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I'm an NYC-based director, and this is an outlet for my various musings about theater and about the city of New York. Sometimes the subjects run together, sometimes they are entirely separate, but between the two they comprise the most fitful, most intense, most trying love affair of my few years. They fill my head, my heart, my mouth every hour of every day; they could fill a book.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

#Newplay Thoughts Continued

Fair warning: I'm probably going to be marinating on the #newplay convening all week.

I've been doing some more thinking about Landesman's indictment of non-profit theaters that are, for all intents and purposes, competing in the commercial market and his assertion that we need to re-define how the government allocates funding for non-profit theaters.

I agree. I think it's valid that if a a play is competing in the "commericial market" then it's not really playing fair to also access funds that should be available to projects that are taking more risks, and stand on less stable financial footing. But then, how do we define things like "risk taking" and "stable financial footing"? Most commercial projects do not recoup their investment and, on the flip-side, are we saying that all non-profit projects - all projects that deserve funding - should explicitly not hold mass appeal? That doesn't seem right.

That leads to the following question: "Is it possible for a regional theater to be true to its mission and non-profit status and ALSO create work that resonates with the cultural majority?"

Well, yes. And this is not just true of regional theater, but of all theater. Resonant art is not necessarily in opposition with the cultural mainstream. I'm fond of saying the only difference between what we call "art" and what we call "entertainment" is that entertainment is art that has successfully resonated with people on a mass scale.

Which is not to say that art that resonates, but not on such a broad spectrum, isn't equally important. And because it is, by nature, not financially viable, this is where non-profit funding, grants, and government subsidies come in. This is the "R&D" aspect of creation that we've all been talking about. It doesn't make money, but still performs a vital service to society and it's our responsibility as citizens of a civilized nation to nurture that.

The tricky part is, questions like, "Does this take risks?" "Is this art vital to society?" and "Is this financially viable?" are somewhat subjective and, from a beaurocratic perspective, not great for determining who gets government subsidies and who does not. Landesman says there should be a bigger difference between "commercial" and "non-profit" than what tax returns we file, and I agree. But if non-profit is not defined by a 501(c)3, then what *does* define it? Especially when it's possible and sometimes favorable for non-profit work to appeal on a mass level, and traditional commercial endeavors carry just as much risk for financial failure?

The question gets even trickier still when you take it out New York and apply it to smaller regional theaters. At least in New York you can say, "Look. Here are the Broadway theaters, which are clearly Commercial Projects. And here are smaller theaters and companies which are clearly not competing in a commercial market. And here are some NFPs with Broadway houses who are taking enhancement money from commercial producers, and that's not fair. You can't dip in to both pots."

But in other areas of the country, you don't have a whole bunch of big theaters trying to serve one specific need, and then a whole bunch of other theaters trying to serve another. You have one to maybe a handful of theaters that are trying to serve a whole spectrum of needs of their entire community, ranging from experiences that resonate on a community-wide level to projects with relevance and artistic merit, but a more limited appeal. So... what do you do with that?

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