Nonprofit Theater as Public Service: How Should We Define Profit and Loss?

Polly Carl

by Polly Carl

Something profound happened on the first Tuesday in November, something I’m still trying to digest fully. To my mind the election results represent a victory of love over hate, of human dignity over market forces, of public service over private gain. Those who spewed hate toward women weren’t reelected. Those who insisted on heteronormativity as the only way were defeated handily, and those who spouted the rights of the wealthy to buy elections for the sake of perpetuating the private markets of their personal fortunes were sent packing. On that Tuesday, at least for a moment, we redefined public service as something meant to benefit everyone, not just the few.

John Adams

John Adams

John Adams wrote in a letter to his son, “Public business, my son, must always be done by somebody. It will be done by somebody or another. If wise men decline it, others will not; if honest men refuse it, others will not.” Most of us would agree, though deeply flawed, our Founding Fathers were wise men who created a frame for a political system that in many ways has served us well.

I feel and see more deeply the cost of a commitment to public service. The long view of history reminds me that the $4.2 billion we spent on this last election is recent history. And it also makes me ask: Are too many honest men and women refusing public service, making room for too many politicians driven by ego and the desire for personal gain? And because this is what I do for a living, it makes me think about the history of the regional theater movement—about our leaders, past and present. And I ask: How do we currently as a field define our relationship to public service? We take a tax break, and like churches and libraries, we offer something of value to the public. When we say we choose to make our art in the context of nonprofit theater, we embrace a form of public service—not for the sake of glamorous careers that include arriving in limos to the Tony awards and sipping champagne with the stars. I intentionally chose to work inside nonprofit theater because I had a deep desire to effect change in the world. But somewhere along the historical path of the nonprofit theater movement, public service to artists and a community ran head long into private desires for personal success. Like our political milieu the public good has gotten confused with private desires.

In both editing the report, In the Intersection: Partnerships in the New Play Sector by Diane Ragsdalejust released by The Center for the Theater Commons, and attending the convening that the report covers, I have a deeper understanding of the movement of history in our field from a purer sense of public service to a market-driven desire to both serve and survive. These historical shifts in mission and purpose aren’t simple, and they don’t happen over night. We didn’t go from John Adams to Mitt Romney without struggles of every kind. But if you are invested in the future of the nonprofit theater movement, I suggest you read this report closely (you can download it for free), because it will place you in the thick of history whose next chapter will be written by the readers of HowlRound, among others.

Oskar Eustis

Oskar Eustis

The meeting this report covers was, from my vantage point, remarkable. The participants are public servants struggling with increased market pressures—how to make a public good in the face of enormous obstacles. The report covers a historical shift from the very opening conversation between Rocco Landesman and Gregory Mosher, and that shift is more deeply explored in the second chapter in the conversation between Oskar Eustis and Robert Brustein. Eustis frames the very question that the report explores:

What strikes me as you talk Bob is that . . . everything you’re talking about is about being part of a larger history that stems back really to that beach in Provincetown in 1920 through to the present. And you talk about being engaged in the training and the discussion and the creation at all at once so that, in a way, you are creating a world of values that is separate. And that world of values is part of a larger history; but we haven’t talked about profit or commerce in any of this really. And I think that one of the difficult things is: Where do you find an alternative set of values in the world—where you can live inside an alternative set of conversations about “profit and loss”?

Tony Taccone

Tony Taccone

In pondering this question we must consider the history of our own movement. We must consider the values and the words of the founders of this movement like Robert Brustein and Zelda Fichandler who are still around and able to guide us—and not just when it’s to our advantage to do so, but even when that looking back questions our practices in the moment. The group of twenty-six nonprofit theater representatives, commercial producers, and artists that gathered for this conversation did exactly that. And in the looking backwards and forwards, all of us in that room felt perplexed about where the nonprofit theater movement stands now. We asked ourselves how we had gotten from there to here and most of the nonprofit participants, as you will read, were not convinced that here was what our founders meant when they argued that nonprofit status made sense for the theater. In one of the many honest and soul-searching moments in the report, Tony Taccone, artistic director of Berkeley Rep, tries to make sense of how we came to this moment in our history:

And so we’re trying to describe what happened to us. And trying to exercise a little bit of consciousness about where we want to go. Is there a creative progressive place we can go together as a community, as a culture? Because individualism, fame, money, materialism lead one another to an iceberg. But we all kind of need and want those things too; so it’s a really tricky road.

And so I sit here post-election pondering multiple American histories, the histories of presidents, and Constitutions, and theater movements. And I don’t want to argue that things should be as they once were. We don’t look back in order to go back, but rather to better choose what going forward looks like. I’m so grateful for the evolution of thought that has created the possibilities for new stories, not the least of which is my new story as a legally married person. But in this post-election bliss for many of us, it makes sense for us consider why we value public service, and why we’ve chosen a life in the nonprofit theater. Have we done it to succeed on personal terms or do we make art to make the world better?

Polly Carl is the director of the Center for the Theater Commons at Emerson College, and the editor of the online journal HowlRound

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