The Good Places

The Tonys. The Obies. Drama Desk. Pulitzer.

It is that time of year again, when excellence is celebrated in the American theatre. Apart from the high-profile awards, I confess I’m perplexed by how we define excellence. A vast majority of theatres nationwide have put the word “excellence” in their mission statements. But after a career in theatre management and multiple stints as a producer or judge for theatrical awards in major metropolitan areas, I’ve become increasingly convinced that as a field we do not have a cohesive definition of excellence.

In an admittedly informal attempt to discover commonality, I contacted several hundred colleagues and asked them the following:

Each day, our theatres are assessed on some criteria by various stakeholders, but do we have a shared sense of excellence? If I were to ask you to define the qualities of a world-class regional theatre, what would they be and why?

I received more than 50 responses from a wide cross section of diverse people; below is an attempt at aggregating their thoughts.

Artistic Quality and How to Define It

I specifically asked folks to consider characteristics beyond artistic quality, as I assumed we could universally agree that everything stems from the art we create. Still, many wanted to start there. As Milwaukee Journal Sentinel critic Mike Fischer put it, “What counts most is the work itself; it’s the medium through which all other blessings flow.”

But if artistic quality was considered foundational, respondents defined even that in a wide-ranging manner. For Mike’s part, he outlined what he thinks of as a few traits of great theatres: They’re not afraid to play with form, they’re representative of female artists and playwrights of color, they do color-conscious casting, and they produce imaginative remakes of the classics. Claudia Alick, former producer for Oregon Shakespeare Festival turned consultant, responded that “holistic cultural competency with an intersectional lens and demographics that reflect those in the communities one serves are necessary for artistic quality.” Quality cannot be divorced from representation and inclusivity, she said.

For me, this raises the question: Can theatres that display a clear lack of diversity, from their resident acting companies to the productions they stage, ever credibly be defined as excellent? Among theatres that work at the intersection of the arts and social justice, there is also a growing feeling that critics and funders simply do not know how to evaluate the artistic quality of their work. As such Animating Democracy, a program of Americans for the Arts, has created a new framework to evaluate creative output called “Aesthetic Perspectives: Attributes of Excellence in Arts for Change.”

Equity, Diversity & Inclusion

Perhaps the most popular metric mentioned by respondents was a deep commitment to equity, diversity, and inclusion. Zak Berkman, producing director at People’s Light Theater in Pennsylvania, commented that while “high artistic quality must be met, quality must be determined through the lens of many different cultures, educational pathways, and a broader consideration of criteria from content to impact,” echoing Alick’s assertion that quality and inclusion can never be considered mutually exclusive.

Similarly, Jennifer McEwen, executive director of Atlanta’s True Colors Theatre Company, said that while several companies distinguish themselves through risk-taking, those that “work toward a more equitable society” deserve recognition for their intentionality in elevating underrepresented voices. A few focused on very specific underrepresented populations, such as playwright and critic Gwendolyn Rice, who commented that a theatre could not be considered world-class unless “it worked actively towards gender parity on all levels,” bringing attention to the well-documented problem of gender disparity in the field.

Most others defined excellence as having an intersectional approach to a wide array of underrepresented communities as part of holistic equity, diversity, and inclusion plan. Marissa Chibas, professor and head of Duende CalArts at California Institute of the Arts, summed it up by saying truly excellent theatres “bravely put forward work that speaks to the pressing needs of the communities they engage with, leaving no one behind, and putting front and center what the dominant culture is avoiding.”

In reflecting on this metric, I thought about Oregon Shakes. While having a record of accomplishment as the leading American summer theatre festival, OSF may be most known in the decades to come for its dedication and passionate work to advance the field in equity, diversity and inclusion, something all the more remarkable for a rural theatre festival.

