I was talking on the phone with someone in the Industry yesterday (whom I'll refer to as Source 1) and she told me that she had been reading our recent conversations about Equity and How Theater Failed America and what not. And she said to me, "The real story is enhancement. You have to start talking about enhancement".
So what was she talking about? And why is enhancement potentially problematic?
Enhancement (for those who don't know about it) is the process whereby a commercial producer invests money in a show happening at a non-profit theater in exchange for the rights to transfer it. Campbell Robertson wrote a really great article about it here for those who care to look it up. In it, he talks to Jim Nicola, Susan Dietz, Doug Aibel and more about the system and how it works.
I've had a conversation with a couple of industry folk about this, one being Souce 1 and another we'll clumsily enough call Source 2, trying to tease out what the broader implications of Enhancement are. Here are some thoughts on it. Roll film:
1) As Robertson points out in the article, and as both Sources were quick to point out, there's a certain logic in all of this. To quote Robertson's article, "The financial picture is undoubtedly ugly for nonprofit theaters. Over the last decade corporate giving to the arts has halved," couple this with the downfall of the NEA that we wrote about here** and you see a serious drying up of funding. In that climate, a sudden influx of money from commercial producers must seem like a godsend.
2) For producers of course, there's a real cost-saving mechanism going on here. You get to try out a show for cheap. Reeeeally for cheep. A couple hundred thousand dollars to an off-broadway or regional theatre is noting compared to what producing a commercial version of that show would cost. It's a no-brainer.
3) What this no-brainer adds up to, however (and this is Source 1's point) is a gaming of the system. It violates the spirit (but not the letter) of the nonprofit code. Nonprofit theaters are essentially being treated as fronts for for-profit ventures for a limited time. Not only that, but according to the Times article, the contributions the commercial producers make are usually tax deductible!
4) Furthermore, there is a lot of enhancement that happens and is unreported. It doesn't go in programs. It doesn't go in press. It doesn't appear anywhere. Both Source 1 and Source 2 stated that there's a lot more enhancement out there than anyone is going to admit. Surprisingly, much of this happens at Off Broadway and even on the Off-Off Broadway level. There are two major and one minor issue with this. The first is that, to quote Source 2, "if equity knew what the real budget was they would demand different pay scales and every thing". What this means is that much of the enhancement money on this level is going into production values and marketing and not artist salaries. If the unions knew, they'd probably flip their lids. Second, theaters that pride themselves or project themselves as somehow edgy, producing work that other won't etc. would have that brand seriously undercut by having their purse augmented by for profit producers. On a more minor level, it makes the theaters appear more generally supported by audience and donors than they actually are.
5) The real question is what effect this has on programming choices. Source 1 said that what's happening more and more is that commercial producers are approaching nonprofits and saying "here is the show, we'll enhance it if you do it". This is how, for example, Cry Baby and Jersey Boys end up originating at larger non-profits. Furthermore, I can't help but wonder if on some level artistic directors are looking at possible programming choices and (even subconsciously) wondering which of these will someone enhace? I posed that to Source 2 who replied "Oh, of course it is a selling point though it is hard to get [people] to admit to that.. but here's the thing. It's more complicated than that. The selling point of enhancement is not just-- or even mainly-- the infusion for the particular production... it's the idea that if a producer is already attached the production has a greater possibility of transferring... and that's where the REAL money is". And it's probably only a matter of time before something deserving of a production gets bumped for something that has commercial backing.
6) Of course, the other issue is that many theaters negotiate really crappy deals with commercial producers (commercial producing, after all, is not the game they're supposed to be in and they don't know how to play it as well as their negotiation partners) and so in the rare instance that something does take off, the original nonprofit doesn't really get a lot of money out of it. They get some. But not a lot. There's prestige to be earned as well, of course. Of course, not playing the game well is not a problem with the game, but rather with the players, but still...
So how do I feel about all of this?
Producing theater on either a for or non profit level is expensive right now, and there's a low rate of return. With corporate and government giving at a bad place right now, attendance down etc. and so forth nonprofits need to get money somewhere. At the same time, commercial producers are looking for ways to do end runs around the rules of commercial producing. The system makes sense, I understand it, and I think there are some benefits to it. We live in the real world, not the ideal world, and purism gets us nowhere. As my queer african american women's studies professor said in college "Even radicals gotta eat". I know of at least one artistic director who told me that there were times when sans enhancement they wouldn't've been able to program for a season. Source 2 said "without enhancement there's a lot of good stuff [off-off and off-broadway] that we'd never see". It's important to remember that enhancement is wider spread than we think, and includes projects we'd consider worthy as well as ones that seem more empty and theme-park-ish.
At the same time, there's a lot about it that is very problematic. It seems to me that individual theaters are making choices that are (possibly) good for them, but bad for the system at large. Because it really is cheating on a number of different levels-- on union rules, on the spirit of the tax code that gave birth to the theater in the first place, and in some cases on their mission statements++. Furthermore, it threatens the supposed independence of regional and off-broadway theaters. Source 2 told me, "I think the thing is it's not the enhancement itself, it's the stuff that comes with it... nonprofits want a) a big audience pleaser and b) the prospect of a show that transfers and sends back royalties... the enhancement is just part of that," and that's true, I just wonder at what the cost of getting a big transferring crowd pleaser is.
Finally, the secrecy of the thing is bothersome. Source 1 said that enhancement is the story that theater people don't want to talk about, and that talking about labor rules and season choices and how the system works is actually impossible without looking into it and opening up. Of course, thanks to the secrecy, we can't really talk about it frankly, and not being able to speak frankly hurts everyone, because it's hard to look at (and potentially fix) and issue if we don't really know what we're talking about.
Ultimately, enhancement sits in the intersection of show and business, which is usually a pretty fraught place to be. We can't expect it to go away. We're not Sweden where, as Mike Daisey memorably put it, the government just shits money into your mouth. There's a kind of relentless "damned if you do..." logic whereby the alternative could conceivably lead to some really rocky times for professional theater. And that possibility is, of course, conservatizing... its the same conservatizing impulse that keeps ADs from making adventurous choices and keeps us justifying the current system instead of envisioning and implementing change. We need to look at the implications of all of this and question how choices are being made at the theaters that are the supposed stewards of the nonprofit system. To do that, we need those stewards to talk about this in the open.
** Totally off topic, but one of the strong arguments for hefty arts funding is that private contribution to the arts declines when state arts sponsorship does. The argument that the private sector should/will make up the gap is speciousness in extremis.
++ not to put too fine a point on it, but the mission statement thing is important. Mission Statements are how non-profits justify their tax exempt status, a status that has a number of benefits for producing theatre (lower wages for artists, using the "good cause" image to justify lower wages for office workers, tax free shopping etc.). Take any of the theaters mentioned in Robertson's article, and read their mission statements. Then ask yourself "how does enhancement fit into this mission"?