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Keyword: ‘Theater Failed America’

Theater Impact

July 22nd, 2009 No comments

In 1992, according to a report from the National Endowment for the Arts1, an estimated 13.5% of the U.S. adult population attended a live dramatic theater event.  This was up from 11.9% in 1982. 


In 1992, this estimated 13.5% represented between 24 and 26.2 million adult Americans2.  Further, the NEA reported that there was a frequency of attendance of 2.4 times per person, meaning that roughly 60.2 million attendances of a live dramatic theater event were recorded in the United States.  As this study was not repeated for 2002, it is somewhat difficult to gauge the trend, but if the trend has been sustained, 15.1% of the U.S. adult population attended a performance in 2002. With an estimated adult population of 216 million in the United States that means that nearly 33 million Americans attended a theatre event in 2002 and if the same 2.4 frequency of attendance applies, 79.4 million attendances would have been recorded. To put this in perspective, in 2007 Major League Baseball gleefully reported 79 million people attended baseball games in the United States3. The data described above indicates, at the very least, that there is great interest in theatre in the United States, and other factors point to the impact that active and successful theatres have on their communities.  For instance, the June 24th Plain Dealer article presents evidence that successful theatres are a boon to revitalizing neighborhoods and increasing economic development4.  A fact further confirmed by the same NEA report mentioned at the outset, which concludes that:

Dynamic forces shape [theater] participation patterns in each community, including characteristics of the resident and nonresident markets, the supply of producing and presenting activity, the availability of suitable performance facilities, as well as local traditions and history."  And further, that vital [theater-going] communities will exist where vital theatre producing communities are active and available. 

The report specifically identifies highest theatre participation rates in "Seattle/King County (WA) where a thriving theatre community was observed, including playwrights, actors, and a plethora of small, experimental ensembles known collectively as ‘Seattle’s fringe theaters.’" 

Cleveland, Ohio, certainly has the potential of becoming one of the most successful theatre communities in the United States.  It has a diverse mixture of urban education centers and populations, interested young artists, and established veteran performers, directors, designers, and technicians combined with an historic economic downturn that has left numerous, low-cost spaces accessible and available for use.  This is to say that established, highly-priced, conservative theaters no longer hold the keys to gates of theater entertainment in the Northeast Ohio community. (A fact pointed out in a recent speech on local theater.)

Still, formal external funding sources seem to be the meat and potatoes of most arts organizations: either government sources (such as the newly created Cuyahoga Arts and Culture grants) or foundation sources.  These constitute one set of external stakeholders. While it is easy to see these sources as not only important but a possible bounty, reliance on these sources does not seem to me overly wise or recommended.  Changes in funding priorities or changes in government policies can bring a drought to stream very quickly.  Additionally, one of the dangers in accepting funding from a foundation is that there is some expectation of programming to go along with it, that an organization might, like one sister in Cinderella, cut off her toes to fit the shoe.  This fact is made poignantly clear by Mike Daisy in his article How Theater Failed America, when he writes:

Better to invest in another "educational" youth program, mashing up Shakespeare until it is a thin, lifeless paste that any reasonable person would reject as disgusting, but garners more grant money.5

This may be a cynical viewpoint, but if it weren’t true there wouldn’t be a phrase for it in the nonprofit "biz": mission drift.

But if not foundations or government, what then?  Ticket sales are an important part of revenue, but cannot sustain even basic and continuous organizational function, let alone full employment of an acting troupe–unless prices are terribly high.  One plan that came to me serendipitously in the form of an issue of American Theatre was to reach out to universities to cultivate new stakeholders—universities and their faculties, students, and staff.  The plan works like this: a theater sends vouchers to a college; the college distributes them to students; the students go to the theater with the voucher and get in free; the theater then bills the college for the cost of a reduced ticket–and the college takes the money out of the student life budget.  This astonishingly simple strategy accommodates the stakeholder fulfillment of two different organizations at one time, as many universities have, as a part of their strategic plans, some requirement to support the communities in which they live and operate, as well as supporting their more fundamental academic mission.

1. American Participation in Theater, AMS Planning and Research Corporation, Research Division Report #35, National Endowment for the Arts, Santa Ana, Calif. : Seven Locks Press, 1996

2. Stats based on calculation of 13.5% x the U.S. adult population at the time as reported in the Statistical Abstract of the United States for 1992.

3. Bloom, Barry M. 2008. MLB salary increase lowest since ’04. December 4. (Accessed online, December 8, 2008).

4. Litt, Steven. 2007. Energizing Detroit-Shoreway; Theater renovations, new building at the heart of neighborhood revitalization. June 24. The Plain Dealer.

