Theatre Bay Area Chatterbox

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

In Defense of Millennials

This special guest post was written by Impact Theatre artistic director Melissa Hillman. Learn more about Impact Theatre at

The dust has settled from the latest embarrassingly naïve post Kennedy Center president Michael Kaiser slapped together for his HuffPo blog, but many in the theatre community are still burning with curiosity over how a man who clearly has very little understanding of the contemporary arts scene and even less understanding of young audiences has become the head of one of the most prominent arts organizations in the world and has been handed millions of dollars to program for Millennials.

If you want to see what I’m on about, the latest in a string of tone-deaf Kaiser posts can be found here.

You can read the best of the crop of eloquent, well-informed smackdowns here, here and here.

Michael Kaiser is, like me, a former opera singer. Unlike me, he didn’t leave opera for theatre, but for—what else?—business. He promoted himself as a “turnaround king,” taking huge, lumbering arts organizations on the brink of beaching themselves and making them profitable. Evidently, he’s damn good at it.

I have nothing against business people. My father ran a small business my entire life. I do, however, question the wisdom of allowing a business guy with little experience in the arts a national sounding board with which to discuss what is wrong with the arts. He displays an embarrassing lack of knowledge about the contemporary arts scene and the topic of young theatre audiences. (Need more proof?)

Apart from the boringly obvious—old guy popping off about what assholes young people are, an activity old guys have enthusiastically enjoyed since Ancient Greece—there’s a much bigger issue on the table here. Kaiser is asserting definitional authority over what is and is not important in our culture. And what’s playing at the Kennedy Center this season? Follies, at $45 - $150 a ticket. What else is playing there? I’m so glad you asked. Shear Madness. Wicked. Next to Normal. Uncle Vanya. Les Miserables. Billy Elliott. La Cage aux Folles. Memphis. The Addams Family. I’m certain these are all excellent business decisions. I know that many of these pieces are wonderful works of art that deserve a place on stage. But they are not, by anyone’s measure, comprehensively reflective of what’s currently happening in American theatre, nor are they reflective of what would be, by any theatre professional’s standard, critical for (ugh) “culture IQ.”

Do not define for me what we, as artists, should deem culturally important while simultaneously displaying, in multiple ways, your complete ignorance about the current state of the arts. Yes, opera is important, musical theatre is important, but so is the art that’s currently being created, in an explosive burst of creativity all over the country, by these very Millennials you seem to think need your artistic guidance. Stop talking and start watching. Their art is everywhere, and a lot of it is glorious, brilliant and breathtaking. All you need to do is look.

Here’s another idea: stage the Millennials' work! Put your considerable millions where your mouth is. Why don’t you pull one or two of the titles on your mainstage that everyone has already seen six times at a community theatre and replace them with a new work by a young playwright? You have the money. Why not take a risk and stage something new? If you purport to want to increase your under-40 audience, as well as foster the new generation of artists, why don’t you stage their work? Is Follies really more important for “culture IQ” than a world premiere by Steve Yockey, Young Jean Lee, or Marcus Gardley? What are those Millennial Project millions for? John Legend and OK Go? Really?

All of this begs the question: Why is someone like Michael Kaiser, who has likely never even heard of Young Jean Lee, being given a national media platform, a million dollar salary (no lie), control over one of the most prominent arts organizations in the world, and millions of dollars of federal funding? The answer is depressing, and simple: Because we, as a culture, think business people should be in control of every damn thing. This is their cultural moment. Eventually, it’ll pass, and we’ll put education back in the hands of educators, arts back in the hands of artists and music back in the hands of musicians, but it’s not going to happen while we’re listening to people like Michael Kaiser tell us what should and should not be culturally and artistically important.

There’s no shame in being a businessman who knows a lot about making an arts org profitable without knowing a lot about the arts. There is, however, a careening truckload of shame in standing on a soapbox to chastise an entire generation for being artistically ignorant when the real issue is your own ignorance.

Young artists: seize control of the narrative! In other words: Keep doing what you already do. There are many of us who see you.

Michael Kaiser: Leave your office and go to an arts event that doesn’t have valet parking.

