Category Archives: theatre

Artists and Administrators: we really are all on the same team

I’m not sure why Mike Daisey’s article from February 7, 2008 has been making the social media rounds again, but I’m reminded enough of the ire I felt when I first read it in 2008 (and saw his production of “How Theatre Failed America” during NPAC in Denver that same year) that I am back here blogging again.

I’m not going to spill a lot of ink on the article itself or Mr. Daisey’s specific arguments because (1) it was written 6 years ago, before the “Great Recession” hit that autumn and changed much of the landscape, and (2) I feel Mr. Daisey makes so many leaps of ill-focused logic and presumptions that it is a waste of breath to enumerate all the flaws in his argument.

I do worry, however, about the perception that the resurfacing of the article may encourage: that (1) “large” organizations (broad and ranging definition depending on who is speaking) do not care about the art or the artists and (2) arts administrators are evil delusionary autocrats deliberately seeking to cheat artists (“they are a dime a dozen”) and fill their own pockets in the name of supporting the edifice of “the institution.”  Granted, I am an arts administrator, so it would make sense that I would take offense to this…no one, not even the most universally reviled criminals would probably paint themselves as a villain.  However, I have spent almost two decades in the non-profit theatre industry and I have yet to encounter one single person who was deliberately trying to find ways to cheat or devalue artists for their own gain.  The sooner we all stop demonizing each other, the sooner we will start to realize there are numerous theatres existing right now that are trying to do what’s right by all their employees and the communities they serve.  When we do that, we can start talking about what works in various communities, why it works, and how these strategies can be modified and replicated in other communities that haven’t found their model yet.

The first, and most important, thing to note is that we really are all on the same team.  The vast majority of us, artist or administrator, came to this industry through a love of theatre.  We have a deep, burning need to share that love with our communities, to help them know how much more beautifully rich our lives are with theatre in them.  That love is why we put in the umpteen extra hours, work for significantly less pay that we would find in the corporate sector, and (for me, anyway) stay awake at night trying to find more ways to make our employees’ lives better.  In the years since Mr. Daisey wrote the aforementioned article, the answer to that last issue has rarely included increased salaries.  We’ve all spent the last six years finding our balance and learning to be better stewards of the public’s funds (we are, after all, by definition of “non-profit corporation”, in the public trust).  We know that our people are the backbone of our organization and, there is no question, most of our theatres rode out the recession on the backs of our people, artists and staff alike.

Here are some of the things I’ve learned in my career and I hear echoed in the conversations of my peers:

  • Your mission, vision, and values must be your guiding light.
  • Great employees (artists and admin) are the only way any organization survives, much less thrives
  • All great employees should be valued, regardless of title or union affiliation
  • Respect is the Golden Rule.  Why on earth would anyone put up with everything else related to working in non-profit theatre if they weren’t at the very least respected for their unique contribution?
  • When there is a choice, you should always prioritize people (we will give raises rather than getting a color copier until all our employees are paid fairly)
  • Sometimes it does come down to “we have to fix the air conditioner” and there is no other choice.
  • It is almost never a question of black and white; so many factors go into every decision (budget, casting, marketing, staffing) it is always a matter of degrees, timing, and competing priorities.
  • Transparency should be the law of the land.  Without accurate information folks are free to jump to whatever conclusions pop into their brains, just as Mr. Daisey did.
  • You have to bring in more revenue before you expand the budget.
  • Breakeven is never good enough.  We’ve allowed ourselves (often encouraged by funders) to believe that if we aren’t “re-investing” every penny we make this year into this year’s expenses then we are not using our funds wisely (and we don’t need their funding).  We must eradicate this thinking.  It is only by establishing cash reserves (not endowments) that we can take the artistic and programmatic risks we all want to support.
  • It should not be a question of “if” but “when.”  Just because you can’t fulfill the organizations wildest dreams (or even more pedestrian ones) tomorrow doesn’t mean you give up and condemn “the administration” for killing your dreams.  It does mean you need to plan out how to take all the steps needed between where you are and where you want to be.  We’ve all been so busy making sure our checks didn’t bounce, it has been hard to lift our eyes to the horizon and even think about dreams.  I’m encouraged by the fact that I am hearing more and more conversations about strategic planning and mapping out strategies to move our organizations to the next level (including the next level of support for our people).

