, that also featured local companies and landed Los Angeles on the cover of Time Magazine as a “theater city” whose time had arrived.

[dropcap]One goal of Phase I was to examine what has gone before so we can “stand on the shoul- ders of giants” to find the best remedies for the specific challenges of the 21st century.[/dropcap]

 

Phase I Scope and Participating Companies 

For Phase I, LA STAGE Alliance invited 12 arts organizations to help explore sector-wide challenges and possible remedies. These included the following theaters: A Noise Within (Pasadena), Pasadena Playhouse (Pasadena), Latino Theater Company (Los Angeles), The Wallis Annenberg Center (Beverly Hills), Celebration Theatre (Hollywood), Playwrights’ Arena (Los Angeles), Watts Village Theatre (Watts), City Garage (Santa Monica), Independent Shakespeare Company (Atwater Village), East West Players (Little Tokyo), Poor Dog Group (Los Angeles), and one dance company: Jacob Jonas Dance Company (Santa Monica).

In choosing the participating companies, LA STAGE Alliance staff prioritized variety, seeking the broadest range possible of theaters in terms of sizes, ages and missions. Some participating companies had been in existence for over 25 years (Playwrights Arena, City Garage, A Noise Within, Pasadena Playhouse, East West Players), one was merely three years old (Jacob Jonas Dance Company). Some participants had no physical home (Jacob Jonas Dance Company, Poor Dog Group and, at the time, Playwrights’ Arena), while others built their identity largely around their physical space (A Noise Within).

The geographic bases of the invitees ranged from Watts to Hollywood to downtown LA to Santa Monica to Pasadena, from theaters with annual budgets ranging from under $100,000 to over $2 million. Jacob Jonas Dance Company was chosen because of the novelty of its performances and the creativity of its marketing.

Participants shared a commitment to the longevity and vitality of the local arts community.

Given that participants represented only a small sample of active LA theaters and one dance company, each of the participants was asked to assess ideas and opportunities through the wider lens of the entire sector (as opposed to purely from the perspective of their own company and interests).

Though Phase I initially used the word “sustainability” to describe its purpose, it was clear in early discussions that the word is primarily construed through a financial prism. For some, “sustainability” was deeply connected to the question of wages for artists. For many, sustainability connoted the kind of increased flexibility and agility that comes with increased earned income and contributions.

Given the size and ambitions of the participants, “sustainability” looked different and was highly context-specific. This project, with its focus on collaboration, necessitated a different guiding word or phrase.

[dropcap]Over the course of the sessions, we shifted towards a focus on models of collaboration that would advance the “vitality of the sector.”[/dropcap]

 

The Roundtable Discussions

Phase I spanned four roundtable sessions between August and December as well as two webinars. After the first, introductory session, subsequent roundtable sessions were structured around a specific category of collaboration, with related case studies from among the participating companies, or presented by guest speakers from Los Angeles and beyond (e.g., Chicago, Atlanta, Philadelphia).

(For more information on the different case studies, please see Appendix A.)

Session topics included:

  • Integrated Marketing, which was defined as increasing visibility and building audience through joint outreach and communication. This session included presentations on joint loyalty programs, co-branding and joint advertising.
  • Administrative Consolidations, which included efforts to share or merge certain operational functions or infrastructure (e.g., back-office consolidation, talent sharing) while allowing for independence of artistic vision and effort.
  • Mid-Sized Collaboration and Partnership, which spanned efforts by larger companies to partner with their peers or smaller/more intimate theaters to share production costs, diversify the artistic pool, share and raise visibility, cross-pollinate audiences, generate new or increased philanthropic support, etc. Case studies considered mid-sized to mid-sized collaborative opportunities, co-productions and mid-sized residency models.

 

Coalescing Around a Vision for LA Theater

One of the themes that emerged over the course of our discussions was the idea that LA theater lacks/needs a “narrative” of the kind that defines Chicago and New York. As Deb Clapp, Executive Director of League of Chicago Theatres, pointed out during one of the webinars, waves of new immigrants to those then-young, turn-of-the-20th century cities were from places and cultures where theater was already an established means of expression. In this new land, they forged and fortified their communities by putting on performances for each other. Thus, their collective narratives were born.

