“I think every now and then, a check from the television version of ‘The Piano Lesson’ comes in for a couple of hundred dollars,” Maso said.
While some decision-making may be shared with the commercial partner on a given project, both Maso and Borger said that their theaters have ultimate control over the regional production. But control emerges as a contentious issue in the report, which notes that one would-be attendee at the meeting — Michael Ritchie, the former Williamstown Theatre Festival producer now heading Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles — had to cancel because a starry “Funny Girl” revival, undercapitalized by a commercial partner, had just dropped out of his season.
Such risks, La Jolla Playhouse artistic director Christopher Ashley told his peers, are inherent to nonprofit-commercial collaborations. “One of the downsides to that partnership is that whatever promise you’ve made to your audience as a theater is not completely within your control anymore,” he said.
As the report makes clear, there is significant worry in some quarters that a Broadway-bound production at a regional theater does not have the same connection with that regional theater or its audience that a production without a commercial future would have.
Robert J. Orchard, Emerson’s executive director for the arts and executive director of ArtsEmerson, sounded a similar theme in an interview, though he emphasized that he was not trying to tell anyone else how to work. Having founded the ART with Brustein, he spent more than two decades as the ART’s managing director before becoming its executive director, and said he has never taken enhancement money. When New York rather than the local production is the end goal, he said, making the work feels “less organic” than when it’s “created from scratch and totally within the resources of the organization.”
“It feels as if it’s passing through,” Orchard said. “Its sights are beyond you; [it’s] not really being done for the local community. It’s being done with an eye towards another community. You have a different relationship to the work. And there’s a spiritual thing to that that’s hard to articulate that does have some effect, I think, on organizations.”
While some ART productions in his years there did attract commercial interest, and the theater had an ownership stake in shows that went on to Broadway — including “ ’night, Mother” in 1983, “A Moon for the Misbegotten” in 1984, and “Mastergate” in 1989 — it “had nothing to do with the shepherding of the project into a commercial realm,” Orchard said.
“I think our perspective was in part because we had a resident company,” he said, “and we weren’t in the business of moving our resident company out of Cambridge.”
Once common in regional theater, resident companies “have all collapsed and disintegrated,” Brustein told his colleagues at the meeting in Washington. The ART no longer has one, though some former members sometimes perform there.
David Dower, director of artistic programs at ArtsEmerson and founder of the Center for the Theater Commons, said in an interview that Broadway-bound productions can create an “imbalance of power” that puts regional theaters at a disadvantage in their relationship with artists, too. When artists become focused on the commercial future of the play, he said, they place less importance on the earlier part of the process.
“We’re at the beginning of something in the nonprofit production that has been designed to have a much bigger life,” Dower said, “and the artists and the commercial producer are focused on the much bigger life. And the not-for-profit institution that’s sitting there . . . has a very difficult time.”
Carl, for one, would like nonprofits to examine their actions — to ask themselves what the right amount of commercial activity is for their organization and what value they’re bringing to their community.
“It’s easy to make a case that you’re promoting your mission,” she said. “It’s easy to say, ‘Oh, we’re making good theater for our community because this many people came.’ But I think the means and the end are really at issue for the American theater right now. What means are you willing to employ to get to those ends? That’s the real question at hand here.”
Laura Collins-Hughes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.