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Thursday, April 14, 2011

What’s a Theatre Company to Do When the Economy Crashes?

This special guest post was written by Pamela Rosen, a Silicon Valley-based business writer who moonlights in the theatre as an actor, director, and acting coach.

As we begin to emerge from the “great recession,” Bay Area theatre has a vastly different landscape than it did during the boom years. Well-established, respected companies have disappeared —victims, it would seem, of the terrible economy. Yet, there are plenty of theatre companies in the Bay Area that flourished during the recession. It makes me wonder: how did the successful ones do it? What caused others with solid audience bases to fail? And most importantly, what can struggling theatres do now to shore up their futures?

Keeping it real in good times

When times are good, it’s easy for theatre companies to breathe easy and focus only on producing great shows. But so many companies plan from year to year and not for the future. When ticket sales are good enough to keep a company afloat, who wants to go out and raise money? It’s hard to convince a Board of Directors to work even harder to raise cash when money is flowing in from the box office.

In 2008, our economy fell apart quickly, and not many even came close to predicting how severe the recession would be. Many theatre companies reacted by putting on traditionally crowd-pleasing shows they thought would draw big audiences. But splashy, family-oriented productions of Oklahoma and Annie couldn’t bring in the family if the tickets were priced out of the family’s budget. Incomes fell in 2008—but production costs didn’t. Without a long-term plan or a contingency in place, companies were simply not agile enough to adjust budgets or ticket prices.

One producer at the now-defunct Alameda Civic Light Opera (ACLO) explains, “We looked out into the audience during Annie and saw half-filled houses. Meanwhile, families were walking away from the box office after seeing the ticket prices, carrying crying little girls. It’s not like the audience wasn’t there, but the shows weren’t affordable anymore.”

With dramatic scenes like that, it’s unlikely ACLO would be have been able to recoup their losses with last-minute fundraising. The window of opportunity had closed. The board was too busy trying to pay the bills and keep the doors open and couldn’t take on the additional, now more difficult task of fundraising.

“The loss of ACLO is a huge void in the community,” says ACLO director Cary Litchford. “I miss the company terribly and they had a lot of heart and soul.”

Building Relationships and Raising Funds

Theatre companies fare much better if they have long-term 3-5 year plans and Boards of Directors with members who understand that their individual and group responsibility is first and foremost fundraising and community outreach. The Willows Theatre Company in Concord closed its doors in November of 2009 and moved operations to its smaller cabaret house in Martinez, but is now roaring back. How did they manage it? With the company’s closure, the surrounding businesses and restaurants also suffered a drop in business. The Willows had developed such close relationships with those businesses that the theatre had become indispensible. An outcry from those businesses, The Willows’ key stakeholders, enabled The Willows to reorganize and return. Because The Willows had been making money putting on smaller, lower cost shows during the depths of the recession, they were ready to move back in and operate again in two venues, each feeding the other. Today, they have a new artistic director and a solid five-year plan.

One for the money, two for the show

An upstart non-profit company in San Leandro, Curtain Call Performing Arts, arose as a direct result of the recession, with a goal to provide affordable theatre to everyone regardless of the state of the economy. To do this, the Board created a unique charter: raise the all the funds to mount a show before a production begins, then charge no more than $12 a ticket. They’ve mounted three productions this way, and even offered $1 tickets to children with a paid adult during a specified matinee.

Though this method currently makes it impossible to schedule production dates in much in advance, it’s an interesting model. The board is forced to continually innovate with creative fund raising and volunteer coordination. They’ve come up with clever ideas. “Our concert choir, Cantare, is one hundred percent volunteer operated,” says founding member Andrea Gorham. “Its sole purpose is to raise funds. CCPA partners with other nonprofit art groups in San Leandro to put on benefit concerts featuring Cantare.” Curtain Call partners with other arts organizations to share the profits and the audience. They’ve built an impressive audience base, and, through the choir, a large pool of volunteers.

Though it’s not a model that many companies will likely embrace, other companies could take a page from Curtain Call’s book. They might also learn a lesson from The Willows, which stayed in business in the middle of a recession by mounting smaller, less expensive productions and maintaining strong relationships with external stakeholders who revived The Willows' mainstage.

