Models of Non-Profit Theatre Funding in the United States in the 20th Century and the Emergence of a New Model for the 21st

Unpublished talk, Mid-American Theatre Conference, Minneapolis, Minnesota, March, 13, 1999.
Presented at the 19th Mid-American Theatre Conference, March 1999 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

By Dan Friedman
Castillo Theatre



   At the turn of the 20th century there was no non-profit theatre in the United States. America a century ago was the embodiment of no-holds-barred capitalism. Theatre, like virtually all other mainstream American institutions, was entrepreneurial. Theatre was a profit-making mass entertainment, much as film, television, and music recording is today. The notion of doing theatre that was not profitable made no sense to theatre professionals. The idea that government, at any level, would or should have a role in supporting or managing theatre, if considered at all, was dismissed as alien and/or socialistic. Theatre was “show business,” and there was no business like it.
   At the turn of the 21st century, the institution of the theatre and the attitudes of Americans toward it have changed markedly. The epicenter of “show business” long ago shifted to Hollywood – from stage to silver screen to small screen.  While theatre for profit, of course, remains and continues to make hefty amounts of money for a handful of producers and producing corporations, there is in existence, as well, an extensive institutional non-profit theatre in virtually every major city in the United States.  As we move into the 21st there are 123 professional non-profit theatres around the country, employing 32,836 people.  According to the latest figures of the Theatre Communications Group, these non-profit theatres put on 51,453 performances in 1997 before a total audience of 17, 244,803. 
   Examining how the nonprofit theatre came about can tell us a lot not only about the evolution of the institution of the theatre in the United States, but about the cultural, political and economic forces that have shaped the country, and the world, in the 20th century.  My goal for this morning, however, is somewhat more modest.  I will attempt to briefly trace the emergence and development of the non-commercial theatre in the United States as a way of situating the current nonprofits and examining a qualitatively new model for nonprofit theatre developed by the Castillo Theatre in New York City, of which I am a founder, the first artistic director and, for the last ten years, dramaturg.  It is a model that is being adopted, even as we speak, by emerging theatres in Atlanta, Boston, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, D.C.  It is a model, I will attempt to demonstrate, that has the potential to significantly impact on how nonprofit theatre is done in the 21st century.

The Constriction of the Commercial Theatre  

   Ninety-five years ago, in 1904, there were 420 commercial theatre companies touring the country performing in over 2,000 theaters. By 1915 there were only 97 touring companies left on the road (a loss of 323), and by 1933, 18.  Commercial production in New York City boomed a bit longer, peaking during the 1927-28 season with 264 new productions on Broadway.  Ten years later, with talking films now dominant, there were only 98 new productions. The number of new productions, as we all know, has continued to decline ever since.
   It wasn’t that the American people had lost their taste for drama and comedy; it was just that their appetite was being feed by a new dramatic medium – the movies.  Art in the age of mechanical reproduction had begun. One production could now be reproduced endlessly and shipped out in tin cans around the country to be seen in thousands of theatres at the same time.  As is always the case with mass production, the product could be sold for a lot less than the handcrafted product.  In the 1920s a movie ticket cost 25 to 75 cents, theatre tickets went for two dollars.  By 1925 the weekly attendance at the movies in the U.S. was 56 times larger than the maximum weekly attendance in the theatre, even during the peak commercial season of 1900-01.  Going to the theatre became a special and rare experience for most Americans.  Films became the country’s mass entertainment, as television would some 30 years later.  Show business, being a business, followed the customer.

The Little Theatres

   Into this changed economic landscape a number of European influences were soon to find fertile soil.  
   The initial inspiration for a nonprofit theatre in the United States came from the  Théâtre Libre in France, the Freie Bühne in Germany, and the Independent Theatre in England, subscription-based theatres which produced much of the continent’s cutting edge theatre during the last decades of the 19th century. Faced with the rapid evaporation of professional theatre outside of New York, amateurs in the United States stepped into the void to create America’s first non-commercial theatres – the Little Theatre movement.
   Between 1912 and 1929 the Little Theatre movement spread rapidly.  It took a number of forms that were funded in a variety of ways. Community theatres like the Cleveland Playhouse, the Pasadena Playhouse and numerous smaller venues dedicated to giving local people a chance to perform, had a low overhead due to the fact that virtually no one was paid.  University-affiliated theatres such as the Wisconsin Dramatic Society, Harvard’s 47 Workshop, and the Carolina Players and settlement house theatres like the Hull House Players in Chicago and the Neighborhood Playhouse on New York City’s lower east side were funded by their mother institutions. There is even one example during this period of a municipally funded theatre, in Northampton, Massachusetts.
   The bulk of the little theatres, however, attempted to establish professional repertory companies by selling subscriptions as their European models had – and few were able to survive for more than a few years.  Even when they were able to consistently fill the house, they were unable to meet the nut.  In the face of the inexpensive entertainment being provided by films, competitive ticket prices just could not cover production costs – an economic reality that persists to this day.  
   Why?  Because in a market economy in which there have been significant increases in productivity – that is, in output per man-hour – those industries which can not benefit from technological innovation will inevitably experience a growing gap between income and expenditure, even if there is no inflation.  Film (and later television) represented a qualitative leap in output per man-hour in the entertainment industry.  Theatre, by its very nature – live actors can only perform before one audience at a time – is an example of an industry that must suffer economically because of its inability to increase output per man-hour.  In addition to a drastic constriction in the number of productions, the commercial theatre has had to increasingly limit itself to productions of sure-fire mass appeal and to continuously extend the length of runs of those few show that become hits in order to make back the producers’ initial investment.  For noncommercial theatre in the United States the challenge has been – ever since the founding of Chicago’s Little Theatre in 1912 – how to fill the gap between the income that it is possible to make and the expenses it is necessary to meet.


The Workers’ Theatre Movement

   In the 1920s another model of noncommercial theatre emerged in the United States.  Unlike the middle class artists of the Little Theatre movement, its advocates were, initially, immigrant workers and their motive as much political as artistic.  The workers’ theatre movement, as it called itself, was made up of mobile street theatres that performed primarily at rallies, union meetings and other working class gatherings. The theatre troupes were made up of full-time workers, many of them members of the Communist Party, who rehearsed and performed after work at night and on the weekends.  They created their own skits which were, for the most part, performed in an athletic, dance-like style that included mass recitation, called agit-prop, short for agitation and propaganda.  These noncommercial theatres were decidedly amateur in orientation, performing, on principal, for free or for a small fee to help pay for travel to performance sites and for rent on rehearsal space. They drew their inspiration from similar mobile theatres in the Soviet Union and Germany in the 1920s and saw their mission as helping to spark a distinctly working class cultural movement which could play a role in fermenting a socialist revolution in the United States.  
   By 1934 there were 400 agit-prop workers’ theatres in 28 cities organized into the League of Workers Theatres. The League published a magazine, Workers Theatre, which reached a peak circulation of 18,000 in 1935.    
   The workers’ theatres dealt with the gap between income and expenses by keeping expenses minimal (primarily by eliminating the need for a theatre space) and removing itself from the market by performing, for the most part, for free.  Given the intensely political nature of the movement, it’s not surprising that its demise was more related to politics than economics.  After Hitler’s victory in Germany the international communist movement increasingly turned to a “United Front” policy of working with liberals and social democrats against fascism.  In this context, the political and cultural militancy of the agit-prop theatres was deemed inappropriate. Communist cultural workers were encouraged to follow the artistic leadership of middle class professionals.  The foundation of the Federal Theatre Project in 1935 also provided the amateur performers of the workers’ theatres with the opportunity to get paid for working in the theatre, an opportunity which many of them took. John Bonn, founder of the Prolet-Bühne, the first agit-prop troupe in America, was appointed by Hallie Flanagan to head the German-language section of the Project, and no less than five former members of the Workers’ Laboratory Theatre, an influential New York City agit-prop troupe, worked on the Federal Theatre’s Living Newspaper Productions.
   Before looking at the Federal Theatre Project, it is worth noting another model of noncommercial theatre that was attempted in the early 1930s.  The Theatre Collective and the Theatre Union, two New York City theatres established by actors and directors with a leftist political orientation, attempted to create noncommercial professional theatres by selling blocks of tickets to trade unions and working-class social organizations. Their inspiration also came from Germany, from the Freie Volksbühne, an audience organization founded in 1890 by Social-Democratic workers and intellectuals initially to buy blocks of tickets for organized workers at discount prices.  
   The Theatre Collective lasted only a year and half.  The more successful of the two, the Theatre Union, in its first season (1933-34) sold 300,000 tickets -- primarily in group sales to unions.  Its initial success quickly inspired the organization of other theatres along similar lines – the short-lived Drama Union in Chicago, the Contemporary Theatre in Los Angles and the New Theatre in Philadelphia.  Despite filling the old Civic Repertory Theatre on West 14th Street for virtually every production, the Theatre Union was never able to bridge the gap between income and expenses, never able to work in the black. With its audience slipping away to the even more cheaply priced Federal Theatre productions, it closed in 1937, $15,000 in debt.

