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Seasonal Directions

Charles Wright reports on a stormy roundtable of artistic directors discussing how they plan their season. logo

"When I started working in the institutional theater 30 years ago," deadpanned Julia Miles, "people wanted to give us money--the Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller, any foundation you can name." Miles, artistic director of the Women's Project and Productions, allowed her voice to trail off languidly, then made it rebound in a re-energized crescendo: "Well, a few years after the '60s ended, all that grant money ran out and now artistic directors have to go to parties and fundraisers and benefits." With mock outrage, she added: "We have to be nice to people."

Miles and artistic directors of four other New York City theater companies were panelists Wednesday evening, May 24, in a seminar at the Manhattan Theatre Club Studios on West 43rd Street, jointly sponsored by the Stage Directors and Choreographers Foundation (SDCF) and Theater Resources Unlimited (TRU). Titled "Planning a Season," the seminar swiftly morphed into a broader discussion of how nonprofit theaters survive in a society that doesn't make art and artists a priority.

Moderators of the event were David Diamond, executive director of SDCF, and Bob Ost, president of TRU. SDCF--funded in part by the professional union, Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers (SSDC)--is a national organization dedicated to the encouragement and edification of professional choreographers and directors, whether or not they are members of SSDC. TRU is a support group for New York area producing organizations.

The seminar, which was free to members of SSDC and TRU, attracted approximately 85 theater administrators and artists. At the outset, Ost proclaimed, "Networking is our primary goal." Several audience members took his words to heart, making pleas for specific career advice and assistance, both during the panel's initial presentation and in the concluding Q&A period. A few spectators groaned with disappointment when they learned that only two of the five theater companies review unsolicited scripts of plays or musicals and that unsolicited scripts are seldom chosen for production.

Struggling against detours caused by questions from the floor, the five panelists kept the seminar's focus on the challenges of nonprofit theater administration--staff shortages, the scarcity and costliness of real estate, the demands of audience development, and the relentless grind of fundraising. The audience, restless and talkative throughout the evening, became still when panelists responded to queries about the size of their theaters' subscriber lists. With "membership" of 3,500, Neil Pepe's Atlantic Theatre Company had the highest subscriber figure. AMAS Musical Theatre, the multicultural company that scored a triumph in the mid-'70s with Bubbling Brown Sugar, was lowest. According to artistic director Donna Trinkoff, AMAS has no subscriber base whatsoever because the company exists show-to-show, resigned to its fragile economic condition and chronic "uncertainty about what we'll be able to produce each season."

Again and again, Ost steered the discussion back to whether the five companies have maintained a particular sense of mission over the years or have altered their goals. Pepe observed that the Atlantic, which was started by a handful of David Mamet's students at NYU, has changed as company members mature, find success outside the organization, and, in some cases, leave the group. James Morgan, artistic director of the York Theatre, spoke of how the death of his company's charismatic founder, Janet Hayes Walker, necessitated a reassessment of the organization's goals.

A motif of the evening was the contrast between New York theater companies and their counterparts elsewhere. "Think about being a subscription theater in a city where you're the only game in town," said Barry Edelstein, artistic director of Classic Stage Company. "An organization like the Guthrie [in Minneapolis], for instance, has to choose plays that provide theatergoers with balanced fare over the course of a season; and the artistic director has to be mindful of the shape or arc of the season. Otherwise the subscribers, who make up the major part of the company's audience, won't be satisfied and won't keep their support coming.

"New York audiences, on the other hand, have lots of theatrical events competing for their attention--and not just every season, but every single night. So at CSC our [approximately 1,200] subscribers don't constitute the bulk of our audience. More single-ticket buyers than subscribers see any given show at CSC; and those single-ticket buyers won't experience the whole season or be aware of its shape and variety."

Edelstein confessed he's especially grateful for single-ticket buyers, who pay up to $45 a seat and bring in more revenue overall than CSC's subscribers. The company's subscribers contribute a modest, two-figure fee to become "members" for the season and then are entitled to buy individual tickets (at $15 per ticket) for the particular shows they choose to attend. This arrangement, said Edelstein, gives CSC the freedom to produce plays that fit its mission without fretting unduly about subscriber tastes and sensibilities.

In the end, the SDCF/TRU seminar, though ostensibly about "planning a season", offered a thumbnail sketch of the microeconomics of arts administration in an age that doesn't much esteem art. "All seasons run at a loss," sighed Miles. "That's why artistic directors have to raise all that money." As the evening wound down, Trinkoff distilled the discussion in three sentences: "Being artistic director of a nonprofit theater company, especially in New York, is only partly about art. Economic considerations dog you. They just do."

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