Towards a Sustainable Theatre Model

Munroe: It has created a culture where, to a non-theatre going audience, the entire conversation is around what Broadway tour is coming to my local playhouse. The money is funneled into there and out of local theatre projects. It’s a shift for audiences as well as theatremakers.

Scott: And those New York touring productions are coming in without any connection to the audience or community, and the audience has no connection to the performers. It has become a transaction; they’re buying a product.

Munroe: Okay, so that’s how we got here. Now I want to hear about your vision for smaller, artist-owned, for-profit theatre companies that operate as a central thesis of the book. The idea of being exclusively for-profit is so fascinating. What would this mean for these theatres?

Scott: That’s at the center of it. In my model (which is based on Shakespeare’s the King’s Men and just about every theatre company throughout most of theatre history), company members own shares in the theatre and are paid according to their share of the company profits. I’m trying to get artists to think of themselves as owners, not employees. So there’s a direct connection between the bottom line and their bank account. But the artists are in charge! They decide what plays to do, who is doing what, how much money will be spent on a production, and so forth. Where we’re at right now, everybody, including the artistic and executive directors, can be hired and fired at the drop of a hat. We’re seeing it happen regularly. I don’t think that’s a positive. What makes that comfortable for artists is that they’re getting paid regardless of the success of their work.

In this new model, the people who are going to be part of the company buy a share in the company, so that every decision being made is going to directly affect how much money is coming into your pocket from that theatre. Of course, the argument is that you can’t make money in the arts. That’s why the nonprofit model exists, so that the gap between expenses and income can be filled with contributions. But along with that comes a huge number of staff to handle grant writing, fundraising, marketing, box office. Some of these theatres that are crashing have hundreds of staff members! I don’t think that’s sustainable. A theatre needs to be small, agile, and lean. You don’t need these big staffs to support a small theatre!

A smaller theatre that serves a specific community can build an individual relationship with that community and keep those community members coming back for more. Not only does this allow the work to be more personal, but it also allows the work to be responsive. For example, who could have predicted the massive cultural phenomenon that the collision of Barbie and Oppenheimer had over the summer? It’s this magical moment of cultural conversation that came out of a unique moment, and if you’ve scheduled your entire season the previous spring, you can’t respond to it. A smaller, scrappier theatre company could say, “Let’s plan upcoming programming around this cultural moment that will engage and bring together our local audience into our work.” Those moments build trust and connection between you and your fans.

Munroe: How does a smaller theatre company go about building and developing that audience that trusts and cares for them?

Scott: You build your audience one person at a time. The idea is not that you have a mass, general appeal to every member of the community for every show. The idea is to pick a certain kind of person and build relationships until they’re pulled into the fold. What stories are being told? Not just stories that appeared sometime in New York City, but what new stories that connect to those communities will engage and challenge those audiences? We want stories that people will be talking about in line at the grocery store.

Munroe: One of the things that you discuss in the book is the need for each theatre to have a playwright as an integral part of the process, and that’s the perfect justification for it. The playwright can write the stories of the community that they understand.

The theatre wants audience members that are going to resonate most with the work, which is also the most beneficial from a financial standpoint and from an artistic one.

Scott: Playwrights are the most forgotten artists in today’s theatre. Shakespeare was a playwright! Molière was a playwright! They were writing work that was specific to the communities that they inhabited and to the actors they were working with. I believe that a commitment needs to be made to the playwright to say that the theatre will produce everything that they write. Not a reading, not a workshop, a full production. Playwrights develop in the same way that the actors and directors do—by being in front of an audience. If the playwright is a shareholder, the money that they make is directly connected to the level that they’re engaging their community in their work.

Munroe: It’s work that resonates with the community.

Scott: A perfect word, it resonates with the community. You’re not going to do something that is really going to go against the ethos of the community because you have to stand with them in line at the grocery store the next day. I’m not talking about pandering. It doesn’t mean that you can’t raise things that are going to be challenging in some way, but you do it in the way that you can challenge someone sitting across from you at a potluck. It’s not just hurling a bomb and running away; it’s real engagement with the heavy topics.

Munroe: I think that’s so wonderful and wise because it allows the community to be challenged from an insider. Their beliefs aren’t being attacked by someone who doesn’t know or understand them.

Scott: For the company, it’s not as much about getting butts in seats, but the right butts in the seats. In other words, the theatre wants audience members that are going to resonate most with the work, which is also the most beneficial from a financial standpoint and from an artistic one.

Munroe: On maintaining these changes, you talk in the book about how mission statements have gradually become ineffective over time. What steps can these theatres you propose be taking to make more effective vision statements that will serve them and their communities over time?

Scott: I say this as somebody who has written my fair share. Out of the positive motivations, the goal of a mission statement has become to not leave anything out. “We’re going to do big plays with lots of people, and small plays with a few people, and musicals, and non-musicals, classics and new plays”—you get the picture. That doesn’t help you.

When the artists come together to decide on what they want their theatre to be, they should be setting real guidelines for the kind of shows that they want to produce and then finding the audience that wants that too. When a play crosses the table, if it doesn’t align with what we set out to do, we can be more comfortable passing it up. This isn’t to say that it shouldn’t be revisited every few years to say “is this still who we are?” so that the company can grow and change with the community.

Without those boundaries, you end up with mission creep. If there’s a ten thousand dollar grant that sort of aligns with your mission that you reach out for anyway because you need that money, then the theatre loses any sense of identity that it started with.

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