Locally Created, Nationally Recognized

From 2001 until 2014, Rep. Eric Cantor was something of a star in the Republican Party, achieving the status of majority leader in 2011 heading into the 2014 elections. But while he elevated his national profile, his constituents at home in Virginia felt abandoned, leading to his decisive loss to a primary challenger that year.

While all politics are local,  so are theatres. Exhibit A: Minneapolis’s Theatre de la Jeune Lune  By 2005, Jeune Lune was riding high, lauded by critics nationwide for its inventive work, leading to a Tony Award for Best Regional Theater. Three years later, it was bankrupt, as local attendance had plummeted. As Sean Daniels, artistic director of Merrimack Repertory Theatre, put it, theatres can never forget that “civic pride goes miles farther than national acclaim.”

From early on, ambitious theatres always face a degree of tension between local engagement and national profile. As David Sobelsohn, former advisory neighborhood commissioner in Washington, D.C., argued, Arena Stage is often considered one of the nation’s theatrical leaders because of its history of national precedents, including being “the first theatre outside New York to premiere an original play that then transferred to Broadway, winning the Pulitzer Prize along the way” (1967’s The Great White Hope). But as Edgar Dobie, Arena’s current executive director, noted, Arena founder Zelda Fichandler “forcefully explained to me that the local theatre movement was one of planting theatres as residents in their home communities, and not, as Robert Brustein cautioned, as regional tributaries feeding Broadway.”

Several artistic and managing leaders defined excellence similarly to Michael Donald Edwards, producing artistic director of Asolo Repertory Theatre, who said that “world-class regional theatres are at the intersection of national conversations and local needs, insisting that the theatre be an integral part of citizenship.” Jeffrey Herrmann, managing director of Seattle Repertory Theatre, said that having an impact on the national field and being deeply invested in your community are both important, and that “excellence is achieving the proper balance between these competing forces.”

New Work, Audiences, and Artists 

Sobelsohn also shared what he believes is an often-overlooked aspect of excellence: courage. Arguably, there is nothing more courageous or risky than developing new work, audiences, and artists; I would also contend that there is nothing more important to the future health of the field. Jeri Epstein, trustee of Arena Stage, defined exceptional theatres as “those that take the chance to create something that never existed before. They shape, model, and give voice to present culture while taking chances on new writers and themes. They are not safe. They court the controversy that comes with new ideas. It is a giant leap of faith.”

This sentiment is echoed by two leaders in new-play development, Milwaukee Repertory Theater associate artistic director May Adrales and Wendy Goldberg, artistic director of the National Playwrights Conference at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. Adrales contended that “world-class artists are inquisitive, daring, and push boundaries. World-class theatres work with artists that strive to excite and inspire, while dedicating the necessary resources to nurture work in development.” Goldberg elaborated, saying that exceptional theatres “look at how to participate in a contemporary moment while contributing something that propels the art form forward.”

Goldberg also echoed Alliance Theatre artistic director Susan Booth, who pointed to relevance as a key metric of excellence. Booth called relevance the theatre’s true north, with “a guiding pair of beacons is to be the answer to someone’s question and the solution to someone’s needs.”

While recognizing the important role of the classics, it’s worth recalling that Shakespeare too was once merely a writer writing new plays.

Financial Stability & Continuous Improvement

Surprisingly for me, a decent number of artists and managers listed financial performance and a stable business plan as a metric of excellence. In this regard, Seattle Rep’s Herrmann took a practical approach, calling it “a combination of full houses, high level of artistry, and the integrity of programming. By themselves, full houses don’t connote excellence, particularly if achieved through programming that panders. At the same time, high-brow programming beautifully executed but which attracts no attendance isn’t excellence either. It’s the combination that does so.” Goldberg chimed in to say that successful theatres are “led by an artistic vision that also is cognizant of financial realities.”

For me, excellence in management is measured by our ability to innovate in the creation of business models that adequately support the work discussed above, amid ever-changing environments. With that in mind, researcher Alan Brown, principal of WolfBrown, said that one of the central attributes of exceptional arts organizations is a “deep commitment to continuous improvement and openness to critical feedback.”

Whereas this exercise has provided some clarity on five metrics the majority of those polled discussed, I am also reminded of something Peninsula Players managing director Brian Kelsey once said: “I find what is the most important is our focus on what works best for our theatres and our audiences. We oftentimes are unfairly held up next to each other for comparison reasons, but it would be like holding up a banana and a steak and asking which one is world-class.”

As I’ve talked with critics, donors, artists, and audiences, I’ve found that how they define excellence is in large part a product of their preferences. Is it any surprise that the person who started reading Shakespeare at an early age and credits Shakespeare with the most profound effect on his life defines a world-class theatre as one that produces and reinterprets the classics? We all come to define excellence through a lens informed by our own experiences and biases, and we should acknowledge that all too often, arbiters of excellence stand in positions of privilege and don’t necessarily represent those whom our theatres serve.

Roche Schulfer, executive director of the Goodman Theatre, took an even longer view, questioning whether we can even determine world-class status. “The industry is not that old,” Schulfer said. “We don’t know what world-class is because we haven’t been around long enough to be able to define it.”

I tend to agree that we in the American theatre are all still working toward excellence rather having achieved it for a sustained enough time to be able to claim the world-class mantle. For me it comes down to the ability to succinctly define mission, with an eye toward maximizing impact within our communities while being reflective of who we serve—then executing on that mission in the most impactful and fiscally responsible manner.

Casting, equity and where to go from here

Casting can be tricky. Balancing the intent of the playwright, the vision of the director, the core values of the theatre, and the talent available—on the best day, the responsibility of whoever makes a final casting choice isn’t light.

At a recent Theatre Communications Group conference in my hometown of St. Louis, casting became a hotly debated issue once again. One of the nation’s theatrical crown jewels — the Municipal Opera Theatre (The Muny) – was celebrating 100 years of producing world-class work. The kick-off of their special anniversary season was the rarely produced Jerome Robbins’ Broadway, an attraction to the nearly 800 TCG conference attendees nearby. But as Diep Tran pointed out in her recent article, the second act featured a white actress as Tuptim, dressed in a traditional Thai costume and performing a scene from The King and I in a manufactured “Asian” accent, which led a group of conference attendees to disrupt the performance by yelling “Boo yellowface!” five times, then leave.

I was not at the performance, but in discussions at the conference the following day, artists of color noted that a majority of regional theatres are led by white people and that we have a troubling pattern of remaining quiet while people of color address systems of injustice. The conclusion — if issues of systemic racism are to change given the current landscape, white leaders need to take a more active role. As a white, gay, Midwestern male leader of a regional theatre, I’ve freely admitted that I enter discussions about equity, diversity and inclusion with a mix of apprehension, admitted ignorance—and an earnest desire to create a theatre that is welcoming and inspirational to all. That said, this seemed to me like a fair criticism of the field and its leadership as well as a reasonable request.

Upon my return, several other similar instances seemed to emerge within a matter of weeks highlighting how widespread and pervasive these practices are, leading a group of nearly 800 theatre leaders, including myself, to call upon our colleagues to examine our casting procedures, particularly in light of a recent Actor’s Equity Association study that noted stark barriers to employment in our industry for people of color across all Equity contracts. From 2013 to 2015, 71% of principal contracts went to Caucasians, 7% to African Americans, and barely 2% to Asian Americans. Complicit silence only allows these practices to continue to harm people, whether they are intentionally malicious or not. Therefore, we must hold each other accountable if we want to see systemic improvement in the field.

Seemingly, a common argument on social media asks why it is acceptable for actors of color to play characters that are historically white, with many pointing to the success of Hamilton on Broadway. Personally, I think there is a difference between casting an actor of color in a role that is historically and/or realistically performed by a Caucasian actor and instances of white actors being cast in roles to portray characters of color. In the former, the actor of color comes from a group of people that have been significantly underemployed on the largest equity stages in the country. In the latter, historically under-represented and systemically oppressed characters are being portrayed by people with significantly more privilege. When actors of color are fighting for work and the data shows that opportunities for them are already severely less than others, in terms of equity and justice, is it fair to cast those roles with anyone other than people of color?

In defense of these practices, I’ve read several arguments:

  1. It is an artistic choice. If you are offended, you haven’t done your homework, don’t know the play and just don’t get it.
  2. We were trying to recreate the original production and/or this role has historically been cast in this manner.
  3. We had the permission of the author.
  4. We couldn’t find diverse talent, so we had to go with the actors available to us.

The great thing about theatre is that it’s a live medium, with live actors playing in front of a live audience. That also means that we have to be constantly aware and cognizant of the present world our plays are inhabiting. The context of 2018 America is very different than many others. Universal themes carry through, but how they are received and interpreted in the landscape of our ever-changing environment helps explain why the classics remain relevant while speaking to us differently throughout our lives. To say that a significant number of people who are offended by a production are somehow just uneducated or ignorant, seems rather dismissive. In my experience, theatrical audiences are very curious, smart and engaged. Further, if the author gives a theater permission to cast a role in a questionable manner, it doesn’t absolve a theater from making its own producing decisions. I argued that Edward Albee had the absolute right to restrict casting for his works, as he and his estate is well-known for doing, but ultimately it is the theater’s decision to produce the work under those restraints. With that in mind, it is also the theater’s choice to produce the play if for some reason they cannot secure diverse talent, although I find this excuse highly questionable.

Regardless of the reasoning, can we all agree that casting a white actor to portray a character of color at minimum leads to exacerbating the already abysmal employment statistics for actors of color?

As we examine our policies and procedures, I think we should ask ourselves the following questions:

  1. Does your theatre have procedures in place to thoroughly discuss the opportunities and risks associated with casting?
  2. Are casting conversations limited to artists and staff members in the employ of the theatre and therefore beholden to support the decisions of leadership? Or do they involve outside counsel and experts beyond people that need the employment of the theatre?
  3. Is there adequate diversity of people at the table for these discussions?
  4. Who makes the final decision and why? If it is a white Artistic Director, is the decision to equitably cast an actor capable of portraying the role being taken away from a director who identifies as a person of color?

In an email exchange with Claudia Alick, formerly of Oregon Shakespeare Festival and now consultant with Calling Up, she advised that theatres also ask some of the following questions:

  • Is the performer’s lived experience of identity necessary for authentic portrayal and storytelling?
  • Is the performer’s presenting identity important for storytelling?
  • How does the actual identity of the performer affect the storytelling?
  • Will casting result in misrepresentation of a marginalized community?
  • Will casting reproduce negative patterns of exclusion for a marginalized community?
  • How are we responsibly framing our representation choices for the audience?

One of the wonderful things about working in the theater is our daily opportunities to continually improve. Perhaps my favorite quote is from physicist Niels Bohr: “An expert is a person who has made all the mistakes that can be made in a very narrow field.” In an article about The Muny, Artistic Director Christina Rios, who is Mexican-American, stated “It leaves me completely and utterly devoid of hope that anyone has any desire to just go: Hey, I was wrong, I’m sorry, how can I do better?” In a line of work where we have to embrace mistakes constantly while failing forward, why is it so hard to admit when we make mistakes and then share with the field what we’ve learned? These are excellent opportunities to help educate a field that is struggling with these issues. If supported by robust community engagement and educational programming for audiences, they can also ignite critical conversations beyond the theater at dinner tables and beyond. This is the true blessing and opportunity of our art form.

Chad Bauman is the Managing Director of Milwaukee Repertory Theater. His blog Managing Creatively explores arts management topics. Opinions are his own and do not necessarily represent official positions of his employers. 

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
Brad@BradHathaway.Com

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?