What Price Idealism, or Who You Gonna Dance With?

May 20, 2013

This content was originally posted on HowlRound and is reposted with the permission of the author.

Is not gold the measure of genius?—Salvador Dali to Allen Ginsberg (as told by Julian Beck)

One of my all-time favorite play titles is Christopher Durang’s ‘dentity Crisis. It’s minimalist genius: the personal crisis, the dropped “I.” Well, it’s ‘dentity crisis time in the nonprofit theater, but this time the “I” that got dropped stands for ideals or, maybe, idealism. It stands for impulse, as in the original one, and individual, as in individual aesthetic, the thing that makes it possible to distinguish one institutional theater from another, which is now a bit like taste-testing brands of milk. In fact, to read Diane Ragsdale’s air-clearing report on a 2011 confab between producers from America’s commercial and nonprofit worlds, the “I” fell off somewhere back In the Intersection, that crossroads where the art theater meets the money one.

The nonprofit ‘dentity crisis is no news, despite periodic hot flashes of denial and indignation from LORT.

The nonprofit ‘dentity crisis is no news, despite periodic hot flashes of denial and indignation from LORT. What’s news in Ragsdale’s probing, evenhanded, remarkably nuanced summation are the admissions it contains. We overhear many institutional leading lights of this generation—Oskar Eustis (The Public Theater), Mara Isaacs (McCarter), Jim Nicola (New York Theatre Workshop), Molly Smith (Arena Stage), Tony Taccone (Berkeley Rep)—agreeing (in substance, if not details) with the eternal not-for-profit purist Robert Brustein, founder of Yale Rep and the American Repertory Theatre. We watch as they quote at exhilarating length from that constant beacon of the artistic alternative, Arena founder Zelda Fichandler, as Molly Smith sums up Fichandler (by way, I think, of agreement): “Broadway: no.”

We witness the confessions of Gregory Mosher, former artistic director of and, with executive director Bernard Gersten, raiser from the dead of Lazarus-like Lincoln Center Theater circa 1980s. Back in ’88 Mosher famously did battle with then-commercial theater wunderkind (now ex-NEA chair) Rocco Landesman, after Landesman, in the pages of the New York Times, challenged Mosher and Gersten for chasing success at the expense of the holier grails of the American art theater (“What Price Success at Lincoln Center?”). Landesman warned then that the “shocking, disturbing, and challenging work so vital to our culture would recede, inevitably, into the back of the repertory.” He chided that “while the middle of the road might be a path to success, the theater might become a less exciting and ultimately less important place as a result of following that path.” Now we catch Mosher turning to Landesman twenty-three years later (this meeting happens in late 2011), and we hear him say those words that warm the cockles of selfish, truth-loving hearts everywhere: “You were absolutely right.”

Right he was, and it’s no longer just the hard-liners, outsiders and alter cockers shouting the word from the mountaintops. It’s the heirs of Downtrodden Abbey, or what used to aptly be called the Regional, Resident, Repertory theater, though none of those original R’s currently apply. It’s the guys—yes, mostly guys, all white, except for the playwrights brought in to diversify the table—it’s the guys on the ground today providing the critique, the ones still mission-crazy after all these years.

A major theme of our sixty-five-year-old nonprofit boom, dating from roughly the foundings of Margo Jones’s Theatre ’47 and Nina Vance’s Alley Theatre in 1947, is the pushmepullyou relationship with Broadway. Jones, the great imaginer of a theater in every major city, had affection for Broadway, even as she championed decentralization; most others had less affection for it. Fichandler lost her entire acting company to the Great (now and forever-)White Way when, in 1967, Howard Sackler’s The Great White Hope transferred there. (Did they ever return? No, they never returned.) TGWH started the opportunistic suck that became our theatrical equivalent of the Alaska Pipeline, drilling crude out of the regional ground, pumping it to Broadway, cleaning it up for the marketplace, and selling it to whoever will pay premium, regardless of how the practice (and dependence) degrades the source. The Guthrie team chose chilly Minneapolis in large part because it was so blessedly far from New York. Brustein fought the temptations of Broadway throughout his career as artistic director and critic (mostly for The New Republic). Even in his first season at Yale (1966), before Yale Rep was Yale Rep, he gave up on producing a Broadway-bound play by his friend Jules Feiffer, rather than compromise his fanatical (and, I suspect, then only half-understood because still untested) ideals.*

Let’s begin at the beginning. Here’s Fichandler from a recent speech. Impulse: “We looked at what we had—the hit-or-miss; put-it-up, tear-it-down; make-a-buck, lose-a-buck; discontinuous; artists-indifferent; New York-centered ways of Broadway, and they weren’t tolerable anymore, and it made us angry.” Ideals: “…We must take our gaze and any preoccupation away, away from Broadway, from which we took our leave many years ago. If they want what we discover, nourish, and perform, that’s OK [….]But Broadway must not invade our house and take over our home. Always: he who pays the piper pays the tune.”