I honestly believe that most often the fault lies not in administrators’ motivations, nor even in the specific budgetary priorities of an organization, but rather in a severe lack of transparency.  Without transparency, there can be no appropriate oversight.  Without transparency, you lose vital opportunities.  Without transparency, there can be no trust.

Articles like Mike Daisey’s encourage and support a culture of fear in an industry where our best work can only be created in a safe environment.  We, as administrators, must lead the way to reverse this culture of fear and the surest way to do this is by sharing what you know and all the plans.  By doing so, we invite in every person in the organization to be part of the solution.  We are better together.  In fact, we can only exist as a team.  Let’s stop fighting and start working towards a better artistic world for us all.


Posted by on October 9, 2014 in Arts management, risk-taking, theatre


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Learning from Arena Stage: Budgeting for capital and programmatic success

This article came out in the Washington Post a couple of weeks ago about Arena Stages’ inability to hold up the promise of full productions of new American plays in their Kogod Cradle space.  It is a well-written article about promises made at the beginning of a triple-digit million dollar capital campaign compared to realities nine years (and an economic crash) later.  Those more enmeshed in the world of new plays have written far more eloquently on the impact of the programmatic changes at Arena than I could.  What struck me most keenly about this situation comes on the last page of the article:

Rocky finances are commonly cited as complicating Arena’s current programming choices. As of this summer, Arena continued to carry $16 million of what could be called “expansion drag,” debt from the fundraising shortfall around the refurbishment.


In this, Arena is hardly alone. Recently the University of Chicago released its study Set in Stone, which starkly chronicles the debt and post-opening revenue shortfalls endured nationwide by new or expanded museums and performing arts complexes between 1994 and 2008. Of a timetable to retire the debt, Smith says, “We’re always hopeful.”

If you are planning to build/refurbish a facility and haven’t read Set in Stone, I suggest you do it now.  These are problems we can fix.  Here are a few points I think are key to “doing it right” so that you can fulfill the promises to your mission, your trustees, your employees and artists, and your community:

  1. Resist the urge to cut the capital budget to bare bones:  I know everyone wants to get that capital campaign nut down as small as possible so that the feasibility studies say you can get it done.  However, if you cut things like paying down debt, operating cash cushion, cash reserve / risk capital (or, if you must, an endowment), and construction contingencies you are asking for trouble.  Those “add-ons” to the bricks-and-mortar budget aren’t sexy enough for a campaign of their own, as many organizations who have tried a “follow up” campaign have learned all too well.  If you can’t raise the money to fund it right then you should wait.  By rushing the process you are not only putting the organization at risk, you are mortgaging your future and the future of those artists and leaders who are coming behind you.  
  2. Don’t go public with your campaign too early.  The old rule of thumb was to announce when you were 60% of the way to your goal.  These days I wouldn’t announce a campaign until at least 90% (perhaps 95%) of the needed funds were raised.  Information travels at the speed of light now.  Once you announce your project people will want to see progress continuously.  A major capital campaign is not IndieGoGo, but many of your constituents (and the press) will expect the same speed of resolution once you make your plans public.
  3. Don’t break ground too early.  Related, but equally important, to #2.  I’ve seen many an arts organization decide to start building once the funds for the bricks-and-mortar portion have been raised mistakenly believing that the sight of the progress on the edifice will inspire additional giving.  Again, if you start this ball rolling before you’ve raised the “add-ons” mentioned above, chances are (as Arena found) you aren’t going to raise them.
  4. Consider the impact of a capital campaign on your unrestricted contributed operating revenue.  Is contributed revenue currently a significant component of your annual operating budget?  Make sure you consider the fact that a major capital campaign can severely cannibalize your unrestricted general operating donations.  This trend may not recover for a few years after the new facility is running.  Too many organizations actually plan for the opposite: a new building will inspire new donors!  Remember, new donors take cultivation.  All those new patrons that will come when you build it aren’t going to automatically jump to the top of the cultivation ladder.
  5. It is always more expensive than you think.  In addition to resisting the urge to cut the capital budget, you must also plan for higher operating expenses and lower operating revenue than you hope.  Plus, build a percentage of your first two years’ operating expenses into the capital budget.  Even if your conservative estimates show you breaking even or better in your first year of operation, you need that cushion.  If you plan this way, the worst that could happen is that you have higher net income than budgeted and put the cushion into an account to fund artistic risk. 