All over the Bay Area, theatre companies are still struggling. Those with a long term plan, an understanding that the purpose of a board of directors is to raise money and develop external relationships, that also have the flexibility to scale productions costs to swing with a volatile economy, will flourish. We’re not out of this yet. For some companies, it’s too late. But there’s still a chance for others to mobilize and heed the lessons of the last three years. What steps has your company taken to weather the economic downturn?

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Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Literary Adventures of Claire and Elana, Part 1

The Literary Adventures of Claire and Elana: Edition

ELANA rummages through the fridge at Theatre Bay Area, grabs a paper bag and pulls out her lunch, staring disdainfully at the stale bread and old apple that she packed herself in her sleep-deprived morning haste. Enter CLAIRE, who crosses cheerily to the water cooler to get a drink.

CLAIRE: So, I did it! I submitted a play to the Playwright’s Foundation for the Bay Area Playwright’s Festival.

ELANA: When was the deadline?

CLAIRE: I know, I know, I took my sweet time. Maybe someday I’ll get in a submission one or two days before the very second they are due.

ELANA dons her Judging Cap—a stylish porkpie, complete with feather.

CLAIRE: (sheepishly) I think I heard a quote somewhere that real playwrights wait until the last minute. Have you heard that one?


CLAIRE: Oh. Well. This year I didn’t even have to mail in my submission, so I was able to procrastinate more than usual. They're using this new website called Have you heard of it?



CLAIRE: Well, it was great! I just filled out an online form, uploaded my script, and that was that. I didn't have to print or mail anything. Did you submit a play this year?

ELANA: No...

ELANA rotates her Judging Cap to reveal the words “PLAYWRIGHTS FOUNDATION SELECTION COMMITTEE” written on the back. CLAIRE gasps and drops her water.

ELANA: So we meet.

CLAIRE: Well, technically, we’ve known each other for a few months, being coworkers and all.

ELANA: So we judge and judged.

CLAIRE: I didn’t realize you were on the selection committee!

ELANA: I didn’t realize you submitted a play to the Playwrights Foundation! Wait. Does this not strike you as odd? Two coworkers, standing around the water cooler for an inordinately long time, able to provide complementary views on a new online literary database and seemingly unable to talk about anything else?

(CLAIRE and ELANA make eye contact and slowly, suspiciously cast their eyes skyward, where a giant pencil eraser threatens to poke down from up above.)

CLAIRE: Elana, you’ve resorted to a metatheatrical representation of yourself as the playwright-slash-literary puppetmaster?! Thank god you didn’t submit a play this year, or you would’ve been the laughingstock of the local theatre community!

ELANA: Don’t look at me, I’m not the one pulling the metaphorical strings here!

CLAIRE climbs atop the refrigerator and peers into the left eye of META-ELANA.

CLAIRE: (Scrambling down) OH MY GOD. I can’t believe I’m in a play with a character named “META-ELANA.” Just being a character in this play is going to regress my writing 10 years. OH MY GOD! REGRESS MY WRITING? IS THAT EVEN A PHRASE??

(The giant pencil eraser starts to erase Claire’s left foot.)


(The eraser hesitates.)

ELANA: Claire, say something! Say something more about the database!

CLAIRE: Uhm….I totally didn’t feel all angsty about paying the readers fee, because I didn’t have to spend any money on copies or binding or envelopes or postage. Wouldn’t it be great if someday, in the future, this was the way all plays were submitted.

(The eraser starts to erase CLAIRE's right hand.)

ELANA: WAIT! Stop! She's given you what you wanted! She's talking!

CLAIRE: (Louder) Freelance dramaturges can also use it to - --

(The eraser erases CLAIRE's mouth.)


To be continued...

Will Claire and Elana escape from the water cooler unharmed? Will Claire get her mouth back? And just what *is* this literary database of which Claire and Elana speak so passionately, anyway? These questions and more will be answered in Part 2 of The Literary Adventures of Claire and Elana: Edition.

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