Brustein next. Ideals: “What I’m trying to say is that there are certain ideals that were constructed for the nonprofit theater […] We all deviate from the ideals—ideals are meant to deviate from. But you have to know what they are in order to deviate from them.” Individual aesthetic: “There was a time,” Brustein tells the conveners,

My heart leaps up, and not because I relish the trouble. It’s real bad out there. I relish the honesty.

when we were different theaters, we did different things. We didn’t join together to do the same things to please the largest number, to bring in the greatest amount of money, and the greatest subscribers. We did, as a nonprofit theater, most of us did these things because nobody else would do them! […] Because Broadway wasn’t going to do them! And they needed a voice! They needed an outlet. They needed a stage.

Now compare and guess who said it: “It’s the mission of the nonprofit that’s the danger right now. That’s the thing that’s being eviscerated.” Maybe you guessed. Oskar Eustis. Or this one: “Now, listen, we’re here together [commercial and nonprofit producers] because we were on two different ships, they both hit icebergs, and we both jumped into the same life raft….Is there a creative progressive place we can go together as a community, as a culture? Because individualism, fame, money, materialism lead one to another iceberg. But we all kind of need and want those things too; so it’s a really tricky road.” That’s Tony Taccone, coming up with the stickiest (sinking-est) metaphor of the convening, as well as one its most shocking—and therefore, important—admissions. When the idea was floated of countering mission drift with a joint declaration of values, the longtime Berkeley Rep paterfamilias (once, with Eustis, a young Turk leader of San Francisco’s Eureka Theatre) admitted: “The idea of just making the value statement at all feels radical.”

I was especially moved by this cri de coeur from Arena’s executive director Edgar Dobie, who started his career as a commercial producer: “…Our experiences in this intersection have been head-on collisions.” Dobie, after describing the struggle of bad partnerships in the commercial world, turns to the Broadway producers in the room and asks:

Do you know what that does? Do you know what that does to an institution? Do you know what that does to a staff? Do you know what it does to the respect that they have for the leadership? Do you know what that does to us? It’s appalling.

Here we have it, at long last, frank and honest assessment from current generals in the field, and that assessment includes: loss of ideals, impulse amnesia, and lack of aesthetic distinction. In a nutshell: Identity Quagmire. My heart leaps up, and not because I relish the trouble. It’s real bad out there. I relish the honesty. I believe, with the vast anonymous recovery community, that the first step of recovery is to admit you are powerless and your life (or that of your institution) has become unmanageable. And I’m not glibly turning to the language of addiction; I’m pulling it from the report itself, where practically everyone uses it.

Brustein, for example, on working with Broadway:

…You get the taste of it in your mouth and you want more of it. And gradually you’re growing out of your old commitment to a collective ideal, your idealism, and you’re becoming—essentially, whether you know it or not, you’re becoming a Broadway producer. And the big difference is that you’re trying to please an audience and make money rather than please a group of artists, and an audience who are part of that artist collective, and make art. And that distinction gets lost. And once that’s lost then we have this confusion of a misalliance between Broadway and nonprofit.

Mosher, like a guy with a ten-years sober pin, testifies: “I’d put my left hand on Subscribe Now! and raised my right hand to God and Peter Zeisler and the Attorney General and said, ‘We’re here to produce Art!’” But when excellence led to commercial success, he continues, commercial success led to “bells and whistles,” “the cash and the prizes and all the bullshit that theaters tell their boards about to get them excited to go out and raise more money.” All of which, according to Mosher, become like a drug. Like all addicts, you “start living a lie,” Mosher explains.

You would lie to your artists by saying they were central, but in fact pay them terribly and expect them to be the main subsidizing force in the American theater—probably in the American arts. And you would lie to your board. And you would lie to your audience [by chasing ‘success’ rather than excellence].”

Commercial producer Michael David offers up “the heroin of box office success.”