It is possible to have exciting new facilities without killing the artistic output, or worse, the organization itself.   We don’t have to be slaves to our buildings.  It may not be the fast track, blaze of glory path, but we can run successful business and take artistic risk at the same time.  


Posted by on November 5, 2012 in Arts management, funding, theatre


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Enlightened and Inspired Funding from the Nonprofit Finance Fund and Doris Duke Charitable Foundation

In nonprofit theatre, folks spend a lot of time talking about how the “model is broken.”  That phrase is bandied about referring to the production model, the business model, the funding model, you name it.  Within all the broken talk, there are a few brave souls actually testing new models.  The Nonprofit Finance Fund (NFF) and the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation (DDCF) are two of these brave souls.

Last Thursday I had the pleasure of attending a webinar hosted by Rodney Christopher & Rebecca Thomas of NFF on their “Leading for the Future” initiative, supported by DDCF (check out the webinar slides and video).   The presentation also featured Cynthia Hedstrom and Jamie Proskin from The Wooster Group and Amanda Nelson and Thomas Cott from Alvin Ailey Dance Foundation.  I’m thankful to NFF for posting the video; the presentations were fast and furious with a lot of great information. (some of which I missed the first time around due to live tweeting!)

I’ve been following the information NFF has released over the past year regarding this incredible initiative.  If you haven’t yet read “The Case for Change Capital” or watched the video case studies, I highly recommend them.  I hope this project is a sign of things to come.

For those new to the Change Capital and Leading for the Future conversation, NFF and DDCF have teamed up to provide up to $1 million to each of 10 arts organizations “intended to allow participants to take transformative rather than incremental steps to remain artistically relevant, effective and excellent while ensuring long-term financial viability.”  The capital is meant to be expended over the course of four or five years.  Some organizations are using the funds to grow, some to shrink, some to reach new audiences in new ways, one organization is using the capital to responsibly wrap up their operations.  There are a number of revolutionary components to this funding model:

  1. The size of the grant allows for truly transformative change.  NFF and DDCF are not asking for the moon while only providing enough funds for a trip to the beach.
  2. The massive investment is funded from one source; the organizations did not have to cobble together 15-20 different small or mid-sized grants in order to make this happen.  I believe this not only saves organizational energy from searching for, courting, and applying for separate funding, it also saves the proposed transformation from too many cooks in the kitchen.
  3. The choice of how best to achieve transformational change was left to the organizations, with technical assistance and professional consultation from NFF.  Allowing the organizations to chart their own future and adjust their course as the funding period proceeded means the folks on the ground, witnessing the actual impact of the changes are the ones steering the ship.  Plus, they are fully invested in their destination.
  4. The time period is long enough to allow the organizations to build up to sustainability, with the acknowledgement that there probably would be deficits as they made changes and then grew into their new structure.  I’ve seen a few grantors provide funding for new or expanded positions at arts organizations.  However, these are often at most two-year programs.  Expecting a small or mid-sized arts organization to go from not having money for a $50k/year Development Director to having enough surplus to not only cover that salary but also all the other incremental costs that come along with that investment (not to mention all the other incremental increases in costs we all face every year) in only two years can be too much for many organizations to handle.  If you want true, sustainable change, you have to allow time to grow into your new skin.
  5. It encourages strategic risk at the exact time we as arts organizations are fighting the urge to buckle down and hide from the financial uncertainty.  It is taking advantage of what Jerry Yoshitomi called “an unfreezing moment.”  These chances have to be seized before everything finds its new baseline.