Building on this idea of narrative, and leading up to the final roundtable session, participants were asked to describe (via a survey) the qualities and characteristics of the 21st century theater. Participants wrote of a theater experience that is “deeply immersive and socially conscious in ways that stand out and connect people;” “part of the cultural conversation…live performance is one of the only things left that can’t be found on a phone or computer screen;” “interactive, engaging…formally inventive and boundary breaking;” “held in closer relation to cross-disciplinary work.”

In this context, LA theater of the 21st century is “visionary,” “a breeding ground of experimentation,” “vibrant,” “a leading playground for theater artists in the county and the voice and con- science of a city.” In their ideal, those same qualities that make LA a renowned place for filmmaking – multiculturalism and the spirit of experimentation, innovation and collaboration – would come to define LA theater to an expanding audience.

Given the above, when asked what forms of collaboration hold the most promise to advance this vision of 21st century theater, broadly, and LA theater, specifically, there was overwhelming agreement on models that engage new audiences and translate to higher levels of visibility.

If the 21st century theater experience is immersive, social, and central to the cultural conversation…

If LA theater is vibrant, multi-cultural and multi-ethnic, dynamic, playground…

If collaboration can reach new audiences and increase visibility…

What models of collaboration help realize this future?

Fourteen promising models ultimately emerged; these were:

1) joint loyalty/flex passes
2) some kind of citywide marketing campaign
3) a Theater Week for Los Angeles
4) a spectator school for Los Angeles
5) TeenTix for Los Angeles
6) some kind of city-wide festival
7) some kind of residency program
8) an expansion of Block Party to other patron theaters
9) mentoring services for emerging artists and administrators
10) a management commons based on CultureWorks
11) joint fundraising
12) municipal advocacy
13) investing in physical infrastructure, and
14) social impact investing.

(For more information on the different models, please see Appendix B.)

In determining which three-to-four models to explore in greater depth in Phase II, participating roundtable members were asked to consider which collaborative models held the most promise for contributing to the vitality of LA theater. Participants and conveners weighted those models that:

  • are new efforts (as compared to duplicating or supplanting existing efforts within LA theater or the broader county arts landscape);
  • advance audience development, which consistently emerged as a crucial component of sustainability;
  • represent ongoing, sustained activity (as compared to a one-off event); and
  • can serve as a case study for broader replications across the sector.

Based on roundtable interest and the above criteria, the four models selected are: a city-wide festival, TeenTix for Los Angeles, developing a model for residencies, and “spectator school.”

While certain models generated considerable discussion and interest, they fell outside the scope for this next stage. For example, while municipal advocacy – specifically the need for a more visible theater presence in local, regional and statewide arts advocacy – garnered significant roundtable support, the group determined that Arts for LA already serves that function well. LA STAGE Alliance will consider, separate and apart from this process, how it can help broker theater representation with Arts for LA in the new year. Similarly, a plan for an administrative commons is undergoing a separate due diligence process by Philadelphia-based CultureWorks; LA is one of the cities under consideration in CultureWorks’ growth planning.

Preparing for Phase II

LA STAGE Alliance is calling on its members to apply for participation in Phase II, by first considering which of the four models they find most intriguing to explore more deeply, and to join one (or more) of two informational meet-ups at the LA STAGE Alliances offices (4200 Chevy Chase Drive, Los Angeles CA 90039) on two successive Mondays, March 12 and March 26 April 16 & 23, from 7-10 p.m. Please RSVP to one or both of these meetups to mbulkley@lastagealliance.com. These meet-ups provide opportunities for our members to meet other companies and other arts and civic organizations that may share their interests in specific models. To indicate your interest in learning more about this opportunity, please complete the following required survey.

For those models which the broader LA theater community embraces/generates excitement, LA STAGE Alliance and NPO Solutions will provide guidance to those teams that opt to submit collective applications for NSI funding. Should NSI funding be awarded, the grant could cover costs of a neutral third-party facilitated negotiation to help participating companies evaluate feasibility, solidify partnership roles and responsibilities, and plan for implementation.

Applications will be available beginning mid-March through April 20  May 10 with ongoing awards announced by NSI on a first-come, first serve basis.


Appendix A, Case Studies

The Roundtable sessions and webinars were structured around a category of collaboration, with case studies highlighting local and national examples of collaborative efforts. Presenters included:

Mid-Sized Collaboration

Danny Feldman, Artistic Director, Pasadena Playhouse
Danny formerly served as the Artistic Director at the Labyrinth Theater Company (NY). He described the Labyrinth’s partnership with the Public Theater. The partnership started as a public play reading series (with a split between the two companies) and evolved into a full-blown residency. While Labyrinth mostly self-produced using space at the Public, once a season there was a co-production. One of the considerations was the potential for identity blur, where audiences have difficulty distinguishing between the work of each company.

Snehal Desai, Artistic Director, East West Players
Snehal described collaborations that enable larger systematic/city-wide programming around a theme or pieces in a conversation. He cited, as one example, the Naomi Wallace Festival, which involved multiple theaters in Atlanta staging work by the playwright over the course of month in 2001.

Lindsay Allbaugh, Producer, Center Theatre Group
Block Party is a Center Theatre Group initiative focused on supporting and highlighting Los Angeles area theaters through the sharing of audiences, ideas, and resources. Now in its second year, Block Party presents three recently produced productions from local theater companies as part of the Kirk Douglas Theatre season. Each Block Party production appears at the Douglas for a two-week run; Season Ticket Members receive tickets to one show with the option of adding additional shows. Block Party was designed to create additional avenues for Center Theatre Group to become familiar with local playwrights, actors, directors, and designers, and create conversation and collaboration between Center Theatre Group staff and the staff at companies throughout Los Angeles.

Integrated Marketing

Laura Zucker – Senior Associate at AEA Consulting and Former Executive Director at L.A. County Arts Commission
Laura launched the LA Theater Pass during her tenure (1979-1989) at The Back Alley, a 99-seat theater in Van Nuys. The Theater Pass functioned as a loyalty card among five local theaters (i.e., The Back Alley, Stages, Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, The Matrix, and LA Theater Works). In devising the model, Laura sought out companies whose work was different enough from that of The Back Alley. Subscribers would purchase one pass, which gave them access to shows at each of the participating theaters. When first released, they sold 3,500 passes (80% utilization rate). The LA Theater Pass model operated successfully for five years.

Mark Doerr – Technology Programs Manager, LA STAGE Alliance
Mark discussed integrated advertising via LA STAGE Alliance’s LA Times Tix program, which coordinated group advertising rates on the pages of the LA Times (and later, Los Angeles Magazine). For many years, this model provided significant advertising opportunities for local theaters as well as a viable revenue stream for LA STAGE Alliance. The model suffered in the face of the shifting print media landscape.

Steven Leigh Morris – Executive Director, LA STAGE Alliance
Steven presented a model out of Seattle, TeenTix. Any teenager (13-19 years old) can sign up for a free TeenTix pass. The pass entitles them to purchase $5.00 day-of-show tickets at any of the 75 partner arts organizations in Seattle (69) and Tacoma (6). The program enables participating organizations to dispose of inventory they haven’t otherwise sold, while also introducing a new generation to the arts. In addition to tickets, TeenTix also provides opportunities for teens from all backgrounds to engage deeply with the arts via arts leadership training and arts criticism training.

Jacob Jonas – Jacob Jonas The Company
Jacob presented #CamerasandDancers, a platform to inspire new artistic collaborations, build community, and increase the visibility of dance. This monthly location-specific Instameet is organized by @JacobJonasTheCompany and cohosted by social media influences and significant cultural institutions (cross medium). Each event occurs over a period of three to four hours where artists spontaneously and freely collaborate, producing a unique portfolio of images, which are then shared to Instagram, and other online platforms. The objective is to bring the mediums of dance and photography together to create content and creatively activate spaces both in real time and online.