Like any addictive downward spiral, the cost increases and the original reasons for using get lost. Sue Frost (Memphis), who recently crossed over to the commercial realm after years at the Goodspeed Opera House, reminds the group that enhancement “morphed from ‘we could use a couple hundred thousand dollars to help us with orchestrations’ to ‘this will cost $2 million because we need to balance our budget.’”

It’s too easy to paint the commercial gang as Times Square street corner dealers, handing out baggies of starry white powder to the strung out, ambitious art heads, tempting them into the garden of financial participation of good with evil.

In fact, addiction may be the overarching metaphor of Ragsdale’s report, and its use passes from speaker to speaker, even as its meaning shifts. The word “drug” appears something like forty-five times in the book. I’d argue we should take the metaphor seriously—instead of throwing it around like some hipster trope that gives our retro profession a whiff of dangerous intensity. Addiction leads to death. It’s pretty straight up. Or down. Addiction to that which doesn’t make you healthier makes you sicker. The fix fixes nothing. It makes you crave what you don’t need. It’s true for people; it’s true for systems; it’s true for cultures.

It’s too easy to paint the commercial gang as Times Square street corner dealers, handing out baggies of starry white powder to the strung out, ambitious art heads, tempting them into the garden of financial participation of good with evil. The guys with the moral problem to solve (the nonprofits) are, of course, the protagonists here, but the Tempter is always the best role. (And the Scold is the biggest bore, I admit.) But, if Taccone’s iceberg/life raft analogy holds, this complicated morality play transcends the melodrama of good-versus-evil, which is why we need a thinker like Ragsdale to parse it.

This report is populated by some of the best Broadway producers around—Michael David, Margo Lion, Kevin McCollum, David Binder, Sue Frost. And they’re addicts, too. McCollum keeps reminding the assembled that, as much if not more than their nonprofit counterparts, the Broadway babies are in it for love. “You’re talking about the money, but the sinewy material that keeps us all coming to this frustrating and glorious industry is we’re passion junkies.” They’ve gotta be. Even more than institutional artistic and managing directors, commercial producers stake their lives and livelihoods—and other people’s—on one and then another show they believe in enough to gamble on against terrible odds.

I do wish that Edgar Dobie would set the example for his fellow managers, just as I wish that the example of artistic directors coming clean here would inspire greater honesty field wide. Whenever these issues publically raise their ugly heads, some LORT manager or another either starts denying they exist, attacking the people pointing out the problems, or worse, taking the self-congratulatory palliative line that we as a smart creative field—under the benevolent guidance of the large theater leadership—will find a way. We haven’t found a way, and there’s no reason to believe, based on current practices (and the profound lack of self-criticism among the self-anointed field leaders) that we will. It’s only too easy in the “too big to fail” theaters to argue for bucking up a system that has betrayed its deepest values, while pretending to still be members of a rebel band of comrades.

This year the Huntington’s Michael Maso chose the moment of being honored by the “field” at a Theatre Communications Group conference to cry “Bullshit!” on “those critics of our theaters who seem determined to drive a wedge between individual artists and institutions,” as if the institutional theater hadn’t already done that by, for example, impoverishing those artists. Two years ago it was my friend Paula Tomei of the playwright-supportive South Coast Rep, who found it necessary, on behalf of her less playwright-supportive colleagues, to attack the economic data of Outrageous Fortune (a study I led for Theatre Development Fund that collected, among much else, statistics on the earnings of playwrights) on the grounds that it was 1) old news and 2) that, in the qualitative, anecdotal piece of the research we’d relied heavily on “anonymous” quoting, as if folks in our sadly untruth-telling community would chime in about the quality of playwrights’ lives if they were publically named. As if playwrights were not still dependent on fiercely self-protective institutional theaters—notable for their wagon circling at the merest hint of whistle blowing—for their meager livings, a situation that does little to inspire an open airing of issues. (Maso made a similar case some years ago against an American Theatre article on designer fees, attacking the anonymity of sources, without the faintest acknowledgement that the designers had everything to lose by outing themselves when it was their employers they were complaining about.)

One of the slipperiest parts of this iceberg/life raft moment is the nonprofit theater’s version of what literary critics call “the intentional fallacy.” It goes like this: We are all, in the nonprofit theater, good people. We all care about art; that’s why we’re doing this hard, unappreciated work. No one’s getting rich at this. We are all just finding our way in this young field, in this hard, hard business. In other words, we have the best of intentions, so stop criticizing our actual practices. In other words—and I believe that almost all defensiveness in the nonprofit theater boils down to this—“We are doing the best we can, so don’t talk shit about us.”

