BALANCING A SENSIBLE WAY FORWARD:
Weighing the Steps Theatres Can Take vs.
the Steps Theatres Must Take
Imagine my surprise when, upon researching reviews of our latest production, I ran into a June blog from Mike Daisy wondering why I had dropped out of our recent conversation about “how theatre failed America”…or, as I prefer to think of it, “how performance artists shouldn’t pretend to have all the answers when it comes to the challenges of running the theatres that hire them”. On June 7 Daisy wagged:
“I have heard nothing from Mr. Olson. I do not know if his offer was made in bad faith, but it would have been civil of him to at least send a simple email explaining why he has decided to drop the ball so entirely. I’ve taken him entirely seriously; it would have been polite for him to show a similar courtesy. Having given Mr. Olson over 30 days, I am going to assume he’s forfeiting his “challenge” and this exchange will draw to a close. Hopefully the next time Mr. Olson offers the financial data on his institution to someone he has little respect for it will go more successfully for him.”
Silly me, I should have known that a blog posted at 3:25am on Daisy’s website and never forwarded to me constituted direct communication; what was I thinking? Evidently after conversations in the halls of the TCG Conference Mike concluded, “I also don’t think people appreciated how you were speaking about artists”…to which I would simply say if artists read what I wrote they would know my devotion to them, their craft, and that I count myself in their number.
I bet the TCG folks loved Daisy’s past mock, “better to revive another August Wilson play and claim to be speaking about race right now.” But I digress.
Snarkiness aside, I suppose the most important question at hand is, after some lengthy exchanges filled with more than a little sound and fury – how did Daisy respond to my original challenge: “if Mike can balance my budget I will hire him to bring his one-man show to ASTC or produce any of his plays, but if he can’t then he must forever stop with this silly campaign of faulting regional theatres for ‘failing America’”.
Well, first he demanded terms, including access to all files, interviews and/or formal meetings with staff, artists, community and board. Ok. He promised in return “a thorough assessment of the theater, its current state, its future and its mission…[and a] report containing clear and implementable policy changes for consideration”.
Well who wouldn’t want that?
So, I gave him our working budget (including all related worksheets) and our organizational chart. Between those and our website he could at least begin to know about as much as there is to know about American Stage Theatre Company. And after his hearty, “What the hell. Let me see what I can do,” the ball was in Daisy’s court to respond.
Now he says he took all of this “entirely seriously” so I waited for the big answers. Hell, I would have taken small answers. ANY answers. When I got little back by early summer (and I’ll get to the substance of his singular response later) I wasn’t really surprised. I didn’t continue the conversation for three reasons: we were moving theatres, I had a budget to balance…and the ideas he did offer were slight and scant in number, and were, despite the level of information I had provided him, remarkably unresponsive to the problems which I was under deadline to solve.
After reading three of his lengthy rants, a couple ideas remain (which I’ll give credit for later), but the fact is Daisy offered nothing neither nuts-and-bolts nor big picture enough to concretely respond to the challenge of balancing the budget of a small professional theatre – our theatre, or any theatre.
So, not to get all college debat-ey, but by my flowchart, my original challenge remains. And by the way, I hear less and less of his “theatre failed America” refrain as Mike moves on to other stories at larger theatres and, presumably, more success. To be blunt, it may be increasingly difficult for Mike to claim that the system fails actors and “American culture doesn’t value artists” all the while enjoying the financial gains of a career that is gaining momentum and popularity.
But to the substance of our initial exchange, after I had provided him with our core financial documents but before I handed him the keys to our new theatre (which, by the way, opened in June, on time, accruing no debt) and before I facilitated formal meetings between him and our staff, artists, community and board as he had requested…I paused.
If Daisy was a consultant of substance as he claimed, I just needed a little bit more to complete the handshake.
I considered one of his favorite core complaints: “ticket price is a huge barrier to larger theatrical attendance” (which I agree with to an extent; this season we have already offered scores of performances on a “pay-what-you-can” basis). Mike has claimed that theatres “have the power to make all their tickets 15 or 20 dollars if they were willing to cut staff and transition through a tight season.” That it would take but “a tight season” is a wild and flip miscalculation…but for the moment let’s assume it’s true. What would our “tight season” look like? When I put the Daisy idea in motion I realized that we would reduce our single ticket income by at least 55%, or about $336,000. Keep in mind that over 95% of our patrons surveyed think our ticket pricing is fair.
Nevertheless, Daisy’s first (and only) response after getting our budget et al – his gesture of taking this task “entirely seriously” – consisted of, essentially, two ideas: an endowment for artists, and positions within the organization that were “staff/artist hybrids.” At least at ASTC one of these already happens, and the other idea has merit…but is flawed.
We have an endowment larger than most theatres our size (about $850,000, held in two institutions), from which we funnel about $40,000 in dividends every year into our general operating revenues. In theory we could have just what Daisy suggests: “lockboxed endowments to pay for these ensemble artist positions”. The models can be found in orchestras and opera companies across the country…the ones that haven’t declared bankruptcy (the last 24 months have taught us that orchestras and operas are even more difficult artistic businesses to run than theatres).
Nevertheless there is some merit in his suggestion, and truthfully, my Development Director and I have engaged in a discussion on this topic. But Mike’s conclusion is flawed (“This insulates your artists against economic shocks [and] will help ensure that their salaries don’t get shaved down when times are tough.”) The fact is that when times are tough, the first things to get hit are endowments. One of our two endowments plummeted last year, losing over 40% of its value; the other earned slightly over 1%. So while a good idea on paper, artist endowments can never be a “lockbox” insulated from economic turmoil.
