By Isaac Butler
One important point I try to impress upon my students is that what is left out of a piece of writing is often as important as what is included. Indeed, it's one of the easiest ways to spot the choices an author is making in constructing a piece of text. What does it mean, for example, that this character gets an in depth physical description but that character does not? What does it mean that this essay contains opposing viewpoints and the other one only has ideas that conform to the writer's worldview? What points does the author choose to provide evidence for, and which ones does she just assume you'll agree with?
I think my students-- were they knowledgable about the nonproift arts system and/or theatre in America-- could have a field day with Patrick Healy's column today on the increasing tendency for nonprofit theaters (particularly the big three of MTC, Roundabout and LCT) to act like for profit producers. As we're talking about what's not included, it's hard to explain the problem with a quote. So you might want to just click on the above and read it.
To sum up: The article is about how nonprofit theaters are increasingly acting like commercial producers.
Lacking from the article: Any quotes from anyone who really thinks this might be a bad thing. Any kind of balance or even the semblance of a follow-up question for the people Healey interlocutes.
This is very, very bizarre. The move towards increasingly commercial behavior has been a cause of concern and controversy for years. The story that Healey is covering is nothing new, except that it's happening to a much greater degree than it used to. The whole reason to cover it is to shine a light into what some of the issues surrounding the practices are. I know Healey knows this is controversial. I mean, he had to have done a google search and found the current head of the NEA kvetching about it in Healy's own paper all the way back in 2000.
I don't have a problem with the Times covering the fact that some people are okay with these developments. That's fine. They're entitled to their opinion. It's the lack of any kind of rigor or, you know, actual journalism that went into this piece. I'm frankly shocked the editor of the arts section let it run. You don't even have to know a lot about the issues at stake to see what's wrong with it. Let me give you three examples:
Here's Healy talking to MTC's Executive Producer discussing their decision to take Venus In Fur and move it to a larger Broadway house:
Asked to square this commercial venture, the club’s second (the first was “Time Stands Still”), with its nonprofit mission, its executive producer, Barry Grove, said in an interview: “We’re still feeling the aftereffects from the 2008 economic downturn, so we’re looking for ways to generate revenue to support the theater company. Here you have a risky new play that became a hit, and we’re trying to maximize that to benefit the artists as well as M.T.C.”
There are two claims here that are worthy of fact-checking and follow up. The first is that MTC is still feeling the aftereffects from the 2008 economic downturn. All non-profit financial records are public. As part of reporting the story, Healy could've investigated and found out whether that is, in fact, true. Has MTC lost a significant number of subscribers? Or donors? Have the total number of donations decreased starting in 2008 and not gone back up to previous levels? Etc. and so forth.
The second problem is the second sentence of Grove's quote, which is 100% bushwa. MTC did not program a "risky new play" that happened to become a hit. Venus in Fur was already a massive hit at Classic Stage last year. MTC didn't take a risk here, they essentially transferred the show, keeping the production intact with its director and star, replacing one actor and allowing David Ives to make a few changes to the script. In other words, they did what Broadway Producers do with out of town try-outs or (these days) with enhanced shows at Off-Broadway venues. If anything, this got less risky as the show's star (Nina Arianda) has become only more famous since debuting in the CSC production.
The second half of this is the idea that MTC is "maximizing the benefits to artists." The rest of MTC's season-- that's three shows-- employs eight actors total. Unless they simply mean that Hugh Dancy and Nina Arianda keep getting to collect paychecks, I'm at a loss as to what the benefit is, and a reporter should've asked him what, specifically, he meant by that.
Later on, Healy addresses that some people might have a problem with it. Who does he ask? Audience members:
In interviews with the nonprofits’ subscribers and audience members, no one raised a fuss about open-ended bookings. Still, some wondered if hit productions were taking priority over new work.
“I can appreciate longer runs because it gives me a chance to see a play that might otherwise close after a six-week run, but I so worry about new plays that are getting crowded out,” said Kathy Flynn, who subscribes to both Manhattan Theater Club and the Public Theater. “I used to think that these nonprofit theaters were all about producing new plays. Now they seem to be in the hit business.”
Again, if Healy wants to go poll the man on the street, that's fine. Maybe he can find out whether or not they think OJ is guilty and how they feel about steroids in baseball. But the issue isn't just one that audiences might be upset by. Amongst other things, many commercial producers are furious about these practices becasue MTC, LCT and Roundabout get enormous tax subsidies and labor discounts due to being nonprofits. There are many people in the funding community who think this is a scandal and possibly illegal. And then you have artists and critics (including yours truly) who have been complaining about all of this for years. Why not talk to Garrett over at Playgoer? I'm sure he'd have a good quote about it. Why not talk to Mike Daisey who did a one man show about similar problems at regional theaters?
What he gets instead is this, which is the third problem:
Veteran theater executives noted that the nonprofits were not doing anything wrong under federal rules for tax-exempt theaters.
“As long as the organizations aren’t putting themselves at financial risk, and are plowing the money back into the organization, I don’t see a problem,” said Howard Sherman, a former executive director of the American Theater Wing, which helps oversee the Tonys and runs education programs. “Artistically, it’s only a problem if the nonprofit is making all decisions in an effort to appeal to the lowest common denominator of audience in order to have the longest possible run.
Perhaps my twitter buddy Howard Sherman is right. And again, I don't mind that Sherman is consulted for this article. It's not what's in the article, it's what's missing. And what's missing here? Well, Healy has a question about the legality of all of this. So does he talk to a lawyer to figure out what the letter of the law is? No. Does he talk to the NEA who interact with the code and its rules all the time to figure out the spirit of it? No. Does he talk to anyone at the Ford Foundation, who envisioned the nonprofit theater system, about its history? No. And is there any way anyone can actually know the legality of this when Healy himself admits that he was unable to find out what the substance of the business arrangements are between commercial producing partners and Big 3 for these shows?
Obviously, I'm sensitive to this because I think the way MTC and the Roundabout are behaving is shameful. LCT is a bit of a different story-- they were built originally with a Broadway size house, and I think they do a better job of using their considerable resources and power responsibly and they really did take a bath on their first two shows this year-- but it's still problematic. And it doesn't take years of being involved in theater to figure that out you just have to think about how journalism is supposed to work.
I was talking to a friend today about this article who put it really well: Let's say for a moment that this article was instead about politics. Let's say it was about lobbyists in Washington and influence peddling and somehow the reporter wasn't able to find one person who had a problem with it even though everyone in politics knows its controversial and his own paper had covered it in the past. What would we say?