I don’t, though, care about intentions, if the practices of our theaters impoverish and alienate the artists on whose backs they’re built. I don’t care about intentions of administrators if the work is boring and homogenous. I don’t care about how hard we work, if our work betrays bred-in-the-bones principles. Taking money from commercial producers, creating product for the commercial theater, bringing people from the New York marketplace theater in to meddle in the local, homegrown, nonprofit art theater, using commercial success as a lure for local patronage—these practices betray those principles. So do arguments that we can’t sustain or field acting companies, that co-productions are necessary for economic survival, that audiences won’t accept more challenging work, that it’s harder to run a theater now than it was to found one when Mac Lowry at Ford was still passing out big checks. If theaters insist on dropping their identities “in the intersection,” funders should move on to smaller theaters—or even larger, still-on-mission ones (look at the wonderful example of the colossal Oregon Shakespeare Festival). Does this sound absolutist? Absolutely. Does this sound naively idealistic? So be it.

You can argue, as Christopher Ashley of La Jolla Playhouse does, that the vast majority of a theater’s time is devoted to noncommercial work, to education, to community outreach, to the development of new work that no one else will see. You can argue, as he does, that Broadway is, for new work, the way to find an extended life and enter the theatrical canon. He’s correct about both. But the fact remains: the time and human energy spent on the development of commercial properties is time and energy not spent on fulfilling a mission, on the care and feeding of a theater’s artistic identity (unless it’s that of a commercial/nonprofit blend, which is ok, too, but then you shouldn’t be getting money desperately needed by the true pursuit of the art theater ideals). The time the artistic director spends working on Broadway is time out of the community. The long hours working out commercial/nonprofit partnerships are long hours not spent solving the problems of individual artists or figuring out how to rebuild acting companies or educating audiences about experiment and challenge. Every dollar spent off mission, every star cast, every regional theater playbill that touts that theater’s record moving shows to New York erodes the I in that theater’s ‘dentity.

Will we wish, on our deathbeds, that we’d been more pragmatic, that we’d made a few more compromises on behalf of the bottom line?

Whoever said you can’t serve god and mammon at the same time must have been an insufferable crank, but that doesn’t make the statement untrue. Or maybe it does, but would we really suffer so much by standing for a more idealistic theater? Will we wish, on our deathbeds, that we’d been more pragmatic, that we’d made a few more compromises on behalf of the bottom line?

It’s not just individual theaters that have lost their voices. It’s the American art theater as a whole. We’ve been making every argument—community development, economic impact, etc.—except the one in our genetic code. As Sheldon Cheney, the founder of Theatre Arts magazine in 1916 put it, “Idealism…may itself be put down as the first ideal of the art theater.” If we don’t hold a place in this capitalistic culture for such idealism, for work that is play, for enterprise that lives and dies by the pursuit of truth and beauty, for company and collaboration and civic responsibility, for the local and the loving, for the distinct voice and the wild expressivity that needs a stage big enough to contain it, for something that George Cram (Jig) Cook, the pioneering spirit of the original Provincetown Players, called “the beloved community of life-givers”—if we don’t hold the space for just this kind of grandiose description of what we aspire to and do, we are not just up against the Taccone’s figurative iceberg. We’re sunk. Sunk in pragmatism. Sunk in striving for capital and celebrity and Times reviews and regional Tonys. Sunk in wanting to be everything but what we are: an idealistic alternative.

The nonprofit theater has cultivated our nation’s best talents—actors, playwrights, directors, designers. I don’t begrudge these artists commercial opportunities. Let them make bank on Broadway. Let them make their union weeks for health insurance. Let them be recognized and sell books and gather TV offers and movie deals and prize money. Let them phone home and have their families finally understand what they’re doing, because in America and around the globe the word “Broadway” communicates a value that “regional theater” still can’t. Let our artists get the sustenance and attention and respect that the nonprofit theater has so negligently failed to provide.

But please let’s not further degrade the idealism those of us on the inside of institutions have inherited (I include myself, as the artistic director of a sixty-four-year-old company). If you run a theater and want to do outside work in the commercial theater, go for it. Your soul is yours to care for in any way you see fit. But the soul of your theater is not yours for the selling. Care for the ideals of the art theater—which are, in the end, its power and example and magnificent gift—has passed into our hands. Why would we let it slip through our grasping fingers?

