There’s a huge takeaway for small theatre companies in DC following the revised Helen Hayes eligibility requirements and the removal of Ari Roth from Theater J: In DC, at least, theatre is first and foremost a business. Each of us needs to decide what to do with that uncomfortable fact.
from DCTS: Recently, theatreWashington announced a major change to the qualification process for the annual Helen Hayes Awards, instituting minimum wage requirements across several artistic fields. This is the latest in a continuing series of opinion pieces, meant to reflect the different points of view of producers, actors, designers, directors, and other artists on the recent change.
As the founder of a company with three Helen Hayes Awards recommendations, I understand this business position, really I do. Each of us is beholden to boards or other interested groups to raise funds for our company. I’m stretched thin on how much more of my personal savings I can put back into my own company, so on more than one occasion I’ve heard myself say, “no art gets made until money is made first.” I don’t like it, but that’s reality.
When any of us decides to have our theatre join the professional ranks, it can be very difficult to stay true to our mission. Not everyone with cash to fund the business is as in love with our goal as we may be. That means walking the fine line between artistic integrity and financial viability. The more popular you become, the more opinions you have to take into account as you build your reputation.
Looking at the growth trajectory of the biggest theatres in DC, there is a direct correlation between success and a willingness to accommodate broader opinions. The deservedly well-respected Woolly Mammoth (to which I’m proud that Molotov’s audiences sometimes compare us) mounted both “Fat Men in Skirts” in 1991 and “Bug” in 2000. They’re still doing very interesting work like “Bootycandy,” and giving opportunities to many new talented writers and artists. It’s unlikely, though, that we’d see anything as jarring on their stage today quite so consistently as when they were still struggling and working in smaller venues. They and other established companies have a very large budget number to meet each year, and you can’t do that on a steady diet of dark, triggering or overtly challenging material. (At least not in DC, it seems.)
And when board members are expected to raise five-figure contributions each year, as they do for many established theatres, it’s considerably harder if your seasons test the limits of an audience’s sensibilities. What’s more, if a board feels any artistic personnel are working at cross purposes to the goals of a theatre — or to the interests of the people who pay to keep the lights on — it’s within the board’s rights and fiduciary obligations to make the changes they deem fit, whether any of us agrees with those changes or not.
It is a shame, however, when those boards make decisions that will serve to define out of professional status the very companies they courted scant years ago. I remember sitting with my peers in the audience at Imagination Stage, listening to Linda Levy explain the values of being part of the larger theatrical community. I also clearly remember hearing how Helen Hayes recognition could be valuable in developing our reputation and in helping create the credibility required to seek funding.
Only a day or so ago, in an end-of-year donation email, one of my friends was encouraged to contribute to the organization that had seen the DC theatre community grow from 14 theatres in the mid 1980s to over 90 today. The sad fact, however, is that many of those over 90 professional theatres could be defined out of their professional status, once the board-approved Helen Hayes Awards eligibility requirements are put in place in 2016.
In the case of my own company, which has largely been bootstrapped for our seven years of operation, the compensation minimums will increase our budget by 60 to even 80 percent per show. That’s not the kind of number we can prepare for – the funding is just not there.
So, what to do? From a purely business standpoint, there are some options:
We could try to find 80 percent more money per show.
We could cut back our season by one or two shows, and eliminate other programs.
We could continue to do our work outside of the Helen Hayes system.
We could become a community theatre.
We could dissolve.
We could compromise.
We could move to another city.
Because we know we don’t have avenues for nearly doubling the funding per show, we could cut back to one show per season while keeping other programming. That will make it harder still to find more funding, as there’s very little value to a corporate donor in a theatre that holds 16 performances or fewer only once a year. We could certainly work outside of the Helen Hayes system, which we did for the first several years of our existence. It’s a shame that we have to consider it, given that this is DC’s only professional awards organization. Not being part of it seems on its face to devalue our company as a legitimate business entity (despite our 501(c)(3) non-profit status).
There are some things we can’t or don’t want to do. We can’t become a community theatre. It’s unlikely that we would get widespread community support for our mission of preserving the Grand Guignol and horror/suspense theatre. We don’t want to dissolve, obviously. And we’ve already compromised somewhat on what was originally an exclusive focus on Grand Guignol, broadening our reach to horror and suspense. We can’t go much beyond that, because historical preservation of the form is what is building our brand reputation, and giving us a name outside US borders.
For us, really, we’re at a crossroads that our board will have to help us navigate. I don’t like the idea that my company – along with many others – will essentially be defined out of our professional status in the eyes of many of those in the more established theatre community. I don’t like the thought of reconsidering our mission for the sake of money. I don’t like the idea that we may have to give fewer opportunities to DC’s very talented professional actors and technical people, who typically are happy just to receive a stipend or a percentage guarantee against gross profits.
What I like, though, is what drives me. I like to live and work in DC. I like the idea of a vibrant and supportive creative community in the buttoned-down confines of our nation’s capital. I like the fact that DC’s creative and civic leaders are working hard to overcome the stigma that this city is just a good place to be from. I hope that we can find a way to make all that happen without having to make compromises that will homogenize theatre in Washington.
But whatever happens, I’m going into it with my eyes wide open. Because in DC, theatre is first and foremost a business.
written by Alex Zavistovich,
President and Founder
Molotov Theatre Group