Diane Ragsdale didn’t necessarily write her post on the “long tug of war” between commercial and market forces in the nonprofit theatre in reaction to the Tony Awards, but that it was published the morning following is very apt. Throughout the evening, we heard the winning directors (both female, for a change) and producers of commercial successes like Pippin, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf, and Sonia and Vanya and Masha and Spike thanking nonprofit and even university partners for creating the environment in which these commercial and artistic successes were nurtured. (Pippin at ART on the Harvard campus, Virginia Wolf at Steppenwolf, and Sonia et al at the McCarter Theatre on the Princeton campus).
Diane’s post cites research that seems to indicate that market incentives – not just money, but the exchange of something for something else (usually money) – negatively affect the moral nature of decision-making. She shifts the level of analysis from the individual to organizations in discussing how market forces affect the programming and hiring policies of nonprofit theatres.
Let’s shift our thinking up one more level and look at the system as a whole. Tracy Letts, in his acceptance speech, alluded to a system-level approach to theatre production. Can commercial and nonprofit organizations exist not only side-by-side, but symbiotically in a system of mutual beneficence? In my perhaps overly optimistic and utopian view, the answer is yes. Rather than considering the nonprofit and commercial (theatre) sectors as in opposition to one another, consider a system of development —- real development – that supports artists at every phase. In such a system, the nonprofit sector wouldn’t just be a farm system for the big leagues but rather a laboratory for experimentation that actually supports its scientists [pardon the excessive mixing of metaphors]. Nonprofits, especially in partnership with universities that are already tooled up for knowledge creation and dissemination, would develop new work and new processes. Some products of this experimentation are commercialized, while others exist as “basic science,” experimentation for experimentation’s sake. Those creative products that do transfer to the commercial sector generate revenue that gets re-invested into the nonprofit experimental sector to support the artists and the work they do there. This is the part of the system that is missing. While the individual theatres credited by the Tony winners may reap a substantial financial benefit from commercial success, the sector as a whole does not, thus concentrating the wealth of that sector in just a few institutions (a topic both Diane and I have written about before). This leaves the non-winners with inadequate resources for experimentation and a lot of incentive to do either the tried-and-true per Diane’s Coconut Grove example, or chase the commercial juggernaut. Could commercial productions that benefit from nonprofit development pay a certain amount of after-cost profit into a fund, perhaps administered by an organization like Creative Capital or Doris Duke or even an agency like the NEA (noted with more hesitation), that would in turn support artists creating new work at theatres across the country, theatres that in turn support local talent?
Asking a profit-making venture to give up some if its profit for the good of the system brings us back to the moral conundrum of the mouse in the experiment Diane cites. Ultimately, the Jerry Frankels and Barry Weisslers of the world would need to forgo some miniscule percentage of the ten dollars to save the mouse, and that is an individual moral decision.