Administrative Consolidation/Other

Thaddeus Squire, Executive Director, CultureWorks
CultureWorks is a management commons for arts, heritage and creative communities. The model is premised on the belief that “independence of vision does not require independence of infrastructure.” The CultureWorks model includes three tracks, with varying levels of commitment: 1) base membership, space, coaching, consulting, workshops and flex staffing; 2) finance, HR, legal, compliance, basic insurances, fiduciary and exempt status; and 3) shared fundraising, marketing, data management and research support. CultureWorks is looking to expand to other U.S. cities, and is considering Los Angeles as a potential market.

Deb Clapp, Executive Director, League of Chicago Theatres
We asked Deb to speak to what she believes are the conditions that contribute to the narrative of Chicago as a strong, collegial theater town as well as promising attempts at collaborations. The League of Chicago Theatres serves a membership of more than 200 theaters, ranging from storefront, non-union theaters to major cultural centers. Deb described a culture of generosity among established Chicago theaters; “Everyone understands that newer, smaller companies are really important to the ecosystem…there are no community theaters in Chicago…they are all considered part of the professional theater-making community.” She noted that long-standing leaders model this accepting behavior. Deb believes that collaborations around audience development are necessary to the future of theater. She cited two successful collaborations that engage audiences in new ways (and that yield strong ticket sales and press attention): Chicago International Puppet Festival and Chicago Theatre Week. Also, related to audience development, she noted two different neighborhood-focused flex passes – one with five theaters and the other with 15 theaters. While the passes “don’t translate to huge sales,” they do provide an opportunity for companies to come together to pro- mote theater in their area.

Appendix B, Promising Models

Fourteen models emerged over the course of roundtable discussion.

  1. Joint Loyalty/ Flex Passes

Subscribers purchase a single pass, which gives them access to performances (or discounted tickets) at participating companies.

  1. Citywide Marketing Campaigns

Utilizing PSAs, banners, radio ads, etc. to promote the vitality of LA theater in general (as distinct from the individual efforts of companies).

  1. Theater Week

Modeled on dineL.A., Theater Week would be a cultural event raising the profile of theatre, generally, as a fun, powerful, thought-provoking, important entertainment option.

  1. Spectator School

Audience School movement throughout Latin America that teaches people how to be audience members.

  1. TeenTix

Inspired by a program out of Seattle, which offers day-of-show tickets to young people to performances and cultural institutions across the city at minimal cost. The program enables participating organizations to dispose of inventory they haven’t otherwise sold, while also introducing a new generation to the arts.

  1. Festivals

Collaborations that enable larger systematic/city-wide programming around a theme or pieces in a conversation.

  1. Residency Programs

Mid-sized and larger brick-and-mortar theaters partner with smaller, mission-aligned companies to share space, co-produce and/or share other resources.

  1. Block Party/Garage Rep (Steppenwolf)

Mid-size or larger companies produce productions from local theater companies.

  1. Mentoring

Bidirectional mentoring among leaders of mid-sized and intimate and emerging companies

  1. Management Commons

Fiscal sponsorship model; sharing of infrastructure (see CultureWorks)

  1. Joint Fundraising

Companies come together to undertake joint fundraising effort (for project or general operating support), enabling each to raise additional fund and increase the overall visibility of local theater. (Reference: Atlanta Intown Theatre Partnership)

  1. Municipal Advocacy

Joint advocacy efforts that engage governments at all levels and that result in increased public funding for theater and other supports.

  1. Investing in Physical Infrastructure

Public and private entities acquire properties to sustain art in select neighborhoods (Reference: Bay Area-based Community Arts Stabilization Trust)

  1. Social Impact Investing for Arts and Culture

Investments – typically low- or no-interest loans – made to companies, organizations, and funds with the intention to generate social and environmental impact alongside a financial return.