Search This Blog

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Theatre Thursday: What's on the Menu?

Some months ago - perhaps even a year or two - I made some comments on a local theatre blog and drew some analogies on this blog as well about a growing problem in Denver - and possibly national - theatre: nonprofit theatres existing for little more reason than that they just want to, without serving their community in new or quality ways, veering off of their original mission to gain audience, even if other nonprofits already exist in that genre. I made liberal use of the term "vanity project" and suggested that many of these redundant theatre companies were actually drawing audiences away from small companies that really were doing something new and original. I called for a possible "pruning" of unnecessary, vanity-driven projects in the interest of healthy Denver theatre growth.
That did not go over very well.
Well, here we are, several hateful e-mails in my inbox later, and the chairman of the National Endowment of the Arts, Rocco Landesman has recently gone on record saying pretty much the same thing on the national level, a position that is supported by a recent study by Americans for the Arts.
Landesman has come under fire for his suggestions, much as I did here. I was even accused of hating Denver theatre (albeit by someone who refers to himself publicly as the "farce master" and a "Denver theatre legend" so I wasn't terribly offended), so I would like to make something as clear as I can:
I made my comments in the interest of Denver theatre. I would like to see theatre in our nation de-centralize from Broadway, and, in my opinion, Denver could be a prime candidate for the Southwest theatre hub. (Look if we don't, Phoenix or Santa Fe will take it. Possibly even Salt Lake City.)
Here's the deal, though. We don't need six productions of Grease or I Love You You're Perfect Now Change or Spelling Bee within a few months and a few miles of one another. I know that there are dozens of actors in town who want to play William Barfee, but that's not reason enough to put on dozens of productions. Yes, audiences go to see it, and, yes, they enjoy it, and, yes, some audiences will go to see multiple productions of it within months, but I do not believe that's because they only want to see that show. 
I'll use a restaurant analogy (similar to one I've used before): Some people go to a restaurant and only order the same thing, let's say it's the meatloaf. (I like meatloaf.) Not very adventurous, I know, but some people want to be sure that they're going to get their money's worth (even if the meatloaf is sometimes a little bit under or over cooked.) Unfortunately, what's happening is that the restaurant has all of this other food not used in the favorite entree that is going unused every week - really good food - that is going bad.
Well, there are a couple of things that this restaurant could try. One would be to only offer the meatloaf and items using the same ingredients on its menu. They have to change the name of the restaurant from Phil's Fine Family Dining to Phil's Meatloaf. One option. A business-savvy option. Let's just hope people don't get tired of meatloaf.
Second option: Phil decides one week to tell the wait staff to tell the patrons that the "meatloaf cooker" is out of order and suggest a different menu item. Phil's taking a risk here. It's possible that some people will walk out, but it's also possible that some people will try something different, enjoy it, and even after the meatloaf returns, continue to order alternate items from the menu. A riskier option, but with potentially far better results if your ambition is to run a restaurant with a diverse menu.
Now, let me add a wrinkle: imagine that Phil received a government grant to open a restaurant that offers Chicken Cordon Bleu on its menu. Imagine that Phil received donations from organizations wishing to promote a healthy fish diet on the promise that he would offer smoked salmon as a menu item. Does that change Phil's options? 
Now, before we get too confused with the analogy here, Phil's Restaurant is not a metaphor for a theatre company, it's a metaphor for a theatre community - particularly a theatre community of nonprofit theatre companies. There is a different business model for a nonprofit vs. a for-profit theatre. If you're a for-profit, do whatever you want. Present all of your favorite shows without regard for who else is doing or has recently done them. Fill the seats in whatever way you can. Your bottom line is profit. 
Nonprofits do not - as the name might suggest - eschew profit, but they do have a different or additional bottom line. I've heard that bottom line referred to as "people" and "community," but I think I like to use the term "constituency." What's your constituency as a nonprofit theatre? Well, what's your mission statement? (Do you even remember it?) If your answer is "I'm not sure," well, you have a bad mission statement. If your answer is "everybody," then that's probably not a very good mission statement either. Unless your theatre company provides food, shelter, or air, you can dig a little deeper than "everybody" to define your constituency. Now, if your mission statement is identical to someone down the street from you, then, sadly, one of you is unnecessary. If your mission statement is different, but you're doing the same kinds of shows, then one of you is straying from your mission and that group is unnecessary.
If you're the only game in town, that's different. If I open a nonprofit theatre company in my hometown of Ignacio, Colorado, it doesn't really matter whether I'm committed to doing comedies, dramas, classic shows, or original works. My constituency is geographical rather than based on genre. In a metropolitan area that has dozens upon dozens of theatre companies accessible by car or public transportation within minutes, the geographical distinction isn't enough. 
Now if I were to start a nonprofit theatre company here in Denver (which, surprisingly, I still get asked to do), the question I have to ask myself is: "What will I do that isn't being done by someone else in this community?" If I decide to open a company committed to performing shows of a "gothic" or "Grand Guignol" nature (which I did consider at one point), it is my responsibility to determine whether or not that is already a constituency being served by another nonprofit or nonprofits in my area. I decided that it was (perhaps not always on a year-round basis, but enough), so I determined that it would have been irresponsible of me to draw upon theatre donors, grants, SCFD funds, etc. to start a nonprofit just because I wanted to do so. Now, a for-profit? Well, I have never ruled that out entirely, but that's a riskier venture - as it should be. 
The non-profit system was established to lessen the risk of starting a service-based organization, and, in the case of arts companies, the thought is that should free them to take more risks, not to specialize in meatloaf.

No comments: