A Critic Responds

Below is a response to my previous posts on theater criticism by friend and journalist Brad Hathaway, now Vice Chair of the American Theatre Critics Association…

A Critic Responds
by Brad Hathaway
Vice Chair, Executive Committee, American Theatre Critics Association

In both your November American Theatre Magazine column “Tastemaking in a Post-Newspaper World,” and your December Managing Creatively entry “Criticism and Metrics of Success” you lay out the challenge of the current state, not just of theater criticism, but of the wider category of theater journalism itself.
You propose some common sense actions theaters can take in their own self interest in the wake of the loss of coverage.

Of course, the problems you and your colleagues who operate major theaters around the country face as a result of what you referred to as “the hive mind collective of the internet” are real. They call for corresponding changes in your readers’ approaches to reaching out to their audience, or if you prefer the business school term, their customer base.

But your suggested actions tend to bypass the critical community, exacerbating the problem you decry. I’d suggest that there are some positive steps your readers could take to improve the state of theater criticism and theater journalism in their own regions or cities which would be to our mutual benefit.

Your call for a “post-newspaper communications strategy” seems to concentrate on theaters becoming content producers or providers themselves. Certainly, that is something that has been successful for many of your readers, and it has even provided some additional sources of employment or income, or even outlets for beleaguered former-full-time professional theater critics.

But often the “content” a theater company can create ends up going just to their board members, season subscribers and their box-office’s list of single-show ticket buyers. To the extent this is true, they end up “preaching to the choir”  and perhaps add to the cacophony of tweets, posts, blogs, podcasts and texts that can – and do – drown out even the most carefully prepared considerations of their “product.”

There are other ways for your readers to meet the challenges of the modern age. Bear in mind that neither you nor we can un-invent the technologies that are changing our world. One simply has to see the developments as challenges and opportunities, looking for ways to survive, and one would hope, thrive in the new environment. In that, theater companies and theater critics have a common cause!

Here are a few suggestions for your readers’ consideration:

  • Expand your definition of “theater critic” or “theater journalist.” We at the American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA), in recognition of the sea-change in our world, recently changed the criteria for membership in our organization. We went from “membership is open only to any professional writer who has been actively employed reviewing theatre on a regular and continuing basis” – which seemed appropriate when our organization was founded in 1974 – to “Membership is open to any writer who regularly publishes substantive pieces reviewing or otherwise critically covering theater.” You will notice that we used words like “substantive” and “critically covering” to make sure we weren’t simply adopting the “hive.” We continue to have standards – and you should too! But standards for substance and critical judgement must take the place of “print circulation statistics” in choosing who should have access. Try to identify everyone who is reaching a significant portion of the community with reasoned content. Your readers might want to start with a visit to the “membership roll” page of our website to identify our members in their area … it is at americantheatrecritics.org/atca-membership-roll/.
  • Help those who are trying to cover the theater community, especially those who are new to the “beat.” Today so many journalists who have covered other areas are now being called upon to add theater to their responsibilities. Arts editors, performing arts writers, movie/music/dance/television critics and even food or bar critics are expected to include theater in the list of topics they write about. Some may have come from another discipline and, as a result, have good basic skills in writing criticism or features, but lack much background in the theater community they now need to cover. Your readers have a vested interest in helping them become better informed on the scope, the history and the nature of their theater community. Your readers might suggest that their companies join with others in their area to host briefings or presentation on these topics for that wider population of theater critics and journalists they identified in the point above. If any of your readers’ theaters would like to undertake such briefings or presentations in cooperation with the local members of the American Theatre Critics Association, I hope they will contact me as I chair ATCA’s Professional Development Committee and we’d be anxious to be of help.
  • Take a page from the “golden age of press agentry,” looking back to see some of the techniques the press agents of the past developed. I’m not suggesting that theaters return to ghost-writing features and reviews that less-than-scrupulous writers can publish as their own work – lord knows too much of that has taken place in the past – and no one suggests that the practice is completely unknown today. What I am suggesting, however, is that more ideas for features, leads for stories and opportunities for access be provided to theater journalists. Your readers know their product from the inside out – they should share that perspective with those they wish would write about it from the outside looking in.
  • When any of your readers spots a piece that is innovative, original or imaginative – they should encourage the writer with positive feedback and perhaps suggestions for similar pieces. Those suggestions might stimulate additional quality coverage. After all, if the writer has already produced a piece they find particularly noteworthy, he may well be responsive to suggestions for topics of which he had not been aware before.
  • Then, if the writer wishes to follow up on it, they should make sure they provide the access needed to do a thoroughly professional job of it.
  • Finally, use whatever in-house efforts are available to spread the word about critics and journalists of quality. I’m not suggesting strings of empty compliments intended to flatter critics. I’m suggesting that your readers’ “post-newspaper communications strategy” should include giving quality writing an expanded audience. When any of your readers’ companies use pull quotes, they should make them truly representative of the opinions expressed in the piece they are quoting – and then give full credit to the source. This not only serves to enhance the theater’s reputation for fair and honest promotion, it gives their readers a better chance to find and follow critics and journalists of quality.

We would love to hear from any of your readers who have additional ideas or improvements to the suggestions above. In the meantime, my thanks for your contributions to the conversation. It was my pleasure to work with you when we were both based in Washington DC and I’m delighted our paths have crossed again. All the best for the new year.

Brad Hathaway
Vice Chair – Executive Committee
American Theatre Critics Association

The Challenge of Crisis and Conundrum of Success

I just finished writing an article for American Theatre Magazine that focused on fundraising strategies theaters across the country have used during moments of crisis, from natural disasters to financial insolvency to controversial producing decisions. I’m amazed by the ingenuity of our sector and the resiliency of non-profit theaters.

Shortly after coming to Milwaukee Repertory Theater, we too faced some challenges, though admittedly not nearly to the degree of the theaters I profiled. For a wide variety of reasons, our 2012/13 season ended with a significant deficit that brought our accumulated deficit extending back to 2004 to nearly $1M. At the same time, our three-theater complex built partially on the remains of a 1890s power plant was sinking due to rotting wooden pilings that support most of downtown Milwaukee, earning Milwaukee the nickname of the “sinking city.” As a new Managing Director, I was introduced to hundreds of donors over breakfasts, lunches and dinners, but one meeting was particularly memorable. I had lunch with a noted philanthropist who was concerned about our financial situation, ending with him advising that he could not support the theater while we were running deficits, as he felt we could be better stewards of his philanthropy. His love for the theater and concern for our situation was honest, and I appreciated the candid feedback.

We had a battle on two fronts – fixing an acute annual deficit and repairing our sinking building. The first required a temporary reduction of expenses along with an influx of contributed revenue directed toward annual support, while the latter required significant capital fundraising. Both were achieved relatively easily with a challenge grant for our 60th Anniversary Season and deeply committed donors that gave nearly $2M for building repairs. By the end of the following year, we ended with a surplus and had repaired our building. Four years later, the theater is in excellent shape. We’ve completely eliminated our accumulated deficit, built a cash reserve equal to 3 months of operating expenses, grown our budget from $9.5M to $12.5M, and produced balanced or better budgets for four fiscal years. Our stakeholders – subscribers, single ticket buyers, donors – are all growing in number, and we’ve completed a capital campaign allowing us to significantly invest in artistic programming, new play development and vastly expand our engagement and education work.

But we’ve hit a new challenge that I haven’t yet encountered in my career. Along the way, we’ve received some recognition for the company’s commitment to artistry and sustainability, receiving the Good Steward Award from our local United Performing Arts Fund and earning Charity Navigator’s Four-star ranking. Many positive things have come from the theater’s growing reputation for strong fiscal management, including the ability to attract exceptional trustees, staff and artists, but at the same time, we were starting to hear that a few donors were beginning to perceive that we didn’t need support, particularly if other organizations were in more dire straits. Recently, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel ran a story on philanthropy in Southeast Wisconsin and the numerous capital campaigns in the region. In the story, it was highlighted that non-profits need to constantly raise money in order to avoid deficits. While there is certainly truth in that statement, it demonstrates that for some donors, the primary driver for philanthropy is to help organizations offset and/or avoid deficits, tempting them to move giving where there is perceived greater financial need.

In discussing this conundrum with a colleague whose organization went through a serious financial crisis during the great recession, he said that it was somewhat easy to raise money when death was at the doorstep, but when the ship was steadied and they had found some success, it became much more difficult as funders assumed support was no longer needed. In an off the cuff remark, he said the ironic thing was that it was easier to raise money when the artistry was excellent but their financial results weren’t.

In an ideal world, the pie of cultural funding is large enough to meet the needs of all worthy organizations whether in crisis or not. In reality, a question often arises – how should funders weigh competing requests for a finite pool of dollars, particularly in communities where giving to the arts isn’t increasing? On one hand, organizations in crisis could need a vital infusion of capital to remain a going concern, but on the other, cities with renowned arts organizations have prioritized funding organizations that were artistically and managerially ready for strategic growth, leading to global recognition and stronger brand awareness in a highly competitive arena for talent attraction particularly in mid-sized markets.

In reading how Charity Navigator evaluates financial performance, they note why financial performance is so important for donors to consider. By looking at an organization’s liabilities-to-asset ratio, donors can see if their gifts are being used to service debt rather than servicing the organization’s charitable mission. By examining working capital, donors can tell if a non-profit has sufficient working cash to sustain a financial downturn. If not, it would be likely during a recession that an under-capitalized non-profit would need to eliminate vital programs, staff, or face insolvency.  By looking at how a non-profit spends its resources, a donor can ascertain if money goes to programming or to pay a bloated administration staff. But perhaps the most important factor is that a financially strong non-profit is much more likely to deliver on mission, which presumably is why donors give.

With the above, one would think a strong financial position would lead to increasing philanthropic support, and for many donors, this is the case. So how to explain the others? It seems to me that the challenge of success rests with the well-known economic theory of loss aversion. In a community with finite resources that wrestles with where and how it should invest those resources, it is clear and easy to ascertain the ramifications of not investing in an organization on the edge of insolvency – the result being the loss of that organization. On the other hand, it isn’t always clear what a community is giving up by not investing in organizations ready to make the leap from good to great. As the theory of loss aversion teaches us, people strongly tend to prefer avoiding losses to acquiring equivalent or better gains.

The reality of these cultural funding decisions is complex and this quandary isn’t new. I’ll never forget producing an event at Arena Stage when NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman bluntly, and infamously, stated that if arts & cultural funding wasn’t going to increase, then funders needed to focus resources on organizations that could create the most impact while willingly allowing others to die.  While perhaps his response was somewhat dire in nature, having come off the brutal years of 2008-2010, it did bring to national attention the conflict between the challenge of crisis and the conundrum of success.

Criticism and Metrics of Success

For my most recent Managing Expectations article for American Theatre Magazine, I was asked to share some thoughts on the current landscape of theater criticism in the United States. The article entitled “Tastemaking in a Post Newspaper World” can be found here. Since writing the column, I’ve continued to ruminate on criticism, particularly in light of the metrics that we use to define success in the American theatre.

While acknowledging the important role that critics serve and their significant impact on my career and the development of new plays that I’ve produced, I’m perplexed why any individual critic has so much power to determine success and quality in our field. A critic is one person. A human being who, like all of us, brings preferences, biases and worldviews with them to the theater. A large regional theater can serve more than a quarter of a million patrons annually, have 20k+ subscribers and potentially 5k+ donors, so why do we accept the pronouncement of quality or success from any one person?

Historically, we’ve looked to singular authority figures for the diffusion of knowledge and information. Naturally, a critic’s power grew because of their reach – the larger their readership, the more influence they have and often historically, the critic from a community’s largest media outlet was the only source that could reach millions of people at once. But with rapidly declining circulations of many newpapers and technological innovations that can harness the voices of the collective, the communications power structure has flattened and hierarchy is diminishing.

Like with many things related to technological innovation, as a field, we are behind. Almost every other field has adapted to this new reality. In film, it has gone from Siskel and Ebert to Rotten Tomatoes. In education, students select professors based on RateMyProfessors.com. Travel has TripAdvisor. Health has WebMd and Healthgrades. And then of course there is Yelp, Google and Facebook reviews for all else. Personally, Rotten Tomatoes is my favorite as it aggregates both professional and lay person reviews, so the reader can consider both given that professional and user generator criticism play separate, but equally important roles.

While crowd-sourced reviews certainly have their limitations, they have not yet risen to the level of influence within the American theater as they have in other industries. As such, the traditional model remains predominant, along with its inherent challenges…

Lack of Diversity. Critics around the country have called for a better representation of women and people of color in theater leadership and plays selected for production. This is absolutely a fair criticism given recent research and the lack of progress over decades. However, as we look at the various systems of power and privilege in the American theatre, we rarely discuss the lack of diversity amongst critics in the country. Critic Lyn Gardiner, in her excellent article “Criticism needs to Change,” highlights the various issues lack of diversity causes and in an excellent series on theater criticism in American Theatre Magazine, Maya Phillips in her article “Black Bodies, White Writers” shares her observations as well. In looking at the top 10 newspapers by circulation, consider that 80% of the chief theater critics are white men.

Personal Bias. We all have preferences and we bring our whole selves to work, preferences and all. For some of us, we can tailor our preferences to fit our jobs. For example, I prefer live performance, the ability to produce a variety of work, and love developing new plays. I have my perfect fit where I work and probably wouldn’t be as happy working at a theater festival that focuses exclusively on the classics. Therefore, I’ve always wondered if a critic with a strong preference for a particular genre can ever equally appreciate the breadth of work found in our field or if they dislike the body of work of a specific artist, can they give a production that features that artist a fair shake? Particularly assuming that most journalists, including critics, are assigned what they cover by editors, and therefore must review in many cases outside their personal preferences.

Credibility. As revenues fall for print publications, publishers are looking for expense cuts. Newsrooms are being decimated and fulltime journalists are being replaced by freelancers, some of whom are highly qualified, and others are clearly not. If readers are going to seek professional criticism from a singular expert, don’t media outlets have the ethical responsibility to make sure the writer is competent in the field assigned? I’ll never forget years ago when I greeted a new reviewer who had been assigned to his first review, which happened to be a high-profile world premiere. I didn’t know him, so I personally welcomed him and gave him a tour of the theater. In the first couple of minutes, he said they had just downsized their newsroom and he was now reviewing theater even though he was the food critic, because his editor thought that food and theater would “pair well together.” I remember thinking…I like to eat. I’ve been doing it my whole life. But I’m fairly certain I’m not qualified to write a professional food review.

Beyond Criticism. In the course of a review, I’ve seen instances of critics venturing well beyond the professional realm of artistic critique. Over the years, communities have protested perceived instances of body shaming, racial insensitivity and social commentary on tangentially related topics. Probably the most visible in recent times was the bruhaha in Chicago over a review of Pass Over at Steppenwolf Theatre Company. Throughout my career, I’ve experienced critics stepping away from criticism to offer up a wide body of other advice from plays they want the theater to produce to which authors they like and what should be the theater’s strategic priorities. Are these meant to be helpful suggestions or instances where a critic is trying to influence artistic direction? Can theaters politely ignore the suggestions if we disagree, or even worse if it is well beyond their missions, or will the critic take offense?

In our field, even with the above, we continue to use professional reviews as nearly the only currency when measuring artistic worth. When applying for grants, funders ask theaters to submit reviews. When looking to program our seasons, we read reviews particularly for newer work. When marketing our shows, we plaster review quotes all over our ads and websites. I don’t mean to suggest that professional reviews don’t have a considerable place in evaluating work, only that they shouldn’t be the only metric considered.

We have to start looking at other objective and wholistic measures of success. Here are some suggestions (and don’t suggest awards…there’s a separate article coming on that)…

  • Audience Surveys and Market Research. In making any business decision, would you ever rely on a focus group of one person? Why not solicit feedback from audience surveys or conduct focus groups? I’ve used Shugoll Research on multiple occasions to better understand what our audiences think of our programming, pricing, service and a multitude of other factors.
  • User Generated Reviews. Why not ask audiences to post their reviews on user generated review sites and then promote their candid assessments? A collective of voices will represent a greater diversity of people and statistically offset personal bias with a large enough sample size.
  • Assessment Tools. How does your theater assess mission achievement? Have you designed sophisticated assessment practices to determine progress toward strategic goals? Are you measuring to gauge the impact of artistic, engagement and educational programming?
  • Attendance, Loyalty and Demographics. Are your audiences increasing or decreasing? Do you have high subscription renewal rates and are you able to convert first time attendees to multi-buyers? Are you widening the demographics of patrons served?
  • Peer Review. Does your theater invite experts from the field to observe and evaluate your programs, productions and business practices? Do you have a body of external experts that advise, counsel and coach?


Before you ask for a donation, earn it (and donors beware).

As we head into October, like clockwork it is that time of the year again – the fall annual appeal. This time every year, non-profits send out millions of solicitation letters nationwide hoping that generous donors will once again answer their calls for support. For performing arts organizations, contributed revenue can be upwards of 80% of an organization’s budget, and for most, the majority of gifts from individuals come in the last quarter of the year. As December rolls around, we hope that the pocketbooks of our donors will open more freely than Mr. Scrooge’s did.

But, it is also a moment for reflection and a moment to ask – did we earn the gift that we are requesting? Sometimes it is hard for non-profits to admit that we are not entitled to receive any philanthropic support particularly when trend studies show that in many communities competition for support is increasing. Take Milwaukee for example. In 2014, the Public Policy Form authored a report entitled “Give and You Shall Receive” on the state of the non-profit sector including revenue streams and philanthropic support. One finding caught my eye – since 1989, the arts experienced the most severe decline of any philanthropic category dropping nearly 50%, while at the same time the Greater Milwaukee metropolitan area experienced a 147% increase in the number of arts non-profits. Giving to the arts as a percentage of charitable giving tightened while the choices available to donors exploded begging the question — why should a donor give to your organization?

Below are the questions that donors should consider when contemplating a gift…

  • Is the organization fulfilling its mission and does the mission align with your giving priorities? Non-profits have a single purpose – to fulfill their mission – and presumably, a donor gives to a non-profit that can best fulfill a mission that aligns with their priorities. When considering a gift, donors should research an organization’s programs and inquire about how much of an organization’s revenue goes to programs. This is not to say that a portion of gifts should not go to overhead, only that a reasonable amount be appropriated reserving the majority for programmatic advancement.
  • Can an organization demonstrate a return on your investment?
    As a Managing Director of a theater company, my job is to work closely with donors to ensure a maximum return on their investment. And let’s not shy away from it – a donation is an investment and donors should expect a return, not for financial gain, but gain for the community the non-profit serves. Sometimes arts organizations are not as good as we should be on determining impact in part because it can be difficult to measure the intrinsic impacts of the arts, but in other cases it is because we don’t utilize rigorous assessment tools to a large degree. I believe that if it is important and can be measured, arts organizations must measure and track, otherwise we cannot demonstrate progress toward mission fulfillment, impact on our targeted populations, and importantly a return on a donor’s investment.
  • Is the organization financially stable and managed well?
    The leading charity evaluator in the world, Charity Navigator, states on its website that “financially healthy organizations – those that are both financial efficient and sustainable – have greater flexibility and freedom to pursue their charitable mission.” Put another way, as a donor, you should know where your money is going. If an organization is financially healthy and well managed, gifts can be put to immediate use to fund programs rather than to pay down debt or eliminate structural deficits. If an organization is constantly in crisis, there is probably good reason and is that where you’d like to invest? In the arts world, a classic case study can be found with the Washington National Opera in Washington, DC. After years of financial instability, even its rock-star leader Placido Domingo, arguably the most notable opera singer in the world, couldn’t convince donors to continue to invest in a company that was constantly in crisis as donors came to realize their gifts weren’t going to good use. Major donors made the decision that instead of throwing good money after bad, they were going to allow the only opera company in the nation’s capital to go bankrupt. Luckily, the Kennedy Center came to the rescue.
  • Do you trust the leadership of the organization?
    Once you give a gift, you are trusting that the leaders of the organization will use it well. So donors should ask themselves, particularly when making a major gift, a few questions:

    • How well do I know the leadership of the organization and are they worthy of my trust?
    • Do the leaders of the organization conduct themselves in an ethical manner?
    • If you have confidence in the leadership team, will they be around long enough to steward your gift?
    • Does the organization have a strong board, as ultimately the direction of any non-profit organization rests with the board of trustees?
  • Has the organization stewarded you well?
    As a donor, how has the organization recognized your contribution? Do you receive a hand-signed gift acknowledgement letter thanking you for your generosity within a couple weeks of your gift? Do you have a personal relationship with the staff and/or leadership? Perhaps it is because I grew up in the Midwest, but I put a premium on personal touches. I take the time to get to know each of the donors in my portfolio. We send flowers for life’s big moments, like the arrival of a new baby. I start my morning writing thank you notes. And we find meaningful engagement opportunities. If an organization demonstrates care in stewarding its donors, usually they demonstrate a commensurate level of care putting donations to good use.

Bottom Line: Donors shouldn’t give to a non-profit because they need it. All non-profits need philanthropic support. Donors should be selective in their approach and make strategic investments in non-profits that have earned their support through exceptional programs, demonstrated impact, managerial excellence, ethical leadership and meaningful stewardship.

Launch of “Managing Expectations” – American Theatre Magazine

A couple of months ago, American Theatre Magazine editor-in-chief Rob Weinert-Kendt asked me if I would be interested in contributing to the magazine as a writer focusing on issues of leadership, producing and management. I’ve been a fan of Rob’s ever since my days in Los Angeles when he was the editor of Back Stage West. So I leapt at the opportunity, while freely admitting that I’m not a professional journalist – merely a practitioner, and by nature, I’d have to write from a practitioner’s point of view.  The result is a new monthly column called “Managing Expectations.”

My first article – “Safe Programming is a Big Risk” – published this week. As many theaters head into season planning and budgeting, I share some thoughts on the management and perception of risk and the role of Executive Directors/Managing Directors in advocating for mission.

Please check it out: http://www.americantheatre.org/2017/09/26/safe-programming-is-a-big-risk/