The Federal Theatre Project

   The Federal Theatre Project was establishead as part of the New Deal’s Work Progress Administration in 1935.  It’s declared mission was to create work for unemployed theatre workers, just as other sections of the WPA were making work for other kinds of workers.  The fact that much of the American public was willing to accept this level of state intervention, particularly in the cultural sphere, speaks to the depth of the economic crisis and the power being asserted by the Soviet model of state-supported arts.  In the years between the 1917 Revolution and Stalin’s consolidation of power in the early 1930s, the Soviet state not only supported Stanislavsky’s Moscow Art Theatre, but supported an environment in which some of the most innovative theatre of the early 20th century was created.  This while theatre production was contracting rapidly in the United States. 
   Of course, one didn’t have to look to communist revolution to find examples of state support for the arts.  In Europe, theatre subsidized by the state had had, by the turn of the 20th century, a long and artistically fruitful history.  From the Comédie Française founded in 1680, to the theatres supported by numerous German principalities in the 18th century, and later municipalized, government-funded theatre had long co-existed with (and often pre-dated), commercial theatre.  But in the United States government support for the theatre was – and remains -- controversial.
   The Federal Theatre Project was able, in the four years of its existence, to create a vibrant noncommercial theatre in every region of the nation.  While most of the privately-backed noncommercial theatres had started with virtually no financial resources and continually functioned in the red, the Federal Theatre started with an initial appropriation of $6 million and spent $46 million between 1935 and 1939.  In four seasons it financed over 1,200 productions of some 830 major works, 105 of which had not previously been produced.  At its height, it employed 12,000 people.  It created the first financially successful noncommercial theatre in the United States by filling the gap between income and expenses with taxpayers’ money.
   That, of course, was why it was controversial and why it was so short-lived.  On the one hand, almost from the start it faced censorship problems. The Living Newspaper’s first production, Ethiopia, for example, was prevented from opening in 1936 because of the State Department’s fears that it would offend Mussolini. At the same time, conservatives in Congress complained that the Federal Theatre had given work to communist actors and directors who were producing left-leaning plays, a charge that was not entirely unfounded.  Add to the mix, Americans’ long-standing opposition to big government, and it’s not at all surprising that after acrimonious hearings by the House Committee on Un-American Activities Committee and the House Committee on Appropriations, the Roosevelt administration agreed to shut the project down.    Although its life was short, the legacy of the Federal Theatre Project was profound and long lasting.  Not only did it set a precedent for the establishment of the  National Endowment for the Arts a generation later, but perhaps even more significantly, it had brought live theatre to new areas of the country and to large segments of  the population which had ceased to go to the theatre a generation earlier.  In so doing, it had provided experience and training to young theatre artists off the beaten track and helped create a hunger for theatre where there had been none before. 

The Resident Theatres

   Despite nearly 50 years of trying, America at mid-century was still without a nonprofit theatre sector.  Most of the Little Theatres had disappeared by 1929.  The workers’ theatre movement and the union-based professional theatres of the 1930s were absorbed by the Federal Theatre Project and did not reconstitute themselves when the Project was defunded.  That’s not to say that all these efforts had been in vain.  What they had accomplished was the cultivation of a potential theatre audience around the country. They had also made it acceptable to approach theatre as something other than a commodity.  
   What they hadn’t solved was how to bridge the gap between expenses and income in a socially acceptable way.  The Federal Theatre Project had, of course, bridged the gap with government funds, but as its history (and the subsequent history of the National Endowment for the Arts) indicates, there are powerful forces in American society which will not accept government funding of the arts.
   The dilemma was solved in the late 1950s and early ’60s by the intervention of large corporations, which through the creation of foundations could secure vast tax write-offs (and broker a huge influence) by contributing to nonprofit cultural institutions. Thus some of the giants of commercialism – in particular, Rockefeller and Ford – came to play a key role in establishing of the noncommercial theatre as a permanent part of the American cultural landscape.
   The Rockefeller Foundation was the first to begin patronizing the noncommerical theatre, when in 1944 it gave money to Margo Jones to do research into the formation of a professional theatre in Dallas.  However, the first to take on backing the Regional Theatres in a big way the Ford Foundation.  In 1959 the Ford Foundation announced a number of three-year grants to struggling nonprofit theatres to provide them with the funds to hire Equity actors for the season.  Over the next three years the Ford Foundation essentially provided the start-up money for the Alley Theatre in Dallas, the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., the American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Connecticut, and what would become the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre, the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angles and the Actors Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco.  That same year Ford sponsored a meeting of the handful of existing non-profit theatres, a meeting which eventually led, with Ford’s financial underwriting, to the foundation of the Theatre Communications Group, which remains the service organization for regional theatres.  Between 1962 and 1971, the Ford Foundation gave a total of $16 million to 17 regional theatres. The Rockefeller Foundation also put millions into the nonprofit theatre during this period.  These two were not the only corporations underwriting regional theatres. The Coca Cola, not surprisingly, bankrolled the foundation of the of the Atlanta Repertory Theatre, and one of the earliest and most prestigious of the regional theatres, the Guthrie right here in Minneapolis was brought into being by a coalition of that included the Ford Foundation, the T.B. Walker Foundation and broad spectrum of local companies and individuals. However, the fact remains that without the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations there would be no regional theatre on the scale we know today.  There were three nonprofit resident theatres in the United States in 1950, five in 1955, ten in 1960, thirty-two in 1965 and 123 today. 
   The foundation of the National Endowment for the Arts in 1964 and its expansion over the next quarter of a century until it came under attack at the end of the Reagan era, played an important role in financially sustaining the resident theatre companies as well.  However, it was the organizing of the local financial elite that has been the great success of the resident theatres.  From the beginning, the big foundations pushed the theatres to find other sources to bridge the ongoing gap between earned income and necessary expenses.  In 1972 Thomas Fichandler, then the executive director of the Arena Stage, wrote that the local financial elite had to be educated “…to realize that theatres, just like symphonies and ballet, are a performing art; that they cannot save costs through labor-saving devices; and that they are not able to support themselves if they are theatres of quality.”  It is an education process that has been, to a remarkable extent, successful.  Yet to this day corporation and corporate foundations together constitute 15% of the total income of the nonprofit resident theatres across the country, remaining a vital element in an industry in which subscriptions and tickets sales continue to constitute less than 50% of the theatres’ incomes.
   America now has in place a workable nonprofit theatre with a consistent record of production and sustained growth. At the same time, after some forty years, certain limitations of the corporate foundation model of non-profit theatre have also become apparent.  First of all, the demographics of the audience have remained distressingly narrow.  With very few exceptions, the audiences are white, upper-middle class and over 45 years of age.  Secondly, while some fine plays and competent playwrights have emerged from the regional theatre movement, it has produced no great playwrights, nor any breakthroughs in performance style, dramatic structure or in the content of American drama.  Given the narrow band of the population involved in the s resident theatres and the even narrower sources of their income, this lack of innovation is hardly surprising.  Finally, while 123 resident theatre companies is, relative to where we started 40 years ago, significant, those of us who continue to dream big dreams for the theatre can not but ask the question – is that growth enough?  Is the current model capable of both generating and building upon the apparent limitless capacity of the American people to support and create theatre?