Daisey, Mike. 2008. The Empty Spaces: Or, How Theater Failed America. February 5. The Stranger, Seattle’s Only Newspaper. (Accessed online December 8, 2008).

Molly Smith — Arena Stage

June 10th, 2011 2 comments

Molly Smith -- Arena Stage

So, Molly Smith was the Keynote speaker at the Dramatists Guild tonight, and never, I think, have I heard/seen a more appropriate choice for a keynote speaker in terms of setting the tone.

I feel compelled, immediately, to discuss Mike Daisey and his explosive article on how Resident Theaters failed America. A year or so ago I brought up Mike Daisey at a Dramatist Guild meeting at the Cleveland Play House–which was boasting about its “innovative” adaptation approach to “theater”. I think Michael Bloom’s head nearly exploded when I suggested that adaptations weren’t real theater.

Molly Smith’s talk goes directly to the heart of this. Smith, at Arena Stage, has turned the “theater” into a “center” that addresses her “four pillars”: production, presentation, development, and study of American Theater. This is more than talk. When Gary Garrison introduced Smith, he noted that Arena Stage has started a new program (New Play Institute) that provides 3 playwrights with 3 years at Arena at Full Salary, Full Medical Benefits, an Office, Travel Expenses, and 1 Full Production. Smith immediately corrected Garrison to note that now it is 5 playwrights. Thunderous applause followed.

Let me be clear. Daisey’s argument in How Theater Failed America is that the whole point of Resident Theaters was to SUPPORT theater artists. To provide a living to playwrights, actors, directors, and other technical stage personnel instead of what has happened: a steady stream of support to Artistic Directors, Marketing personnel, Development Officers and staff, etc; while theater artists have been designated as expendable and thrown aside. Case in point, the Cleveland Play House now makes the majority of its season’s productions Adaptations of works by “popular” or “long dead” writers. Then it adds some “classic” plays. In the past few years it has expanded to “Fusion Fest” which may be considered new theater, but, it pales in comparison to Cleveland Public Theatre, for instance, which is dedicating itself to a complete process of staging new works by local playwrights–such as Eric Coble‘s My Barking Dog. The question might legitimately be asked, why hasn’t the Playhouse given Eric Coble and Eric Schmiedl and others the 3 year salary and 3 year health benefits and 1 guaranteed main stage production? Where is the Play House in the innovation game that Arena Stage clearly is marking out? Arena worked with the Mellon Foundation to get it done and support the artists in its community, and it aims to go national with it.

I’m no fool. I have a certificate in Nonprofit Management from the Mandel Center at Case. I know you need Artistic Directors to provide charismatic leadership; Marketing people to develop your targets and “offerings”; and Development officers to keep in touch with $$ in the community. But somewhere along the line too many theaters got far too caught up in this aspect of the “corporation” and lost sight of the actual reason for their existence.

Thank God Molly Smith has come along to provide clear and refreshingly committed energy to theaters and their commitment to their artists.

Smith is no fool. She understands the necessity of a variety of offerings: Classic theater for audiences that expect O’Neill and Williams and so on; Musical theater for those who want relief from thoughtful anything when it comes to theater entertainment; and new voices for those who are more daring in their palettes. She has worked at the Shaw Festival in Ontario, for instance, and knows assuredly the value of the “marketing mix.” But she hasn’t let that kill her vision of the place of the modern artists in the equation–and God bless her for it.

Smith received constant applause and a standing ovation for her keynote, as she well-deserved, for saying what to my mind should be a basic truth: playwrights provide value to our culture: not through simple “civilizing” of theater-goers, nor through new, modern approaches of “engines for economic development”, but as forces for empathy and understanding in a world that is becoming more and more detached, impersonal, and removed in its day-to-day human interactions.

Smith, equally, pointed out that Theaters as organizations deserve loyalty from those whom they helped. Smith posited the question of what would have happened to Florida Stage had every writer and actor who had his/her start at that theater come to the aid of that theater in its time of need? As artists we are obligated to our theaters and theater communities just as much as we insist that our theaters are obligated to us.

In another fascinating moment, Smith pointed to a resource or experiment called the New Play Map ( that seeks input from all playwrights. This map will “map” new productions and second productions and so forth so that trends and patterns of the staging of plays can be seen; as well as the theaters in which they are appearing.

Along these lines, like so many others, Smith bemoaned the fact that playwrights are not getting full productions, but readings and workshops, etc. A topic that was equally taken up by Christopher Durang, whom I’ll touch on soon.

Coming from the Perseverance Theater in Alaska, Smith frankly stated that theaters owe more to their artists, especially playwrights, but it is equally important that playwrights (as assembled at this conference) take responsibility as well and work for serious systemic change.

Clearly Molly Smith is someone to be admired and respected and I look forward to talking with her at greater length.

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