Songs for the Struggling Artist

System Secrets
July 28, 2011, 10:37 pm
Filed under: art, business, Non-Profit, theatre | Tags: , , , ,

One of the perks of spending a lot of time with someone trying to get his show produced in the American Theatre SYSTEM is that I’m learning all sorts of things I never realized before. I feel like I’m discovering all kinds of dirty secrets and being shown lots of dark corners of knowledge that I shouldn’t be seeing. A lot of this knowledge is right out in the open but somehow in my thirty seven years on the planet (and the bulk of them involved in theatre) I managed to miss it. I suspect that most of us are missing it.

For example, did you know that most major “non-profit” theatres are in the business of producing work for the Broadway stage (i.e. – the most “for profit” part of the business)?

Here’s how new work gets done in this country: for the most part it’s either “developed” (i.e. funneled through new work programs where it is sliced and diced according to the whims of literary managers, dramaturgs and administrators and then never actually produced) OR it’s brought to the “non-profit” by a Broadway producer who offers it up with an “enhancement” deal. A Broadway producer basically says to a non-profit theatre, “Hey, would you produce this show please? If you do, I’ll give you a million dollars and a percentage of the cut when it gets to Broadway.” And this institution (one of the only things our government will pay for in terms of arts funding) produces this commercial production and gets its name splashed on Broadway marquees. It also rakes in some cash.

Meanwhile, this whole non-profit system was initially created to encourage risk-taking non-commercial work. These theatres were set up to provide opportunities to support work that otherwise would have no change of being seen. Now that most theatres are essentially subsidizing Broadway theatres, there’s no space for riskier work.

Apparently, when Arena stage did this enhancement thing with the Great White Hope in 1968, they lost their grant money because this use of public funds was seen as corrupt. By the 80s, it became the norm and now you’d be hard pressed to find a large non-profit institution that doesn’t have its hand in the game.

What happens to the work that these institutions were set up to fund? It cobbles together what dregs it can from private donors and the occasional tiny grant and fights for survival in smaller venues.

The system is so calcified now that my friend’s show (which HAS a Broadway producer attached to it) is not getting produced because the “non-profits” aren’t willing to take the risk on it. It’s a crazy cockamamie world in which a Broadway theatre producer is more willing to take risks on a new work than a non-profit theatre.

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