The Castillo Model

   With these questions in mind, I would like to introduce a qualitatively different model of funding and building non-profit theatre that has been developed over the last 15 years by the Castillo Theatre in New York City. 
   Castillo began in 1983 as a project of the New York Institute for Social Therapy and Research, an organization of radical developmental and clinical psychologists which was interested in the engagement of both the institutions of psychology and culture as a means of furthering individual and social development.  The New York Institute for Social Research served as Castillo’s incubator, allowing it to survive during its period of underdevelopment.  In 1989 Castillo struck out on its own, and in so doing evolved its present form. Working with a group of journalists who were publishing three magazines (all now defunct) and with a performatory anti-violence youth program, the All Stars Talent Show Network (currently thriving), we pooled our individual and collective resources and bought an entire floor in a loft building in SoHo.  The mortgage and renovations added up to $3 million.
   Most of us who began Castillo had been involved in the 1970s and ‘80s with left-leaning community-based arts programs.  I, for example, came to the theatre through the New York City Street Theatre Caravan.  In the early ‘70s we toured the country performing on the back of a flatbed truck, doing shows for the Black Panthers, the Young Lords, the United Farm Workers in California, coal miners in West Virginia and on the Hopi, Navaho and Cheyenne reservations – all funded by the National Endowment for the Arts. But by the mid-80s the handwriting was on the wall.  With Reagan in the White House and the rapid shift of the body politic to the right, there was no way that a populist-oriented experimental theatre was going to be funded by the NEA.  We had seen scores of similar-minded theatres and cultural projects, cut off from federal money, shrivel up and die.  Nor did we want to become dependent on Ford or Rockefeller or Phillip Morris.  Even if we were able to finagle a grant or two, we knew we would not be doing the kind of work that the corporate foundations would care to fund on an ongoing basis.
   What then were we to do?  We made a simple, and in some ways insane, decision.  We decided to go to the people.  We decided that we would canvas door-to-door everyday in diverse communities in the New York metropolitan area and ask people to contribute to the building of a theatre that would be free of government and corporate strings.  If the communities of New York were willing to  support our work, we’d have a theatre; if they weren’t, we would have no theatre.
   Well, it’s ten years later and we are still very much here.  Since 1989, over 450,000 people have given $10 or more to Castillo and its performatory sister projects.  In that time Castillo has produced 83 plays and musicals by 18 playwrights.  The playwrights have been women and men, gay and straight, African American, Chicano, Puerto Rican and white, from the United States, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Israel, India, and Martinique.  Castillo’s operating budget in the last fiscal year was $419, 403, with slightly over half its income from ticket sales and the rest from grassroots fundraising.  It has a subscription base of a little more than a 1,000, and almost ten thousand people attended performances of eight different productions during the 1997-98 season.
   All of this happened because a core of volunteers – some of them theatre people, some not – took collective responsibility for the development of the theatre, a responsibility that included constant outreach and fundraising.  For years we canvassed door-to-door and set up tables on street corners and subway platforms everyday week-in-and-week-out.  In recent years, we have transitioned to a primarily telemarketing operation manned by a volunteer staff of about 50 people who are on the phones five nights a week and Saturday and Sunday afternoons.
   Why is this significant?  After all, measured quantitatively against many resident theatre companies built on the old model, Castillo is quite small.  It is important because we have proven that it’s possible.  We have proven that innovative and intelligent non-commercial theatre with professional production values can be created without either  government or corporate funding.  We have brought into being a new model of non-profit theatre that generates the funds necessary to fill the gap between earned income and expenses through a collective commitment to grassroots fundraising and outreach, a model that is inherently inclusive and that builds community even as it raises money and creates an audience for its work.