Back in late 2008 / early 2009 a lot of us in nonprofit theatre were speculating that those who made it through this recession were going to come out the other side stronger, leaner, and more resilient.  I think that is proving to be true.  However, just as Michael Kaiser suggested in The Art of the Turnaround that those who manage through turnarounds must be careful to not keep too tight a fist when stability is reclaimed, we must now begin to look at how we will not just survive but explode the status quo with revolutionary models of our own.  Who knows, maybe this is just the beginning of a tide of change capital to help us all transform into what we are next meant to be.


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Misguided Means to Unintended Ends: Portland’s arts diversification plan

This article came across my Twitter stream this afternoon and immediately piqued my interest.  On the surface, a city like Portland linking funding for arts organizations to racial diversification of their boards, staff, contractors, and eventually audience sounds like an innovative and progressive idea.  Diversification of voices around the table is a good thing and we should all invite a variety of voices to the conversation.  However, linking vital public funding to blanket benchmarks can’t be healthy.  While I understand this policy is still in its infancy and “years from completion,” the information covered in the article is plenty to make me wary.

Here are some of my concerns:

  • Arts organizations, their missions and their audiences, are as diverse as the city itself.  Suggesting that every organization should be striving for the same benchmarks goes against the very reason they are distinct organizations in the first place.
  • What about organizations that are not producing work that speaks to a large and diverse audience?  We, as an industry, have decried funders dictating programming for decades.  Is it OK here because diversity for diversity’s sake is seen as a good end result?  There should be room in a vibrant arts ecosystem for niche companies and each of those will serve a different audience.  You can’t force an audience to be interested in a type of programming and you shouldn’t force an organization serving a distinct audience to turn from its mission in order to secure public funds.
  • Requiring a certain level of spending (30% of their budget is the “ideal” mentioned in the article) on communities of color is misguided.  How would this play out?
    • Do the Mayor and City Commissioners understand that each dollar an arts organization spends is already stretched to the limit and that few companies can simply divert funds in this way?
    • Does this mean a forced quota for staff, artists, and contractors?  What happened to allowing companies to hire the best person for the job, regardless of ethnicity?
    • Throwing marketing money at underserved communities may be the antithesis of actual engagement of these communities
  • Why just enforce ethnic diversity?  I’m willing to bet that there isn’t a direct correlation between the gender split of the staff and boards of Portland’s arts organizations and the population of the city as a whole.  What about gay voices at the table?  The disabled community?  Religious beliefs?  Socio-economic status?  Diversity comes in all shapes and sizes and each organization daily contends with reaching out to those audiences who could be interested in their work.

Instead of making arts organizations jump through ever more hoops to reach benchmarks unrelated to their mission, how about some of these ideas:

  • Rewarding organizations for diving deep into the communities to which a company’s programming speaks?
  • Judge an organization on their dedication to fulfilling their mission and the steps they take to engage and broaden their audience in ways that make sense for them?
  • Celebrate diversity in all its forms within the arts community

I applaud the Portland city leadership for looking for ways to encourage diversity.  I just fear they are heading down a path that will be detrimental for all involved.  As always, I’d love to know what you think.  Please continue this conversation in the comments below.


Posted by on February 27, 2012 in Advocacy, theatre


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Time to Wake Up – Contributed Revenue Growth

This afternoon my Rotary club listened to a presentation by Rep. Bob Goodlatte.  The talk was primarily about the Federal budget (or, as he put it, lack thereof).  I could debate various specifics from the talk, but the point that was most interesting to me was the fact that 42% of the Federal budget is currently funded by debt.  FORTY-TWO PERCENT.  Add to that a fact that I already knew, that only 35% of the Federal budget is discretionary, and you have a serious problem (I know, this is not new news).  If you were previously refusing to acknowledge that Federal funding for the arts is an endangered species, it is time to wake up.  The facts above make it obvious that even with increased tax revenue, there have to be severe cuts in all budget areas if the Federal government is going to stabilize financially.

