New report asks: Are nonprofit theaters too closely tied to Broadway producers?

Laura Collins-Hughes, Boston Globe, 10/13/12

Decades before he took on the chairmanship of the National Endowment for the Arts, Broadway producer Rocco Landesman approached his friend Robert Brustein about doing a musical at Brustein's American Repertory Theater in Cambridge. Brustein liked the idea, and the show, Big River, opened there in 1984. It would go on to run for more than 1,000 performances on Broadway, win seven Tony Awards including best musical, and earn the ART well over $300,000 for having premiered the piece. Whether or not that show's high-profile success enticed other nonprofits toward Broadway, as a new report suggests, collaborations between regional theaters and commercial producers have proliferated in the years since then. Slated to be published Monday, the report from the Emerson College-based Center for the Theater Commons chronicles a gathering last November of some of the biggest names in American theater, including Brustein and Landesman, and raises pointed questions about what those partnerships -- and a gaze increasingly directed toward Broadway -- mean for the mission of nonprofit theaters. "If there was a recurring theme...that the nonprofit theater appears to have lost sight of its values and raison d'Ítre," says the report, titled "In the Intersection: Partnerships in the New Play Sector." While "commercial partnerships were not perceived to be the cause of this erosion of ideals, there is a concern that the collaborations -- which frequently involve so-called enhancement money, paid by the commercial producers to cover production costs at the regional theater -- "have the potential to create a legal and moral slippery slope for nonprofits." Polly Carl, director of the Center, said: "There are no purists at the table. I don't think anybody is saying, 'Commercial is evil and not-for-profit is good.' Nobody believes that." In fact, she added, there is value in the two sectors working together. But there is also a sense that the nonprofit theater in recent years "has lost its way in its overemphasis on definitions of success that are very particular to taking shows to New York, not necessarily serving communities."

 

Commentary: New York vs. the rest of the national theater scene

"Holler" blog, Howlround.com, 10/6/12

New York has a bizarre, parasitic relationship with the rest of the national theater scene. On one hand, it gobbles it up: hit productions from regional nonprofits, talented artists, great teachers, even whole companies wind up here. On the other hand, it spits it all back out: a Broadway producer dreams of sending a show out on endless national tours. And regional theaters often choose new leaders from NYC-based artists. Perhaps it's collective masochism, or perhaps we truly benefit from having a "town square" -- a shared place where the brightest minds and biggest talents collect, even briefly, to exchange ideas, see each other's work, and get a taste of mainstream success. In the way that all professional fields pyramid off as you reach the top, many folks [who try to make it in New York decide] it doesn't suit them. Fortunately, wherever you came from is likely to be forgiving and will welcome you back with open arms. To paraphrase Danny Hoch, part of the problem is that theater artists tend to congregate in New York and bitch about why the theater sucks everywhere else. Part of our mission is to go back where we came from and make it better. Perhaps the best argument to give New York a try is that, after you leave, practically any other city in the country will feel like a walk in Central Park.

 

Commentary: "We have wrested away power from commercial producers"

Founder/Artistic Director Scott Miller on New Line Theatre's [St. Louis MO] blog, 10/1/12

We opened Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson Friday night, and what a great opening it was!  We had a big, rowdy, smart audience. We have a rare luxury here at New Line Theatre. We've never, in 22 seasons, chosen a show for commercial appeal. We produce only the most exciting, most original, most well-crafted works the art form has to offer, and we've developed an audience over the years who want to see that. As I learned many years ago, audiences don't like only what they know; they like what's good. None of us working at New Line make very good money, but we get to do really amazing work. Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson may not have done all that well financially on Broadway, but I believe it's one of the genuinely great works of this new Golden Age. [Bookwriter Alex Timbers and songwriter Michael Friedman] are at the top of their games, and I can't wait to see what they each do next. Our art form has never been more vigorous or more alive than it is right now. The nonprofit musical theatre wave of the 1990s and the creation of the internet have democratized the musical theatre. Just as Jackson wrested away power from the political elite, today we have wrested away power of the musical theatre from New York commercial producers. And all of us together across the country and around the world are moving the art form forward every day. It's so exciting to be part of that.

 

= = =

 

FROM TC: Those of us with long enough memories know this discussion has been going on for many decades. I thought it would be interesting to look back at an earlier point in this continuing conversation. 12 years ago, Rocco Landesman -- then-president of Jujamcyn Theaters (a major Broadway theater owner) -- wrote the following commentary:

 

2000: "Opposing, maybe irreconcilable views of what theater should be."

The New York Times, 6/4/2000

It is disappointing enough that those of us in the commercial theater have long ago abdicated any purchase on sustained artistic enterprise. The idiosyncratic giants of an earlier day have given way, by and large, to syndicates of producers and corporations. Big Broadway successes are more often the product of well-crafted nostalgia brilliantly marketed than of bold and intrepid producing. The road presenters poll their audiences' response to various titles and stars before deciding on their seasons. The stakes (read costs) have simply become too high to assume undue risks. There is still a quotient of wonderfully reckless independent producers, but those careers usually don't last long. And now, in the nonprofit theater, too, the forces of risk control are at work. The managing directors, with their good board relationships, audience development campaigns and marketing strategies, are asserting their clout as the pressures to ''succeed'' increase. My fervent hope, however, is that...lines will be drawn, voices will be raised, someone's integrity will be challenged, and we will remember, if only briefly, that we are different from one another, with opposing, maybe irreconcilable views of what theater should be.

 

FROM TC: Ten years ago, John Rockwell - then editor of The New York Times' Sunday Arts and Leisure section - weighed in on the topic:

 

2002: "Hybrid producing models are crucial in keeping Broadway alive"

The New York Times, 9/22/2002

We seem to be in the end game -- or perhaps still the middle game, with more moves to come -- of a decades-long shift in how Broadway shows are produced. Nonprofit companies are making their presence felt ever more strongly on Broadway. People have been worrying about this for decades, ever since the New York Shakespeare Festival took Two Gentlemen of Verona to Broadway in 1971. Both sides profess to worry about the supposed corruption of nonprofit companies by their increasing commercialism. The commercial producers are concerned about unfair competition from the nonprofits, with their subscriber lists and donors and public funding and tax-exempt status. Yet at this late date, at least some of the rusty old warriors who have fought this battle over the years sound downright Quixotic. With a history of commercial and nonprofit producers sharing Broadway space for decades, nothing much can be done to change things: the cow has left the barn; the two sides need each other too much. And not just on Broadway. Commercial and nonprofit producers have long co-existed Off Broadway and in London's West End as well. In any case, maybe this incursion of nonprofits onto Broadway is actually a good thing. Despite the persistent, masochistic need of Broadway to indulge in hypochondria (''the fabulous invalid'' and all that), nonprofits on Broadway have already led to a healthier artistic and financial situation in American theater in general and Broadway in particular. Broadway may not be what it once was, but it's something else now, and still the best of what mainstream America can offer. And the hybrid producing models now operative on Broadway are crucial in keeping it alive.

Please consider the environment before printing out this email.  Thanks.
YOU'VE COTT MAIL is a free service for professionals in the arts.  Emails are sent most weekdays. 
If you are not already on the distribution list and would like to sign up, please click here:

Join Our Mailing List      Follow me on Twitter     
 
Click here to view an archive of recent past editions of "You've Cott Mail."