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Nonprofit, commercial theater examined in book

The relationship between nonprofit and commercial theater was discussed at an event to mark the release of In the Intersection: Partnerships in the New Play Sector, the first book from the Center for the Theater Commons at Emerson College.

Author Diane Ragsdale discussed the report and her findings on November 1. Polly Carl, director of the Center for the Theater Commons, led the panel, which was composed of Robert Brustein, founder of American Repertory Theater and Yale Repertory Theatre; Rob Orchard, executive director of ArtsEmerson; and David Dower, director of artistic programs at ArtsEmerson.

The theater professionals and audience members gathered in Emerson’s Jackie Liebergott Black Box Theatre to examine the main themes of Ragsdale’s report. In the Intersection documents the convening of 26 prominent theater professionals at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., last November to discuss partnerships between nonprofit and commercial sectors of theater to develop new works.

Ragsdale told the audience that the report’s goal was to “bring readers into the room.”

The meeting of theater professionals chronicled in Ragsdale’s report was not the first of its kind. Two similar meetings about the relationship between nonprofit and commercial theater companies have taken place: one at Princeton University in 1974, and another at Harvard University in 2000. The panelists who spoke at Emerson had been involved with these previous meetings.

Rob Orchard spoke about his experience at the first gathering in 1974, likening it to “a middle-school dance.”

“Why am I here? Who are these people?” Orchard asked. “I need to find my own corner.”

But by 2000, more than a quarter-century later, the conversation about nonprofit and commercial theater relationships had made serious progress. “The two parties had gone to senior prom, they got married, and they were raising rambunctious teenagers,” Orchard said.

The “intersection” between the two sectors of American theater provided a premise for the panel discussion.

“Why do we have these two worlds?” Orchard asked, referring to nonprofit and commercial companies. “The for-profit [theater] exists with one measure of success only: to maximize profit. As soon as it stops making a profit, it closes.”

Orchard and other panelists noted that nonprofit theaters have much more complex measures of success, such as staying relevant, maintaining a lasting conversation between stage and community, and fostering a space for artists. When the two respective sectors come together in an effort to produce theatrical material, the metaphorical intersection occurs. “The intersection is really a crossroads,” said Orchard, “and the crossroads is a potential for collision.”

David Dower summarized the purpose of the discourse as trying to answer the question of how to move through the “intersection” with integrity—how to develop a healthy relationship between two fundamentally different worlds and still maintain ethics, values, and a sense of fairness.

The panelists were not short on ideas on how to go about achieving this lofty goal. “There needs to be a more equitable share of the royalties from these deals,” Ragsdale said, referencing the “deals” that occur frequently in theater when a commercial producer wants to partner with a nonprofit to develop a show that will eventually transcend the nonprofit world and enter the commercial one: Broadway.

“It’s not just about temptation,” said Polly Carl of the nonprofits that enter into deals with commercial producers. “It’s really about the survival of an institution.”

In the interest of providing this economic support, Orchard advocated for commercial producers to take a percentage of their earnings from successful Broadway shows and distribute them among any nonprofit theaters that had any participation in cultivating the end product.

“In my research, I really tried to understand how the way these different deals get put together affects the artistic process,” Ragsdale said.

“Continuing to look at this issue is worthwhile,” she added, “because it does seem to matter.”

In the Intersection: Partnerships in the New Play Sector can be purchased for $15 on Proceeds from book sales go to the Theater Commons’ Microfund for Artists. The report is also available for free download on the website and on iTunes. “This is a report we felt that everyone should have access to,” said Carl.

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