So, the question that remains is what to do about it.  Up to this point we, as an industry, have been spending a good deal of time and money on trying to fight this inevitable change.  Meetings with and letters to legislators, meetings with and letters to Board members and donors to encourage them to write and meet with legislators, attendance at conferences and arts lobbying days on Capitol Hill, receptions, lunches, dinners, etc., etc.

What would happen if we took even 50% of the time and money currently devoted to the concerted attempt to not let what has become a tiny trickle of funding disappear and, instead, put it toward the only growth sector of contributed revenue: the individual donor.  Building a strong, sustainable revenue stream with individual donors is not rocket science, but it does require our time.  Time to meet individually with donors and discover what fuels their sense of ownership of our organizations.  Time to cultivate that sense of ownership in new patrons who will become tomorrow’s donors.  Time to  listen, respond, and cultivate the myriad ties that bind folks to the work we do.  What would happen to your individual contributed revenue if you took 32 hours (the equivalent of four working days that would have otherwise been spent travelling to DC to meet with legislators, or any of the other things listed above) and spread those hours out over the course of a year by adding 32 one-on-one meetings with donors you wouldn’t otherwise have had the time to do?

We all calculate (or should) Lifetime Value (LTV) for our donors and patrons.  Compare those results to the projected LTV of NEA funding for your individual organization.  This is simple math, folks.  Wake up and focus on your community.

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Posted by on January 31, 2012 in Advocacy, theatre


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The beautiful community of community theatre

Last weekend I had the distinct pleasure of adjudicating the American Association of Community Theatre‘s (AACT) Festival at the Southeastern Theatre Conference in Atlanta.  While I have participated in community theatre in various locations since I was 5 years old, I didn’t know there was a competition until I was asked if I might be interested in adjudicating.   As many of y’all know, there are few things I love more than theatre and giving my opinion.  I was thrilled when they invited me to join the panel.

I know exactly how egotistical this sounds, but I was under the impression that the talent I found at the Winchester Little Theatre in high school (and still find today) was an anomaly.  I was significantly under-prepared for the level of skill exhibited at the Festival.  These productions were more visually interesting and had more consistent acting than many of the professional productions I have seen in recent years.  But, these shows were more than technically good.  They had heart, soul, and at their core, community.

Besides the variety of genres represented, what struck me time and again throughout the Festival was the commitment the artists had to the work.  These folks chose to be there.  The teachers, lawyers, and nurses had to make room in their lives to participate in these productions.  I first thought the commitment and passion reminded me of the difference between a professional football player and college ball.  However, I think that analogy is actually a disservice to the artists at the Community Theatre Festival.  It infers that there is a lower level of skill which was absolutely not the case.  What was missing was the sense of entitlement and cynicism that is sometimes present in the professional theatre.  Openness and joy took the place of egotistical energy.  They not only started at a high level, they were also open to the feedback that I and the other two adjudicators offered after the performances.  It felt collaborative in the best way.

The only disappointment is that I won’t get to see the two productions we sent on to nationals perform in Rochester.

To the AACT, I say thank you for the tremendous opportunity to witness and respond to the work presented this weekend.  To the artists involved, I say thank you for sharing your joy and skill with me and each other.  I hope I have the opportunity to play with you all again in the near future.  To those of you reading this post, I say go find your local community theatre, participate, help build community through theatre.  Passion, craft, and joy … what is better than that?

Here’s a list of all the theatres from the Festival and the plays they presented (in order of performance, * indicates productions continuing to nationals, + indicates alternate to nationals):

Driving Miss Daisy by Alfred Uhry – Just Over the Rainbow Players, MS
The Harry & Sam Dialogues by Karen Ellison – Sumter Little Theatre, SC
Heroes by Gerald Sibleyras, translated by Tom Stoppard – Springfield Community Theatre, VA
Falling in Like by Jerry Sipp – Haywood Arts Rep, NC (original work)
*Sunday in the Park with George by James Lapine (book) and Stephen Sondheim (music & lyrics) – Manatee Players, FL
The Passing of Pearl by Vain Colby – Summit Players Theatre, WV (original work)
Dead Man’s Cell Phone by Sarah Ruhl – Cookeville PAC, TN
Honky Tonk Angels by Ted Swindley – Artists Collaborative Theatre, KY
+Dixie Swim Club by Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope, and Jamie Wooten – Starkville Community Theatre, MS
*Second Samuel by Pamela Parker – Wetumpka Depot Players, AL
Driving Miss Daisy by Alfred Uhry – South City Theatre, AL
Early Frost by Douglass Parkhirst – Colquitt County Arts Center, GA