The nonprofit theater is now essentially the same age as the Broadway theater was when the nonprofits got started. Our theater has never burned as deeply into the psyche of American life in part because its artistic intentions are almost inexplicable in a capitalistic society. That’s still the job. To answer the still unanswered question: can a capitalistic society support art that isn’t commodity, a practice of art that is only secondarily commerce? To answer that question with an unflinching “yes!

Oskar Eustis says it perfectly: “We’ve been creative and entrepreneurial and we’ve been brilliant and flexible and theatrical in the last thirty years, but adjusting to the marketplace. I think we also need to put a big foot down and say, ‘No, we’re not going to just adjust to the marketplace. We’re going to insist there’s something other than the marketplace.’” Funders should shake the money stick to encourage better, alternative, foundational practices. Eustis again:

What I feel like we are missing are strong, strident voices in the field, which I think could come from funders [or others…] to suggest not that there should be some legal punishment against nonprofit theaters that violate—but that we’re going to attempt to steer as many rewards as possible to those theaters which are clearly manifesting in their work nonprofit values…

I mean, it’s what Mac Lowry did! Mac Lowry got up on a soapbox and said there are certain things that should happen in this country and the Ford Foundation’s going to put its money behind it. We need to find as many people who have some resources, who have some belief in something other than the marketplace, to band together and try to figure out how we’re going to enforce that…

I agree with Landesman, too, that foundations and the NEA should cold turkey stop funding theaters that take any commercial money. (Yes, counter the language of addiction with terms of recovery!) These seem like radical proposals, but they’re only radical if you’re staring at the large institutional theaters and thinking they’re all we’ve got.

They’re not. There are dozens and dozens—hundreds—of theaters across the nation who are as wild-eyed, brave, hardworking, and idealistic as the Joneses, Fichandlers, Brusteins and Papps were fifty years ago, who are as pure as they were, who keep companies, who pay themselves the same next-to-nothing as they pay their collaborators, but who make dazzling work and set dazzling examples. Their theaters are also decades old. You can find them in Bushwick, Brooklyn, and Blue Lake, California; from Whitesburg, Ohio, to rural Pennsylvania and Western Massachusetts. They march puppets through the streets of Chicago and the farms of Vermont, re-experiment with avant-garde classics in warehouses in Austin and garages in Soho. They throw new plays up in a weekend or rehearse them for years at a stretch. They are also true professionals. They are also leaders. They mess with distinctions of high, low, avant-garde, populist, community-based, contemporary and classical, subject and form. They—and the artists who populate them—are our national theater, and they don’t take a buck from the other part of our national theater, that part that we are still, in spite of sixty-year’s effort, known by around the world: Broadway. They deserve a different kind of enhancement, the enhancement of our attention, of funding, of acknowledgment that the ‘dentity crisis of some is not the ‘dentity crisis of all. They are still, as Fichandler and her pals were, “angry.” They are still fueled by the energy of the alternative.

According to legend, Robert Johnson met the devil at the crossroads and came away playing the blues guitar better than anyone ever. What has the nonprofit theater profited by selling its soul? Nothing but confusion of purpose, something that’s happened, not in one night at the stroke of twelve as with Johnson’s devil deal, but gradually, incrementally, until we have become unrecognizable, even to ourselves. Until we have almost convinced ourselves that the only thing we’re selling is tickets.

*In an irony celebrated by participants in Ragsdale’s report, Brustein wouldn’t have anything to do with the commercial theater and, then, inadvertently started the whole blurry, codependent commercial-nonprofit thing by getting into bed with his former students (a figurative, collegial, artistic bed) Rocco Landesman and Michael David on the musical Big River. The show started at ART, moved to director Des McAnuff’s La Jolla Playhouse and then to Broadway, where it did brilliantly. Because their relationships were strong—including with librettist William Hauptmann (another former Brustein student)—and because they had never done anything quite like this, Landesman and David kept their hands off the Brustein production and Brustein/ART had nothing to do with the Broadway version, though the theater got its three or four percent, as Brustein remembers. Their naïveté gives all of them a nostalgic kick, as Landesman recalls: “This was the worst deal we ever did.” To which Brustein exclaims, “I never knew it was a deal!” McAnuff was launched in the commercial musical business, though, as was La Jolla, where he was artistic director and remains affiliated.

Read More: