The Playgoer: Bush's NEA: Dana Gioia's Parting Shot

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Thursday, January 29, 2009

Bush's NEA: Dana Gioia's Parting Shot

Amidst all our speculation and discussion surrounding the future of our National "Endowment" for the Arts under our new president...let's not forget the old one.

You may remember back in December there was some buzz about the NEA announcing the death of the straight non-musical play. Well, not quite. But alarmist articles like this sure made people panic a bit.

Well here's the original NEA report. The overall tone of which is actually decidedly optimistic! For the nonprofit regional theatre in general, at least. After all, "All America's a Stage," says the title. And it's true, theatre companies have been proliferating in recent years--even in remote areas--far beyond what sanity would seem to dictate.

Plus, NEA's survey claims--in an unfortunate unintentional paraphrase--that the fundamental economies of the LORT theatres are strong! Of course, the small print reveals their biggest financial strength is in their "fixed assets"--like their land and their buildings. So, as long as they actually own those assets, it's good to know that if they ever really need the money they can just sell them.

But Mr. Gioia does eventually get around to the bad news:

There is one significant and persistent problem facing the American theater--attendance for spoken theater has steadily deteriorated. Since 1992, the percentage of the US adult population attending non-musical theater has declined from 13.5 percent to 9.4 percent.
Well personally I'm not crushed by a further decline of 4 points when it was already a whopping 13.4%!

But seriously, this shouldn't surprise us now, should it? Plus taking some kind of average of this seems misguided to me. The "outliers" sure are significant. The truth is we just had two smash hits of serious snob drama on Broadway--All My Sons and The Seagull. It helped that they were kind of star driven. (Although Kristen Scott Thomas isn't really a "star" and Katie Holmes isn't really an "actress" but more of a freak-celebrity.) Overall, seems to me audiences still come out to see "spoken theater" (cool neologism!) in big numbers--whether on Broadway or Off, in NYC or anywhere--when it's a famous classic and/or great, preferably famous actors. And surely the tried and true warhorses of the American repertoire--not to mention some guy called Shakespeare--still constitute the bread & butter of the average regional theatre's season. If for the school audiences if nothing else.

No, the more provocative statement came just after:
In a sense, the dilemma of nonprofit theater can be simply summarized--supply has outstripped current demand. The remarkable growth and professional management of theatrical organizations across the nation has not yet been matched by equally robust growth in audiences.
Actually, it's not clear in the original context that Gioia means this in reference to straight plays at all. Rather, here's how I interpret this: our nonprofit theatres have become such good little businesses, following all the corporate models on risk management, fiscal responsibility, and grow-or-die expansions of buildings and endowments...that it turns out there is no customer-base to support such overreaching, unecessary practices!

Or to put it another way--they were so busy "growing" their companies that they forgot the art that makes people wanna come see plays in the first place.

Here's some other high/lowlights in the report.
  • "The number of nonprofit theaters in the United States has doubled over a 15-year period." 1990-2005, that is. From 1,000-2,000.
  • In 1990 "earned income" (as in ticket sales) made up about 65% of all revenue for those companies. Today it's down to about 50%. "Contributions" has picked up the shortfall.
  • Of those "contributions" the trend over the last two decades is now demonstrably (not that you ever doubted it) toward greater individual and corporate giving and dwindling government funding. But look at this: Back in 1987 individual giving still was the highest source at 32% of total contributions. But federal/state/local government grants were a close second at 26%. By last count in 2002, the "individuals" piece of the pie is up to 40% and the government portion has sunk ten points (15.6%)--that's now fourth place, overtaken by "Foundations" (21.7%) and "Businesses" (17%).
  • Blaming high ticket prices for the decline of the audience? Nonsense! "Theater ticket sales do not appear to respond strongly to price changes. Statistical models predict that a 20 percent price hike in low-end subscription or single tickets will reduce total attendance by only 2 percent." Wait there's more, in the small print of a footnote: "Further increases in attendance per performance appear to be linked with increases in the highest ticket prices that theaters offer." Go figure. I guess it's the old "if it ain't pricey, it ain't classy" phenomenon.
So what have we learned today?

That in the past two decades the number of total theatres have doubled and government funding has shrunk basically in half. So there's now less to go around to fewer theatres. Oh, and fewer ticketbuyers, too.

That raising prices actually improves ticket sales & subscriptions, at least from rich folk.

That the contributions (financial and, ahem, otherwise) you get from your individual donors and your corporate/foundation supporters are way, way more important than the diminishing amount from public financing and the community.

And that if you produce a musical they will come, but a play not so much.

Good lessons for our Artistic Directors and boards at a time like this, huh?

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