Reflections On the State Of Theatre In America
The announcement last month that Intiman Theatre was cancelling its 2011 season after producing only one play, Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, has been a major crisis for Seattle’s theatre community. Intiman’s entire staff, including Artistic Director Kate Whoriskey, was laid off. The many local actors and designers who were expecting work at Intiman this year were also dealt a financial blow. The closure merited a front page story in the Seattle Times and coverage in the New York Times. Intiman is known nationally (it won a Tony Award in 2006 for outstanding regional theatre).
Intiman’s Board of Directors took this drastic action to give it time to regroup and reopen next year on a healthier footing. Last winter the Board retained Susan Trapnell to assess Intiman’s financial condition and help develop a survival plan. Susan is a widely respected arts management consultant, based in Seattle, with many years of executive experience on the business side of large nonprofit theatres and dance companies.
I serve as the regional rep in Washington state for the Dramatists Guild of America, the national organization that represents playwrights. One of my responsibilities is organizing and chairing bimonthly meetings for Guild members in western Washington. Recently Susan met with us and shared her 30,000-foot view of the challenges that nonprofit arts organizations around the country are facing. Susan sees many more common issues than ones unique to various communities.
The crisis at Intiman wasn’t the focus of the meeting, in part because the crisis is not over and Susan was limited as to what she could say. Susan was clear that Intiman has been spiraling downward for a number of years, running annual deficits that kept accumulating; Intiman did not just become ill recently. The problems go back to the period when Bart Sher was Artistic Director and Laura Penn Managing Director. (Both are now in NY, Laura as Executive Director of the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers and Bart at Lincoln Center Theatres.)
Susan is confident that Intiman will return as a producing theatre next year. It may be different than the former Intiman, in fact (as you will gather from her comments below) she argues that it needs to be. Here are are some take-aways from our meeting.
• Nonprofit regional theatres have been struggling for years now, with finances, yes, but also with identifying and communicating their artistic mission, and developing new audiences to replace aging ones. While these challenges predate the current recession, that economic tsunami has certainly exacerbated them. (Some of these challenges were aired in the book Outrageous Fortune, published last year, about the impoverished condition of most playwrights and other theatre artists.)
• This region should take heart from a similar crisis that ACT Theatre weathered in 2003, which Susan also advised on. That crisis forced ACT’s artistic and business managers into serious institutional soul searching. ACT emerged with a clarified artistic mission and better business model, and today ACT is relatively healthy financially and more robust artistically than it’s ever been. Kurt Beattie, ACT’s Artistic Director during the crisis and since, deserves a lot of credit for leadership and being willing to explore, test and implement new models.
• The single biggest drain on nonprofit regional theatres has been the decline in public funding. In 1982 public funding (mostly NEA but also state, county and city funding) represented 12-16% of a theatre’s annual budget. Today it represents 1-2%. That decline has been devastating because theatres have had to replace that income in other ways. That’s the main reason why the administrative staff budget of theatres has grown disproportionately in recent decades. Raising money from grants and the private sector is difficult and expensive, and more and more development staff has been hired to raise those funds.
Susan added that over the last 25 years the message our society, as represented by our elected officials, has given the arts is that they are now a private sector charity. What the arts desperately need is a public sector champion. It’s been many decades since they had one.
• The shift from a strong subscriber base with corresponding reliable revenue to single ticket sales has been another huge blow. One consequence is that artistic directors have been forced to be more conservative in their programming. Most subscribers to a six-play season know that there will be a few duds in there; by and large they accepted that as part of the adventure of theatre. With a lot more attendance now coming from single ticket sales, those buyers are less tolerant of a dud. One play that underperforms financially can now sink the theatre’s entire annual budget.
The marketing effort required to attract a single-ticket buyer vs. a subscription buyer is more difficult and expensive. This explains why the marketing staff and budget at theatre companies have also been growing disproportionately.
• In general, younger people want to be the curator of their own artistic experiences. Susan drew an analogy with the music industry: the music album/CD buyer is like the season subscriber who trusts the musical artist and record producer to assemble ten or so songs into a satisfying musical experience; the single ticket buyer is like someone who buys (or not) and downloads a single song.
Related to this trend is a desire by some to have access to the process of creating the art before its professional presentation. Examples are backstage tours and talkback sessions.
• All nonprofit theatres are challenged financially right now. But Susan has seen a common denominator in the ones that have gone under or become dangerously imperiled: the board leadership, business management leadership, and arts leadership are not aligned. When two or all three of those sectors work in silos or at cross-purposes, the institution is doomed.
As a general observation, in recent decades the artistic management has increased in sophistication while boards have not.
• Essential questions every theatre should be asking in a rigorous way are:
What work does this company want to produce?
What audience do we have to have for that work?
Can we attract that audience? How?
• Theatre is in a better position today than other performing arts such as ballet, opera and symphonies. Symphonies face the greatest challenge because the fixed cost of the orchestra is so high. Theatre companies have much more flexibility, certainly a strength in this environment. (Whether theatres will take advantage of their relative flexibility is a different question.)
These are strong insights from a veteran who for decades has fought in the trenches to keep the arts healthy in our country. For those of us creating the art, having this bigger picture can lower our frustration with the countless obstacles that we smack up against. For attendees and patrons of the arts, this context of struggle makes the art that much more precious and in need of our support. As the author of the only play in Intiman’s truncated 2011 season famously wrote, “Attention must be paid.”