Building a Sustainable Model for Musical Theater Organizations

Building a Sustainable Model for Musical Theater Organizations

The Crumbling Theater Ecosystem and a Radical Reimagining

As I sat down to write this article, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of unease creeping up my spine. The theater industry, once a vibrant and thriving ecosystem, seemed to be crumbling right before our eyes. The COVID-19 pandemic had undoubtedly dealt a devastating blow, but the cracks in the foundation ran far deeper than any temporary crisis.

According to theater historian Scott Walters, the issues plaguing our beloved theaters stem from a much older, more entrenched problem – the legacy of the Theatrical Syndicate. This turn-of-the-century cabal of theater owners had effectively centralized and monopolized the industry, stripping power away from local, artist-owned companies and handing it to a select few in New York City.

“The Theatrical Syndicate was a group of money men who owned theatre spaces all over the country,” Walters explains. “They decided that the theatre spaces were key, and they told the actor-managers, ‘If you want to perform here, you have to work for us. You have to be our employees.'” This set in motion a cascade of events that would ultimately lead to the demise of the vibrant, community-driven theater model that had thrived for centuries.

Donor Fatigue and the Crumbling Nonprofit Model

Fast-forward to today, and we find ourselves in the midst of a full-blown crisis. The nonprofit theater model, long hailed as the savior of the art form, is showing its age. Walters points out that the largest theaters are the ones being hit the hardest, a clear indication that the underlying business model is fundamentally flawed.

“Donor fatigue” has become the new buzzword, as audiences and supporters alike grow weary of the constant barrage of pleas for financial assistance. “Donors are at the center of the nonprofit theatre model,” Walters laments, “and donors are tired of constantly having to contribute year after year to the same theatre.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated this issue, as people grapple with their own financial struggles and are less inclined to pour money into institutions that seem to be perpetually in crisis. The result is a theater landscape that is increasingly inhospitable to the very artists and communities it was meant to serve.

A Radical Reimagining: Artist-Owned, For-Profit Theaters

But amidst the gloom, a glimmer of hope emerges. Walters proposes a radical reimagining of the theater model – one that places the power back in the hands of the artists themselves.

“In my model, which is based on Shakespeare’s the King’s Men and just about every theatre company throughout most of theatre history, company members own shares in the theatre and are paid according to their share of the company profits,” Walters explains. “I’m trying to get artists to think of themselves as owners, not employees.”

This shift in mindset is crucial, as it aligns the financial success of the theater directly with the artistic vision and decision-making of the artists themselves. No longer are they beholden to the whims of donors or the demands of a centralized, corporate-like structure. Instead, they become stewards of their own destiny, responsible for the choices that will directly impact their own bottom line.

The Power of Smaller, Responsive Theaters

Walters argues that this artist-owned, for-profit model lends itself to a smaller, more agile theater company – one that can be highly responsive to the needs and desires of its local community. “A smaller theatre that serves a specific community can build an individual relationship with that community and keep those community members coming back for more,” he says. “Not only does this allow the work to be more personal, but it also allows the work to be responsive.”

This notion of responsiveness is key, as it allows these smaller, artist-owned theaters to pivot and adapt to the ever-shifting cultural landscape. Rather than being beholden to a rigid, pre-programmed season, they can be nimble and opportunistic, seizing on the zeitgeist of the moment and crafting work that resonates deeply with their local audiences.

“Who could have predicted the massive cultural phenomenon that the collision of Barbie and Oppenheimer had over the summer?” Walters muses. “It’s this magical moment of cultural conversation that came out of a unique moment, and if you’ve scheduled your entire season the previous spring, you can’t respond to it. A smaller, scrappier theatre company could say, ‘Let’s plan upcoming programming around this cultural moment that will engage and bring together our local audience into our work.'”

The Playwright as Integral Collaborator

At the heart of this new theater model is the playwright – a figure that Walters believes has been shamefully neglected in the contemporary theater landscape. “Playwrights are the most forgotten artists in today’s theatre,” he laments. “Shakespeare was a playwright, Molière was a playwright – they were writing work that was specific to the communities that they inhabited and to the actors they were working with.”

In Walters’ vision, the playwright is an integral, empowered collaborator, with a direct stake in the success of the theater. “If the playwright is a shareholder, the money that they make is directly connected to the level that they’re engaging their community in their work,” he explains. “You’re not going to do something that is really going to go against the ethos of the community because you have to stand with them in line at the grocery store the next day.”

This symbiotic relationship between the playwright, the theater, and the community is the key to building a truly sustainable model – one that eschews the top-down, corporate mentality of the Theatrical Syndicate in favor of a more grassroots, artist-driven approach.

Shifting from Mission Statements to Vision Statements

As these artist-owned, for-profit theaters begin to take shape, Walters emphasizes the importance of moving away from the ubiquitous “mission statement” and towards a more focused, intentional “vision statement.” He explains that the positive motivations behind mission statements have, over time, led to a sort of dilution, where theaters try to be all things to all people.

“When the artists come together to decide on what they want their theatre to be, they should be setting real guidelines for the kind of shows that they want to produce and then finding the audience that wants that too,” Walters advises. “When a play crosses the table, if it doesn’t align with what we set out to do, we can be more comfortable passing it up.”

This clarity of purpose, Walters argues, is essential for building trust and loyalty with the local community. “Once the audience knows what you do and that you do it well, they feel more comfortable engaging with your shows repeatedly,” he says. “It allows your theatre to be a resource to your community not only for entertainment, but for catharsis, education, and perspective.”

Embracing Flexibility and Responsiveness

Underpinning Walters’ vision for sustainable theater is a deep embrace of flexibility and responsiveness. Gone are the days of rigid, yearlong seasons – in their place, a more agile, nimble approach that can adapt to the ever-changing cultural landscape.

I love the idea of rotating rep,” Walters enthuses. “There’s a tech company called 37 Signals that defines their budgets of time and money only six weeks in advance. I love this. Why do we have to announce a full season a year in advance?”

By shortening the planning horizon, these artist-owned theaters can be more responsive to the needs and desires of their local communities. They can quickly pivot to address current events, capitalize on cultural phenomena, or simply bring back a beloved show that the audience is clamoring to see.

“If a play makes a total loss, for instance, you can always pull out a popular show that you did in the past that you have the costumes, actors, and set pieces for – that the community will be excited to see return,” Walters explains. “You can make up for a show that didn’t do as well as you anticipated.”

Building a Sustainable Future for Musical Theater

As I reflect on Walters’ vision for a radically reimagined theater model, I can’t help but feel a sense of renewed optimism for the future of our beloved art form. The current system, with its top-down, corporate mentality, is clearly unsustainable – but in its place, we have the opportunity to build something truly transformative.

By empowering artists as owners, embracing the power of the playwright, and fostering deep, responsive connections with local communities, these smaller, for-profit theaters have the potential to be the lifeblood of a revitalized, sustainable musical theater ecosystem. And as the Musical Theater Center continues to support and nurture this new generation of theater makers, I can’t wait to see the remarkable work that they will create.

It’s a bold vision, to be sure, but one that I believe holds the key to the future of our art form. So let’s roll up our sleeves, embrace the challenge, and get to work on building a more sustainable, vibrant, and community-driven future for musical theater.

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