Theatre: Local & Responsive or a Commodity via the “WalMart” model

Several theatre manager-friends and I have met up about every month, some of us for 7-8 years, for a glass of wine (pint of stout, margarita or…) and some lively chats. Often a topic returns for our monthly rant: the seemingly brainless actions of theatre boards and leadership to redraft their theatre’s mission and “brand”. The effect is usually another theatre with a mission and repertoire that looks like several other theatres in town, and the hiring of artistic leadership, designers, directors and actors from someplace else (usually New York City), or depending on non-resident artistic leadership to care about the fate and hopes of Seattle audiences and Seattle-based theatre artists. Ta-daa: another theatre is re-born with zero-uniqueness, and a rapidly diminishing distinction (call it “Love” or loyalty) in the hearts and minds of their own ticket buyers and donors!

I’m linking to a blog here that calls this for what it is: “The Wal-Marting of the American Theatre.” In Scott Waters’ blog, he aptly draws the parallel between Wal-Mart’s Benton Arkansas headquarters as the brain trust of the nation’s consumer choices, and NYC’s unfortunate effects on what it means to be a professional theatre actor/director/designer etc. He writes:

“Instead of local arts organizations run by and staffed by artists whose lives are made within a specific community and whose artistic vision is informed by that community, Wal-Mart Regional Theatre and Touring House imports generic artists from NYC to do generic plays for a short run after which they depart never to be seen again, taking the community’s money with them.”

Seattle, Denver or Atlanta…I’ll go out on a limb and proclaim that resident theatre artists have stayed in their communities because they care, because they have loyalty to their neighbors and because they want to be a part of the local conversation between theatres and audiences. In cities like Seattle, where the market for film or television work is slight, the mid-sized theatres and the freelance actor/designer/director community display a profound loyalty to one another. And, to our audiences who “get it” about each theatre’s mission, attend our plays and support us with their donations.

My money is on theatres needing to get smart very fast in this economy and mobilizing the very capable talent in their backyards. Audiences will also rally – not for a guest appearance by a soap actor – but for their local, prized and normal theatre artists.


The NEA Stimulus package is not a “bail out”

The Christmas Foundling

The Christmas Foundling

There’s been unnecessary and uninformed criticism of the National Endowment for the Arts $50 million dollar share of the ginormous $700 billion dollar bailout. Such a teeny slice of that pie to whine about…none of it going to private companies, and none of it enriching CEOs with private planes and limos.

Let me give you a few ideas to ponder. (By the way Taproot Theatre Company, where I’m the producing artistic director, has never gotten an NEA grant so we’re ineligible to apply.) Here we go:

1. The funds do safeguard real jobs, and mostly under-valued (i.e. underpaid)  jobs. In the theatre world, most of my actor, designer and technician friends cobble together a scant living from short term jobs (including acting roles), teaching and odd jobs. It’s a scramble. Every theatre (or dance company, museum, orchestra) worth its salt is doing everything possible to fairly pay its people, short-term employees/guest artists and permanent staff. And permanent staff are radically paid below the market rate of private industry.

2. The grants assist us in surviving this economic storm. At the end of this tough economy, do you want a city with its museums, zoos, orchestras, theatres, ballet/dance companies decimated? We do need our industries and schools to survive, but we also need the vital ingredients of a healthy, whole society including the Arts where we learn about living, ourselves and one another.

3. We use those funds to keep the doors open to people in need …NOW. Again, all the arts organizations I know are thinking of ways to stay affordable and accessible to people during times like this. Free shows, “Pay What You Can” shows, discounts for students and senior citizens, deals for university and under-25 young adults – we recognize that people need a night out to laugh, cry, ponder, celebrate, reflect and connect with others. Actually we’re always doing that (!!) but in these anxious times people need a renewed if not urgent access to reflection and diversion. (In Taproot Theatre’s case, we’re still running without a patron saint/major grant picking up the tab for most of these efforts. We’re on the line to raise $750,000 to balance the books in 2009.)

Around here – Seattle  – I know one of our largest theatres is cutting their budget by a third. Most are laying people off, mandating unpaid furloughs and cutting programs. As one of a cadre of mid-sized theatres, my peers have trimmed budgets, leadership have taken unpaid weeks off, and more. Planning for 2010 includes small shows that we hope also “sell” well, but small shows means fewer acting jobs too. In case you miss my point here: we, non-profit arts organizations, are accustomed to cutting budgets, squeezing every bit of value out of a buck, and still working to extend ourselves and missions to be a good thing in the lives our audiences.

So, if anyone around you trash-talks the NEA funding, tell ’em to back off.

Time for fun: PIZZA+PLAY for $10!!!