Staff/Artist Hybrid Positions
Sounding a lot like The Group Theatre, Mike asserts, “We need to dissolve the boundaries between artists and staff so that true theatrical ensembles can thrive…you need to be thinking about creating staff/artist hybrid positions…You currently have two working artists on staff: yourself and the education director”.
Well, no, we have many more than that: Our Development Director is a director and actress having spent time on Broadway. Our Production Coordinator is the busiest (and most award-winning) set designer in the Tampa Bay area. Our new Education Director (now a half-time position) is also an actress. Our Marketing Director has acted on and written for area stages. Our Master Electrician is a lighting designer locally and elsewhere in summer stock. My Assistant is a playwright, actor, and probably directs more than anyone else in the area. I am SSDC and AEA and an active playwright; two of my new plays will enjoy staged readings in three states over the next three months. Mike, we are hybrid already, and I suspect such is the case with other regional theatres everywhere.
Here’s the bottom line: Mike Daisy can propose ideas that are insufficient to the challenge because he has the luxury of never having to implement ideas sufficient to the challenge.
But much more than these two short-sighted notions, I supplied Mike with enough information to keep an authentic consultant busy for six months:
-Mike might have looked at our organizational chart and concluded that too many people wear too many hats and that we should really get smaller before we can get larger again.
-Mike might have looked at our insurance costs and concluded that, after nearly doubling in price over the past six years, we should no longer offer such a benefit to employees (60% of our actors would not be effected as Actors’ Equity protects that benefit).
-Mike might have looked at our budget and concluded that employing production staff year-round was a mistake and that we should do what other theatres do and lay off this group for part of the season (but something tells me that Mike would never advocate laying off artists, viable solution or no).
-Mike might have seen in our budget worksheets that our education and royalty spending was significantly higher than other TCG theatres in our Budget Group, a trend we’re actively addressing.
-Mike might have identified that our contributed income and earned income were significantly more out of proportion than the year before, though he might have forgiven us that imbalance given the current fundraising climate and our significant increase in programming.
-Mike might have concluded that some departments have enjoyed rapid growth while others remain very small and need attention. Perhaps ASTC is stuck in a rut unique to medium-sized theatres. Some traditions are waning while others sit in a kind of pilot stage, forcing us to care and feed for so many things differently.
These are some things I might have expected in a consultant.
And the stakes have risen even over this past summer. In the last 24 months we have lost 82% of our city, county, and state funding. $162,000 is meaningful to us. To counter such dramatic losses we need real ideas. Serious ideas. Meaningful ideas. Tectonic ideas. Slashing ticket prices, starting another endowment, or staff/artist hybris are not ideas of the scale theatres need (they may be helpful to some theatres but they are not by themselves helpful to ASTC). The real solutions are larger and structural, as well as smaller, more innovative, and more detailed. That is our struggle.
For the record, here’s how we balanced our budget last July 31: we slashed education by 40% and made our Education Director position part-time (after five years our Education Director took a job elsewhere). Every employee agreed to a week of unpaid vacation. We doubled our off-series programming (cabarets, after hours, etc.) Because we broke our attendance record four times in 12 months, we were able to plug in higher single ticket projections. And because our subscription sales were 12% higher than the year before (a 31 year record), we made that our projection in the new budget (which we have already surpassed). We used big band-aids, small band-aids, any band-aids, tried to spread the pain evenly and fairly, and passed our budget with fingers crossed. Now, five months into the fiscal year…so far so good.
More Elephants in the Room
While two opinionated men of the theatre are on a roll, there are plenty of other problematic issues indigenous to our industry that rarely get talked about in open forums. Maybe these are worth our attention:
-the irony that an industry with story telling at its core suffers from political correctness
-the fact that our business is frequently unfriendly to artists with families
-the dismissive and negative attitudes in some corners of our industry toward what I once heard termed at a TCG conference, “those WIT/PROOF/DOUBT theatres”
-the glut of unequipped actors and playwrights in our industry pouring out of too many training programs (on the subject of overgrown literary departments, I think Daisy has a very good point)
-the fact that about 70% of regional theatre audiences are white females, yet theatres constantly court others for would-be Trustee positions (wealthy, male, gay, diverse, etc.)
Here’s the real bottom line in all this…
Both Mike Daisy and I care a great deal about this industry for which we have dedicated our lives. He once described himself in a way that I would describe myself: “the state of theater is a central obsession for me, and I pursue my obsessions.” We are both artists who read and evaluate words and make judgments about the kind of character those words amplify. So we think we’re qualified to hotly evaluate each other’s motivations…but the fact is we don’t know each other at all.
Maybe what has fueled both of our writings has been long-standing, deep frustration. And more than a dose of sheer fear. Frustration for an industry and a world that we want to be better, and fear that it won’t. Which is deflating in every way, for we know that the best art we make elevates the experience of living. But we do our best to offer art that is vital…to a world increasingly less able to recognize our offering.
I have heard Mike tell his story in performance, and frankly much of it resonates with me. Even more bluntly, I share much of it. And we’ve both been reasonably successful in our respective arenas; in a season where more theatres have closed than any time in memory, ASTC is holding its own. And haven’t we seen Mike listed on more seasons at more good theatres then ever before? I say “good for him”; I hope he would say the same for me and ADs like me.
Now, if all of us in the theatre can just keep negotiating this tight rope act that is our careers. Every day I think of Nina’s line from Act 4 of The Seagull: “All it is is the strength to keep going, no matter what happens.”
Producing Artistic Director
American Stage Theatre Company