How Do We Know What To Reform?

Last year, I hosted a blogging roundtable about the recent new play sector study Outrageous Fortune (you can pick yourself up a copy here, if you haven’t already). Outrageous Fortune documents the problems and disconnects of the new play ecosystem in America via a series of interviews and surveys with Artistic Directors and playwrights on all levels of success.

One thing that becomes apparent as you read the book is that theaters are essentially responding to market incentives, that are often difficult to see. Why? Because the market is hidden and isn’t made up of ticket buyers. Instead, it’s made up of donors and funders. As a result, various well-intentioned but now harmful policies are affecting the new play landscape.

I’ll give one concrete example:  Outrageous Fortune spills quite a bit of ink covering the problem of the overwhelming emphasis on world premiere productions (called “premieritis.”  Premieritis causes numerous problems.  Plays can’t get done more than once unless they get the right review in the right paper.  Plays that have been done before get sold as premieres. The drive to get a play premiered on the largest, most prominent stage possible ends up driving playwrights directly into the arms of the very institutions they also list as ones ill equipped to realize their work. Smaller theaters that nurture playwrights through earlier stages of their careers don’t get to reap the benefits of their success. And so on and so forth.

Here’s the rub: the demand for premieres is not driven by audiences. There’s no evidence that audiences respond (positively or negatively) to premieres.  The emphasis on premieres  comes from funding guidelines and donor desires.  In an effort to get more theaters to do more new plays, funders have inadvertently created a world where those plays can’t get done a second time. It seems to me, then, that if we want to reform how theater is practiced in America, we have to reform funding, how it works, how it’s structured, and what the criteria are for giving it. I imagine the same is true for other fields in the non-profit arts.

So here’s my question for you all: How do you as organizations (and people within these organizations) reevaluate the funding programs you have?  How do you identify what the needs are of the art forms you’re supporting? How do you understand the role you play as a provider of economic incentives?

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3 Responses to How Do We Know What To Reform?

  1. Paul Mullin says:

    Isaac, seems like a major prize, or even festival, for which only plays that have been fully produced prior might be in order. Perhaps the theatre that originally produced the play could share in the prize / recognition somehow, so that the impetus to premiere new work is preserved as well.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I am not convinced. What I see are more and more theater companies producing marketing-driven seasons, pulling out the tried-and-true warhorses that are safe and salable – all to keep the doors open.

    Agreed, however, that funders’ guidelines can drive theaters to veer off-mission. When money is tight, nonprofits will go for whatever is available. Seems like the best scenario would be for more funders to do two things. 1) provide broad general support, trusting the theater to do what they do best, and 2) provide support, when needed, for theaters to get their management and infrastructure in shape.

    • Paul Mullin says:

      You seem to be saying theaters are producing tripe to survive and that funders should continue and even expand their underwriting of this strategy. Or is there a point I’m missing?

      If you agree that the current course the Regional Theatre juggernaut is sailing is pointed at disaster, then how does what you suggest make sense? I’m struggling.

      (I’m also struggling with you being “anonymous”. a) There’s no tradition of it in the theatre; b) How are we to distinguish you from the next “anonymous” that pipes up with something equally unclear?)

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