Remembering the Dead at Tony Time
Each year at the Tony Awards, the celebration halts for a few minutes to pay tribute to the artists we’ve lost during the year, actors, directors, designers, producers. This year, the obits might well include theaters and theater training institutions.
In the few weeks leading up to the Tonys, theaters have cancelled seasons or shut their doors entirely. The Florida Stage declared bankruptcy this week, after reporting a 1.5 million dollar debt. The Denver Theater Center will phase out its conservatory over the next two years.
The saddest in my view—I’m a Craig Lucas fan—is the demise of Seattle’s 2006 Tony-winning Intiman Theatre, which put out a desperate call for a million dollars earlier this year. They couldn’t raise the cash, and the theater closed its doors a few months later. The story is a sad one, and it isn’t uncommon.
When money is short, tempers grow shorter, and people start to blame each other. A theater is closing because of something the artistic director, or even the former artistic director, did or didn’t do. The executive director must have messed up. The board members are to blame. In Florida, some fingers pointed to Madoff, since Floridians who he had bilked could no longer afford to support local theater.
But none of these folks are responsible for the steady demise of the American theatre.
Maybe you are.
“Wait,” you cry. “You’ve got the wrong person! I go to the theater. I subscribe to a theater. I even wrote an extra check when I heard my favorite theater was floundering.”
Seems to me by crying out to their communities for extra support, theaters may fill the hole in the dyke momentarily, but unless people in a community have very very deep pockets, that hole is likely to burst later on. A theater that is given the support it should have will not need to go begging.
And when a theater goes begging, when it relies on its audiences for subsidy, it is in danger of becoming compromised artistically. Think about it. If a theater asks you for money, are you going to provide extra support if you don’t like what you see there? You want good productions of good plays, however you define ‘good’, don’t you?
Here’s the thing: Theater grows and flourishes when artists take risks, when they try something without knowing if you will like it or even if they will like it in the end. A new play by an unknown writer, a unique approach to a classic, a new kind of theater nobody has heard of as I write. The freedom to create can lead to self-indulgent garbage, but in the hands of serious artists, it also leads to the best theater we have. Theater artists can’t depend on audience support if they’re to be, well, artists.
So what can you do?
Chip in a few pennies a year, less than you’ve probably contributed in the last ten years. And make sure everyone else in the country does, too. Call your representatives and senators, write letters to the editor, and insist that funding for the National Endowment for the Arts doubles, triples even. It still won’t be enough, but it’s a start.
You can follow Theater Talk on Facebook.
Davi Napoleon’s book, Chelsea on the Edge, chronicles the demise of a theater that broke boundaries–and its budget–when funding for the arts began its downward spiral.
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