   This is not a model for everyone.  It requires a very dedicated and very hard-working group of people.  Of course, dedication and hard work are common traits among theatre people.  What makes the Castillo model so different is that it functions on the basis of collective responsibility and ownership, which means, among other things, not only being a dedicated, hard-working actor, director, set designer or stage manager, but being a dedicated, hard-working fundraiser and audience builder as well.  It requires that the theatre artist become a community organizer.  Not everyone wants to do that, but that,  we have found, is what it takes to make this model work.
   And work it does.  This new model for building a non-profit theatre has been rewarding not only because it has made the creation and production of innovative, risk-taking and controversial theatre possible, it is also rewarding because it has brought into being an audience far more diverse and far more involved in the theatre it views than is found in either the commercial or older nonprofit theatres. Castillo’s audience does not come from people who would go to the theatre anyway.  It comes to the theatre because it has been organized to come by meeting someone involved with Castillo in person or on the phone or in some other community context.  In this way, we have literally created our audience door by door, and in this way we pack our small house and, at least as significantly, we pack it with a diverse crowd.  On any given night you will find in our audience a couple from suburban New Jersey, sitting next to guys from a homeless shelter, sitting next to a gay couple from Chelsea, sitting next to Black church ladies from Brooklyn.  Inherent in our fundraising model is both diversity and the creation of a new audience for the theatre.
   The Castillo model is also inclusive in another significant way.  Not only do actors become community organizers, but community people also become actors.  A certain percentage of those reached by Castillo’s constant outreach become involved in building Castillo themselves.  They become volunteer fundraisers or work on house staff or in the shop or they perform.  The Castillo acting ensemble is fluid and as diverse as its audience.  At Castillo we often have actors who have performed on Broadway or national touring companies working with people who have never performed on stage before.  We have found this mixture to be very growthful not only for the novices, but for the trained actors as well.  They often report getting new insight into performance and questioning their own cliques and assumptions as a result of working with people who haven’t been trained in those cliques and as assumptions. We find, therefore, that our collective – as opposed to corporate – model not only insures financial independence and the development of a diverse audience, it also encourages innovation and experimentation on stage.
   In recent years, the big question for us has been, and to a certain extent, remains, whether this model can be replicated.  If Castillo is only the product of a specific group of people in a specific city, then as interesting and rewarding as it may be, it holds little significance for the shape of non-profit theatre in the 21st century.  If, on the other hand, other groups of people in other cities can also make use of Castillo’s grassroots and inclusive fundraising/community-building model, then it has the potential to impact significantly on the future of the American theatre in the next century.
   The first signs are encouraging.  Inspired by Castillo, a group calling itself the Philadelphia Committee for Independent Culture put up its first full-blown production last month.  In San Francisco the Bay Area Committee for Independent Culture has, for nearly two years, been organizing and fundraising on the streets, holding play readings and informal variety shows and is set to produce its first play in the fall of this year.  Similar committees determined to emulate the model of non-profit theatre pioneered by Castillo are currently active in Seattle, Atlanta, Washington, D.C. and Boston.
   As with anything that is coming-into-being, there is no way to talk about Castillo with the same apparent certainty that we historians presume to bring to that which has come and gone.  We can’t look back and analyses; we can only describe what it is doing and speculate on where it’s going.  Yet what can be said in the context of looking back at a century of attempts to build a non-profit theater in the United States, is that Castillo offers a unique model, one that at least raises certain possibilities for future development.