We’ve been wanting to create opportunities for young adults to become theatre-fans, not just of Taproot Theatre Company, but to discover and enjoy a lifelong appreciation for the fun and engagement of live theatre, period. This Pizza & Play combo night is a step in creating a good time at a play – with friends and great Romio’s Pizza too. (Thanks Romio’s in Greenwood for your support too – you guys are awesome.)

College students and young professionals (18- 25 years of age) get your grub on! ttc-pizza-play

Come enjoy an exclusive Taproot Theatre event just for you! Free Pizza from Romios ( and a $10 ticket to see Gee’s Bend (


Thursday, February 5, 2009
6:30pm – 9:00pm
Taproot Theatre
Greenwood Ave N. & 85th Street

Two Surprises: simple stuff makes Memories & Friends!

A few weeks ago, really on a whim, I bought several boxes of cookies from Trader Joes. After arranging them on a plate, I put on my namebadge (Scott Nolte, Producing Artistic Director) and welcomed our audiences to that evening’s performance of The Christmas Foundling at Taproot Theatre Company. It was so much fun, we continued it through the run of the show, alternating between me, our general manager, development associate and associate artistic director.

A week or so later I went to Big John’s PFI, a local Mediteranean food store that I’d read about. I walked in – it’s a lower level wide open space – and walked by two huge deli cases of cheeses and meats, and there on the left was a folding table with a nice lady with platters of cheeses, salami, prosciutt0, crackers and cookies. And Big John, smiling and with samples of his homemade Zinfandel.

Three lessons from cookies and zinfandel:

1. People love genuine surprises. People were coming to see a great show just like I was stopping by a great store with Italian and Greeks foods. The theatre patrons loved my cookies every bit as much as I gleefully enjoyed my cheese, prosciutto and zin!

2. Surprises multiply the pleasure of the intended experience. The experience grew to include the play and the groceries AND the delight of cookes and the zin. The experience became much more sensory! (For my patrons and for me!)

3. People are truly surprised when “the boss” greets them. Sheesh: I met the real Big John and he seemed like a generous, warm and big-hearted guy! For my patrons, who were met four key people in the theatre, saw the leaders caring enough to serve cookies to strangers and wish them well.

4. We, leaders of theatres (and great grocery stores!), need face-time with the people who choose to spend their time and money at our theatre. With a simple plate of cookies I got to say Hi, Thanks and Merry Christmas personally to a lot of people!! Big John has my shopping-loyalty and admiration because he grinned at me and offered me some of his own, handmade wine (and the cheeses and prosciutto were amazing too). I greeted both first-time attendees and long-term generous donors. Big John no doubt greeted long time customers and friends — and me, a first-time visitor and Italian-wannabe!

Take a chance on creating moments of surprise, hospitality and connection with your people and  communities. Make memories, make long term friends and patrons.

On Stage: The Christmas Foundling

We’re having a lot of fun with this year’s Christmas production, adapted from the short stories of Bret Harte. “The California Gold Rush is on and rough-and-tumble miners fill their days chasing fortunes and their nights with story and song. When an orphaned infant appears on their doorstep on Christmas Eve, their carefree existence is turned topsy-turvy and they discover that the greatest wealth sometimes comes in surprising packages.” The show features a friend of Taproot Theatre Company, Grant Goodeve (of “Eight is Enough”, and our local “Northwest Backroads” program and much more) plus an all around great cast. The designers’ rustic cabin and costumes are tops, and the musical direction is grand

(What’s more, the initial reviews from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and Teen-Tix are great.)

On opening night I found myself having a fun chat with a critic about Christmas plays in general, and some of our interests in selecting plays for the Season.  Let’s face it, you can see several versions of “A Christmas Carol”, a send-up of a Judy Garland Christmas TV Special, “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever”, “The Santaland Diaries” even “You Can’t Take It With You” within a 15 minute drive of Taproot Theatre’s front door.  In contrast to the wild, vulgar, maybe cycnical tendency to create new holiday plays, we’ve looked for plays that embrace the heritage of Christmas (even including its biblical origins where it fits), plays that celebrate the season and we’ve recognized that we serve hundreds of patrons who bring along their families for a special night of theatre.  For some, this is the first time at a play, if not at TTC. This is their entrance to the wonder and relevance of theatre.

Jason Adkins (Hoke), Danny Helms (Tom) and Casi Wilkerson (Sarah).

The Christmas Foundling, lt to rt: Jason Adkins (Hoke), Danny Helms (Tom) and Casi Wilkerson (Sarah).

And so, opposite to “Bah Humbug!”, we quite happily know that the entertainment element is running high and the audience is going to walk away happy. And in the case of “The Christmas Foundling” they’ll be thankful for their own families and friends, the people who contribute to making their life richer than “the stuff” that  we substitute for love.

