It is in the nonprofit theaters across the country, and their allied institutions in New York, that the vast majority of plays are born. Over the past decade, in fact, every play and musical that won the Pulitzer Prize for drama began life at a nonprofit theater — and virtually all of them went on to a commercial life on Broadway. The commercial sector has made itself an ever more integral part of the development of new shows, chiefly by providing financial assistance to productions in the form of “enhancement money” to nonprofit companies, funds that in some cases amount to enhancements in the millions.
With so much on the line — and with the accompanying concerns about how such partnerships affect a company’s status as being “nonprofit” — the decision to place the conference behind a curtain seems particularly ill-timed. Arena officials say that although their past “convening” on this topic was open in part to the public, this one barred both the media and general public so that the discussions could be as frank as possible. (One top official told me that some invitees would only participate on the condition that the conference be closed.)
Certainly, Arena and its artistic leadership — Artistic Director Molly Smith and her second-in-command, David Dower — deserve heaps of credit for their commitment to bringing the industry together in this worthy endeavor. Frankness is a commendable goal, too, but you’re left to wonder what could be uttered on the topic that wasn’t suited for general consumption?
Put aside the all-access-pass eternally hungered for by the media and even the burgeoning, society-wide trend for institutional transparency in an expanding array of previously sequestered events. It’s worth noting that Arena, through its Theater 101 program, even allows its audiences regularly to sit in on that once scrupulously off-limits process, play rehearsal. (And in what feels like further irony, I was invited to be part of a public discussion later this month at Arena, called “Theater Beyond Twitter,” focusing on the expanding influence of social media in theater circles.)
But the most disappointing aspect of denying spectator status to others in the field may be that it sends an unfortunate message of exclusivity to the constituency that cares about this issue most of all: the emerging generation of playwrights and theater-company managers who desperately need to feel the encouragement of those in higher places. The 1 percent in that room are required with opportunities such as this one to fling open the doors to the other 99.