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Fundraising vs. Theatre

I was listening to an interview with Steve Jobs from the mid-1990’s in which he was talking about how successful companies can self-destruct. What Jobs said was that companies have success through invention or innovation, but can only push that invention or innovation so far. Basically you can make a better mousetrap in one big bang, but after that change is normally incremental - and seemingly unimpressive- improvements. The inspiration or creativity or pure invention that is the spark that starts the company can only get it so far, and at some point the inventors come to be seen as no longer growing the company, and instead of product innovation growth is attributed to sales and marketing. It’s not what’s in the box that counts anymore, it’s the box - how it’s designed, what color it is, how its photographed, what slogan is slapped on it. And since the sales and marketing teams are deemed invaluable to the company’s future those are the people who get promoted - ahead of the creative inventors who are actually making and incrementally improving the product. Eventually the company may be run by those who have the most innovative sales strategies, and they may be so distanced from the product that they only see it as a swappable widget, a thing to sell, and these widget salespeople may in no way feel tied to the founding philosophy, the “why” of the actual product.

I was thinking about how this applies to theatre.

Most theatre companies are founded with a passion to tell particular, untold stories, or stories told in particular ways. They have a mission statement related to making the world a better place, uplifting communities, reclaiming classics, overthrowing oppression - you get the idea.

That is the founding passion, and the artists and audiences attracted to that mission want to be a part of it.

But with a lack of national arts funding the mission statement, the philosophy, the world-challenging product - while still held up as central to the theatre - is frequently not the focus of meetings, not what people fight over.

It’s fundraising.

I’ve walked into theatre offices full of people, staff and interns, diligently working away, knowing that most of them are working on raising money for the theatre - selling, begging, cajoling, dealing. Choices are made because of funding sources, foundations, shows are chosen because of that rich Board member who loves Cole Porter. I’m not slamming Cole Porter, but no theatre founded on the idea of overthrowing institutionalized oppression should be in the position of having to do “Anything Goes” in the middle of a social uprising just because some banker on the Board really likes “Blow Gabriel Blow.” And no Board member should ever predicate giving money to a theatre they purport to love on the condition that they stick “Kiss Me Kate” between “Sweat” and “The Great Khan” (shameless self plug.)

(Honestly, I’n not a big fan of the whole Board of Directors model when it comes to arts organizations anyway. It’s generally a bunch rich people positioned to oversee the working artists. Like because of their often inherited wealth or privilege they are better at dealing with money than artists who have had to learn how to stretch a dollar to the damn horizon. If they want to support the company fine - donate no-strings money, and let the companies be more collectively run. Power to the People.)

The point is without reliable national arts funding theaters are forced to increasingly put time and energy into the thing that isn’t their reason for being, and often Artistic Directors are hired not because of their bold, world changing vision, but rather because they are good fundraisers. They are not picked because they will challenge the powers that be in ways the founders of that company intended, but because they come from rich families who are willing to underwrite their kid’s artistic career. It’s the same self-destruction Jobs was talking about - losing the philosophy that led to the creation of the unique product while focusing on sales.

So until we have some sort of dependable commitment to arts funding in the United States we have to all be careful that our core product remains our world-beater productions inspired by our revolutionary founding philosophies, and not turning out a generation of interns who know how to cold-call potential donors.

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