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Shakespeare’s relevance

Today, the second full day of the Shakespeare Theatre Association conference, found us taking a backstage tour of the Denver Center Theatre Company (DCTC) as well as hearing a plenary speech by Kent Thompson, the Artistic Director of DCTC.  I’m glad our costume designers weren’t with us; the shop space now enjoyed by DCTC would turn their eyes green in a split second and I’m not sure we’d be able to pull them away.

Kent Thompson made some very interesting points during his talk.  He was the Artistic Director for the Alabama Shakespeare Festival for 16 years prior to joining DCTC six years ago.  Kent, like so many folks in the theatre industry of late, is seriously contemplating how our society has changed over the past few years and what that forebodes for the theatre and, more specifically, those of us producing Shakespeare.  He said two specific things that I’d like to address here: 1) kids’ vocabularies are shrinking and this (and other factors) will ultimately mean that we will need to adapt or “translate” Shakespeare’s words in order to have them understood and 2) we need to change how we view a visit to the theatre and reconsider rules such as no eating, texting, or photography.

First, about the need to adapt or translate Shakespeare’s work to make it accessible and relevant.  I have experienced first-hand what happens at the Blackfriars when kids (anywhere from 5th through 12th grade) attend a student matinee.  I’ve watched those kids sit for two hours or more, completely enthralled by the story playing out before them and pulling them into the action, and then force three curtain calls because they don’t want the experience to end.  These are full performances of a wide variety of Shakespeare’s plays with no modernization or “translation” of the language.  Kent was a bit dismissive of the idea that “if the actors know what they are saying, the audience will be with them.”  But I would like to say that truer words were never spoken.  One of the most engrossing theatrical experiences of my life was watching the National Theatre of Greece perform Elektra in modern Greek.  I didn’t speak a word of Greek, modern or otherwise, but I knew exactly what was happening on that stage.  When it comes to Shakespeare we are not even talking about performing a piece in a foreign language, this is our language and if those speaking it on stage know in their bones what their words mean then we will, too.  Don’t believe me?  Pick any week of the year and come to Staunton.

The second point I wanted to mention from Kent’s speech was the idea that we need to alter the way we view the decorum and rules requisite to attending the theatre.  A colleague of mine disagreed whole-heartedly with this idea.  However, the American Shakespeare Center already embraces much of what Kent mentioned.  Do we see this as a radical breaking of the sacred peace and quiet of a theatrical performance?  Not even close.  Instead, it is simply going back to what theatre has been throughout history prior to the invention of the electric light and the subsequent placing of the audience in the dark.  Not only do we keep the lights on the audience (allowing for much more direct interaction and engagement of the audience), but we also allow eating and drinking inside the Playhouse.  We go so far as to have a rolling refreshment cart on the stage during the pre-show and interval music.  Attending a theatrical performance need not be a “precious” or fragile experience which the merest crinkling of a snack bag will completely destroy.  Instead, it can be (and has been for centuries) a party, a transformative communal experience complete with food, drink, and all range of emotion.

This is what makes us unique in the spectrum of entertainment: our ability as creators of theatre to connect with our audience, live and in the flesh, with stories that challenge and comfort (as Kent quoted); that get under our skin and make us feel.  None of this is exclusive to the producers of Shakespeare or even classical plays.  With modern work, too, you can choose to isolate the audience or engage them.  I do believe we Shakespeare types have a leg up in the audience engagement arena … it is embedded in the DNA of these plays.

Please tell me about the ways you are embracing the culture of inclusion, whatever plays you produce.


Posted by on January 8, 2011 in theatre


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