by Seth Rozin
There have been many an article, missive, blog, and rant, even a graduate thesis in recent years about how most of Americas’ largest theatres have become corporatized behemoths lacking any kind of real commitment to taking artistic risks, representing cultural diversity on stage and off, cultivating younger and more diverse audiences, etc. In fact, almost any conversation about the professional theatre, as a field, ends up referring to that small handful of once-revolutionary theatres that have succumbed to the forces of the marketplace, and are now producing cookie-cutter seasons that include a Shakespeare, a musical, a modern American or European classic, a regional premiere of a recent Broadway hit, and maybe, maybe a new play by a not completely unknown writer that the theatre is hoping will be the next major American playwright.
These conversations—some public, most private—are especially common among playwrights, and the resentment and outrage that are expressed is palpable. The sentiment is essentially “If only these twenty-five major theatres would change their ways, our field would be much healthier, and we would be much happier.”
Underlying that sentiment are two assumptions: (1) that if all those theatres really did commit to producing plays by lesser known and more diverse writers, American playwrights would be appeased; and (2) that those major, flagship theatres are leading our industry down a dreary path toward homogenization and corporatization, and that we need them to change course in order for the American Theater to not just survive, but thrive.
With regard to the first assumption, even if all the largest theatres did produce more new plays, only a handful of playwrights—those happy few who get produced—would feel appeased. Because the numbers of playwrights will continue to exponentially dwarf the number of production opportunities.
With regard to the second assumption, expecting these major, flagship theatres to voluntarily alter their programming and operational practices, or close shop, is ludicrous. What playwrights really want is for those largest theatres to take artistic risks, produce new plays by lesser known writers, engage artists and audiences of color, etc. yet stay the same size, so that the paycheck and prestige remain just as worthwhile. That would be akin to living composers asking the major orchestras around the country to stop programming Beethoven, Mozart and Tchaikovsky in favor of works by twenty-first century composers; the simple economic reality is that the orchestras would all go out of business in a heartbeat.
At the same time, we need to stop demonizing this class of theatres for doing exactly what their substantial audiences, powerful boards, and major institutional funders are rewarding them for doing: Being large. When the only thing you are leading in is size—of budget, staff, and especially audience—bigger really is the only better.
The conversation we need to be having is how we can educate and galvanize audiences, donors, funders, critics, agents, and other power brokers in our field to not automatically equate value or leadership with size; to not automatically reward theatres according to size; to not assume that the quality of the art has to do with size of the institution; to not assume that change can only occur from the “top” down (since history has shown us that change so often occurs from the “bottom” up).
Hard as this may be for most playwrights to stomach, the overwhelming majority of America’s theatregoers are choosing to spend their money and time at large theatres that offer fairly predictable seasons. These hundreds of thousands of patrons are mostly middle-aged and older, upper middle- and upper-class, and white. They find familiar titles and playwrights, proven classics, and New York Times-approved offerings to be comforting and appealing and reliably worth their investment. They are not clamoring for new plays. They are not clamoring for greater diversity on stage. They are not clamoring for greater artistic risk. So why should the large theatres that serve these audiences change? What incentive is there, really, for them to do anything fundamentally different?
We should let the field’s largest theaters do what they’re doing, and even be grateful that they serve the field in the way they do: by being large.
How can we, for example, get the estimated 10–15,000 playwrights in the US to refocus their attention on the vast number of genuinely enterprising, generally more risk-taking, new play-friendly, diversity-embracing, younger audience-attracting midsize and smaller professional theatres?
When I read Outrageous Fortune, I was struck by how often playwrights referred to the same handful of very large theatres when bemoaning their production opportunities; as if their career success was entirely tied to the class of theatres which, collectively, premiere only a handful of plays each year (and a good many of those premieres are by already established playwrights). There are two factors at work here: First, most playwrights don’t know who all of those midsize (and especially smaller) theatres are; in part, because they are never part of the conversation. They are not referred to in books like Outrageous Fortune, or almost any of the articles, blogs, rants, etc., about the field, despite the fact that they represent the largest percentage of TCG members, by far. Second, there is little incentive to find out who they are because (in the playwright’s mind) if they’re that small and unknown, they probably aren’t going to leverage one’s career.
Playwrights are trying to make a living like everybody else, and it’s obviously a lot easier to make a living if you get produced at a $10–15M LORT theatre than a $750K small professional theatre. The royalties from a single production at the former could be upwards of $50–75K, sometimes much higher; whereas the royalties at the latter are likely to be $3–5K. In other words, a playwright would need productions at ten to fifteen small theatres to make the same amount of money.
Imagine a world in which a $750K theatre offers a 12–15 percent royalty, or even 20 percent, instead of the standard 5–8 percent. Suddenly, it would only take three such productions to generate $20–25K; five could generate $35–40K.
How do we go about attacking this problem?
I would like to suggest that we try to make a collective, sustained effort to (1) educate playwrights about the legions of midsize and smaller theatres that are more likely to be receptive to new work, (2) create ways, like the National New Play Network’s newest program, The New Play Exchange, for like-minded theatres and playwrights to find each other with greater ease and at minimal cost, (3) engage literary agents and the largest institutional funders in how they can better support midsize and smaller theatres so that those theatres can, in turn, support playwrights at a significantly higher level, (4) stop wasting our time demonizing the largest theatres, and (5) start celebrating those midsize and smaller theatres that are actually taking risks by regularly producing new plays.
Instead of rewarding the largest theatres for being large, funders could more substantially reward midsize and smaller theatres for being committed to youth, diversity, and innovation. Instead of holding plays hostage for longshot deals at big theatres, agents could work to get handfuls of midsize and smaller theatres to commit to rolling world premieres. Instead of leading off every season preview with what the largest theatres are producing, theatre critics and writers could organize their lists by criteria other than size, like, say, the intrigue of the individual play. Instead of waiting for that all-or-nothing offer from the big theatre for a career-launching world premiere production, playwrights could build actual relationships with multiple midsize and smaller theatres across the country.
Playwrights need to wean themselves off of the grossly unrealistic thinking that being discovered, validated, or launched by a large theatre is the best, only, or most likely way to forge a successful career. Failing to do so will all but guarantee a lifetime of bitterness, resentment, and disappointment. At the same time, we need to work together, as a field, to improve the economics for new plays and playwrights.
Concerns continue to deepen around income inequality and America’s eroding middle class. The wealthiest few at the top have unprecedented power and influence, while the overwhelming majority of Americans are struggling harder to make ends meet. The same holds true in the professional theatre industry, albeit to a less extreme degree. We need to reframe the conversation around the vast middle class of theatres—those organizations that have been around for long enough to prove themselves worthy, but are still small and nimble enough, by choice, to embrace diversity and artistic risk. And we need playwrights to be at the front line of this conversation.
Real change, systemic change rarely, if ever, comes from the top down. And so it is with our field. Let’s get this revolution going.
Seth Rozin is a director, playwright, and the artistic director of InterAct Theatre Company in Philadelphia. He directed ‘Lebensraum’ by Israel Horovitz at the Fountain Theatre in 2000. This post originally appeared in Howlround.