How to fix the American Theater
or 45 humble suggestions for the future
As a 2022-2023 Project Number One artist in residence at Soho Rep, I spent the year in deep reflection on the state of the American non-profit theater and, well, I have some suggestions.
If you put me in charge of a non profit theater tomorrow, here’s what I would do.
Work with the board to amend the organizational charter capping executive pay (Artistic Director, ED and director or production) at 1.3 to 1.6 times the salary of the highest paid full time salaried non-executive employee.
Place a hiring freeze on new full time administrative positions until revenues recovered to fiscal ’23 levels.
Cut materials budgets for designers. This one stings, but we need to deescalate the production arms race of the 2010s.
Lobby Local Government for funding for artists. We would need 60 times the current National Endowment for the Arts budget to match European levels of theater funding. That isn’t happening, especially not as a bailout. I think we stand a much better chance of lobbying local governments to, for example, institute a small tax on ticket sales to fund direct artist grants.
Speaking of which, a busy season for a German theater artist is 3 to 4 productions. Designers and directors should be able to support themselves comfortably doing no more than 6 shows a year.
Dig deep into the inflation reduction act and figure out a way to put the theater on a path towards carbon neutrality by 2030. Partner with local sustainable energy corporations and funds to do this. We can no longer pretend that theater is an exception to the climate crisis.
Create equipment share programs with local schools and non professional theaters.
Pool Production resources with other local theaters. Build centralized shops to split the cost of equipment, and sheet stock etc.
Instead of pulling a dumpster up to the theater after every show DONATE DONATE DONATE. Give away costumes and construction material after every show. Someone will take them.
Cultivate a board culture that embraces the institution’s role as vanguards and visionary risk takers. If board members want to fund lobbies instead of operations find new board members.
Place artists and non financial stake holders on the board. Give them real power and meaningful committee assignments.
Raise hourly technician fees such that they have kept up with inflation since 2010. If this is less than 30 an hour raise it to that.
Smaller physical productions will necessarily mean less over hire staff. Encourage department heads to network with local event companies and venues such that skilled technicians can be re directed to other job opportunities.
Engage in total budget transparency with creative teams and give them control of spending. If the artistic team wants to cut the lighting budget to make a series of gorgeous period gowns, let them. If they want to rent nothing and put a stool on stage but pay for everyone in the audience to have a little sculpture, let them.
Create financial bonuses for designers and creative teams that stay on budget. This can come out of the normal 20 percent contingency.
Let creative teams know in writing that if they go over budget they will not be invited back to the theater. Hold them to it.
Commission new work based on local interests. One of Trinity Rep’s biggest hits was a bio play about Buddy Cianci. I saw a play in Omaha that a Chicago company made by researching stories of how Black neighborhoods split apart by the interstate highway system. It would never transfer to New York, but the theater had to cut the talkback short after an hour and a half. People couldn’t wait to tell their stories and it was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. If you make plays that reflect people’s lives they will show up.
Program the classics only when a director has a REALLY good idea. Like, really good. People think that old plays are stuffy and boring because the productions have become stuffy and boring. Williams is scandalously erotic. Adrienne Kennedy is still ahead of most modern writers. Treat every classic like a premier.
Operate from an expanded notion of cannon. Chekhov yes. Shakespeare in. So is Williams. But also Wilson. And Kennedy. And Susan Lori Parks and Paula Vogel and and and and
Put artists on staff. Project One at Soho rep yielded the theater’s biggest hits post COVID. At big enough orgs you can pay for this through savings in executive compensation. Require that the artists create a work and nothing else. Invite them to participate in the day to day life of the theater. Some works will fail and that’s okay. This should make up about 3 percent of your total budget.
Open a bar on site. A good bar. A bar that artists can afford. Hold your opening night parties there. Keep it open after the show. Turn the theater into a place that people feel comfortable hanging out.
Fill that bar every night of the week with artists making art. Invite in drag kings and queens. Curate performance salons. Readings of new plays. Bands. Stand ups. Burlesque artists. But also, performances by well known cast members on their nights off. More than anything young artists need community. Cap ticket prices at something they can afford. Maybe 20 bucks. Sometimes the noise rock show might disturb that really nice silent moment in act III but I honestly don’t know what to tell you. Embrace a bit of mess.