Post-election: still doing and seeing plays, living in Hope.

the quieter corner of my desk

the quieter corner of my desk

With the election behind us, we can return to the issues of the day (running a theatre, serving the public, creating wonder) and even enjoy television a little better (enough with the nasty ads already, I’m looking forward to the good old days of Budweizer, Hot Pocket and Preparation H ads).

For those of us in the not-for-profit arts arena, these are still very crazy and uncertain times. In our hearts we know that our patrons will desperately need hope, wonder, insight and community in this period of anxiety and fear. It’s our calling! But then my brain interrupts the reverie with cat-calls about How!?? – or rather how to pay the costs of serving the public. In the best of times, we scramble to raise the funds to cover nearly 40% of our annual budget (hovering around $1.6 m). Now, with uncertainty in the air, and retailers fearing the worst Christmas shopping season in decades, what’s around the corner for us performing arts organizations?

For now, I’d like to counter fear, the kind that would paralyze our calling, with a full immersion in Hope and the God-given belief in our calling. That in itself isn’t legal tender at the bank, but it puts us in a stable place of certainty and trust from which we can work diligently. It will inform our choices, or the prioritizing, if our funds don’t match our full vision. It will remind us of the reason we faithfully serve audiences, and do everything we can to honor the work of our actors, teachers, technicians, designers and staff.  And it will keep our eyes on the prize, running the good race to completion…since these days will pass and we’ll need to have not sold our soul or lost hope. Hope, Joy and Courage will be in demand!

On the other hand, this past week: I attended the annual meeting of ArtsFund with a co-worker and caught up with a lot of arts organization and corporate friends (while sampling cheeses, sliders, sashimi and wine at the beautiful, new Seattle Four Seasons Hotel!)…Pam and I attended a wonderful Image Journal event featuring Kathleen Norris speaking, with a reception and presentation of her new book, God With Us: Rediscovering the Meaning of Christmas (the book features many contributors including Luci Shaw and Eugene Peterson) … Peter and I attended a rousing HENRY IV at Seattle Shakespeare Company, an adaptation that combined Parts I & II into a single 3 1/4 hour event…and I spent Friday morning at the Fremont Abbey, an arts center in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood, with its program director Nathan Marion. And I’m still reading “Tribes” by Seth Godin (almost done), The Art of the Turnaround by Michael Kaiser (nearly done) and Everything Must Change by Brain McLaren (hmm, ’bout halfway). And I’m watching Season Two of EUReKA and Season One of TORCHWOOD.

And I’m working on – as is every non-profit manager in November – yearend budgets and fundraising. Much to do!

Back to Matters at Hand

After a very fine dinner...

After a very fine dinner...

‘Tis been quite a while since I’ve set down the matters at hand. Quickly:

1. Susan and God had a great run with a great deal more positive email and random lobby “thanks” than normal. We are feeling thankful for all the great audience responses, strong reviews and resonance with the audience.

2a. The economy’s twists and turns are certainly of concern to those of us in the Arts, and especially when we’re dependant on a person or family’s discretionary funds for buying tickets. AND, when we’re needing to raise 34%-40% of our budgets from donations and grants.

2b. Taproot Theatre Company’s resubscription campaign for 2009 is significantly ahead of last year at this time. For the time being, that’s exceptionally good news – but where it ends, how close to the goal or how far beyond, no one knows. Yet. At the moment, you just keep working the plan.

2c. But as for setting the 2009 Budget. The Mainstage season, Road Company repertoire and Acting Studio plans are in motion, so the process of setting income goals and expense limits becomes a dance of faith, smarts and commitment. No one knows the trail ahead, or the ups and downs of this economy’s uniquenesses.

3. But, our time is Now. In a period of anxiety, change and panic, a Theatre of Hope should feel a strong sense of “calling” when its Constituency and City are challenged and maybe even feeling lost in the social, political and economic storm. In midst of a storm my staff is feeling the call and the assurance that we need to be committed and prayerful.

Scott, "punching" down the cap of fermenting cabernet grapes.

Scott, punching the cap of Cabernet grapes.

4. And, remember don’t lose hope or the connections we have to our families, friends, churches and other circles of friends. We – Pam, Peter, Lisa and I – had a terrific fall dinner at the Mt. Baker Winery. A five course dinner, with a selected wine for each course, plus another tour of the winery while they were crushing Pinot Noir grapes and had three vats of Cabernet grapes in stages of early fermentation.  Really, a very fun and delightful experience of a great dinner and the art & craft of wine-making. And, it was a respite to remind me of God’s gifts of my family and the beautiful bounty of the world around us.