Create a clear pipeline for artists to make it from the bar/cabaret space to the MainStage. Take coffee meetings with literally everyone who asks. Be totally transparent about how show selection works.
Similarly, list creative jobs. We have to have a way to find creative teams other than through the country club MFA programs.
Pay playwrights more. They are the most underpaid class of theater maker. You can’t eat social prestige. Again this may have to come at the expense of physical production of even marketing that’s okay.
Have an AD for continuity but hire a guest curator every season. They can maybe split the season in some ratio like 2 to 1. Appoint a committee of local artists to choose guest curators. Friction and challenge is a good thing.
Work towards parity of all kinds by initiating executive training programs. Instead of tokenizing people and setting them up to fail, create guard rails around their success.
Put a social worker on retainer. As we diversify our spaces conflict is bound to arise. Mediators are necessary. Also, theater artists have often put off years of health care and that includes mental health care. Far too often it falls on administrators who aren’t qualified to intervene when mental health flare up happens. Just hire a professional. It’s better for the person who needs help and better for the sustainability of the organization.
Reimagine the potential of our buildings. Be like Jack, Abrons, and Target Margin during the early pandemic when they turned their spaces into food banks. Look to community need and address it.
Program debates, lectures, and public readings on dark weeks. Turn the theater itself into a space of civic engagement.
In short, restore the American non profit theater as a third space. Build a community of artists and thinkers first and then also put on plays.
Curate diverse artists (both in terms of identity and formal approach) and then treat every marketing push as a bespoke project. Bring in people who have maybe never been to a theater and then stay in relationship with them. Invite them to everything! Build a brand around exploration and discovery.
Recognize that every audience brings it’s own culture. Listen, for example, to the Lesbian playwright who says that dykes won’t buy tickets in advance, or the trans lighting designer when they say that a tight 90 from a drag house means, in fact, 4 and a half hours. Train the house staff to recognize this. Some shows are built for quiet contemplation and some for raucous engagement. Let people know what to expect!
Start ‘em young. Get back into schools and start students engaging with real adult fare. I saw Ragtime on Broadway when I was 13 and it changed/ruined my life. And for fucks sake give the kids good seats.
Keep ticket prices where they are. In fact, fuck it, CUT ticket prices. The old audience is gone. If you’re gonna start from scratch you may as well get them in the seats with a bargain.
It’s okay to have a tent pole production. If your community supports a Christmas Carol or a big musical every year then by all means go for it. At the same time, use those big tent moments to advance the form as best you can. A spoon full of sugar makes the medicine go down.
Audiences are smart. Soooooooooooooooo fucking smart. Give them something courageous, well made, and deeply considered and they will follow you a lot farther than you think they will.
Disinvite the critics. They can buy their own tickets.
DON’T CUT SHOWS FROM THE SEASON. Pare them back if you must, but the last thing any of us need is another empty building.
Encourage the artistic practices of administrative staff. Administrators who are themselves artists do a better job. If your education director needs two weeks off to tour their folk punk band, let them.
Set a term limit of ten years on executive leadership. Lead by example.
Embrace technology. It’s not a bad thing. Some conservative audience members won’t get it but that’s okay. There’ll be a great production of Piano Lesson for them any day now.
Look places other than New York for new scripts.
Build relationships with international artists. Bring companies like Ontroerend Goed or Theater Free Belarus or Nature Theater of Oklahoma in for residencies and sit down runs of touring productions. Keep abreast of the latest global trends in making and make sure the community of artists understands them as well.
As a trans-feminist, I don’t buy into the myth of individual accomplishment. Some of these ideas are cribbed directly from Soho Rep’s practices. One comes from my old and dear friend Aaron Profumo as well as comments from an earlier Facebook post. Others are inspired by the work of my project one cohort Hahnji Jang, and their ongoing sustainable fashion project Transcendant Punk. I’d especially like to shout out my dear friend and closest collaborator Peter Mills Weiss with whom I have spent many late nights talking through these ideas. Many of these are ideas that I have already seen successfully implemented around the world! I share this list not as a comprehensive set of solutions, but as a jumping off point for conversation. We’re in an absolute crisis as a field, and I believe strongly that we won’t be able to move forward until we start talking concrete details of how we want our theaters to operate.
I love you fellow theater freaks! Let’s fix this mess :)