Friday, January 09, 2009

What Can You Do...But Donate

The blog 99 Seats has a very honest, from-the-gut reaction to the SOS calls from some regional theaters as of late:

Listen. I don't wish the Magic, their staff or anyone ill will. I've been there, seen some good shows, had a reading, met good people. This isn't just kneejerk bitterness or contrarianism. I do wonder what a business model based entirely on begging is doing for us as a community. I do wonder what a culture that says gross mismanagement is okay is doing for us. And I don't know what message it sends to the world. It would be a shame if the Magic failed. But it's also a shame if the Magic is saved and three months later we stop asking why it nearly failed.


Locally, North Shore Music Theater has made national news with its own fiscal death spiral. As Thom Garvey mentioned yesterday on his Hubreview, NSMT is making headway in its fundraising goal of $500,000. We donated what little we could to their effort, which seems Herculean, but I admit I had similar thoughts as Mr. 99 seats.

If you read Mr. 99 Seats' full post you will see that his reaction to some of these deficits is shock, followed closely by the suspicion that there is more going on than just an economic slowdown. Like the way most of us viewed the auto industry executives when they approached Congress, we can't help thinking that this kind of financial mess is the result of mismanagement by the hat holders themselves. And that is probably right in most cases.

To many in the Boston theatre community, North Shore Music Theater may as well be on another planet. They do strictly big musicals and cast at least most of the main roles outside of the area. But they do what they do very well. They bring a highly sophisticated production value, technical proficiency and, (with their in-the-round configuration,) imaginative staging to every production I have ever seen there.

I am not sure that a vacuum created by North Shore Music Theater could be filled so quickly; I can't imagine that we would see the Huntington or the American Repertory Theatre presenting a large-scale Bye Bye Birdie, and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers anytime soon. What about the Downtown show barns? Well, even the Broadway Across America production of Brigadoon has been put on hold.

But aside from those points, the reason I find I donate when these calls are sent out is the feeling that I can do something to effect a change.

In other words the difference is the difference I can make.

Right now, I have friends in various industries that are facing imminent layoffs. There is really nothing you can do to help it. I can't buy more product from their employer to stave it off, I can't purchase stock to shore up the ledgers and keep my friends on the payroll. I can help them out individually, but I can't secure their employment.

In the case of these theaters, remember that they do employ people, people who aren't really working for a tremendous amount of money. (I will save the discussion of the ridiculous disparity of wages in these institutions for another day.) The development assistant making 28K or the box office manager making 35K are working hard forlong hours and they will be out of work in a tough job climate.

Additionally, these theaters DO employ artists. We all have thoughts on how this could be better, and it COULD be better, but they do pay artists, playwrights, actors, musicians, designers, etc.

Unlike the corporate world, in these instance you can send a check and you CAN keep some people employed, at least for a time being. If North Shore Music Theatre receives the money it needs, it won't have to close. You can make a donation here.

Merrimack Repertory Theatre is another theater struggling with finances lately. You can donate here.

It could well be that these gestures are Pyrrhic.

By the way, this shouldn't, in any way, stop you from giving to theatres that are fiscally healthy as well.

1 comment:

Thomas Garvey said...

I could certainly be wrong, but I doubt the North Shore has been significantly mismanaged, aside from the decision to schedule High School Musical 2 rather than A Christmas Carol this winter - but actually, doesn't that sound like a hard-nosed business decision that happened to go wrong? It doesn't sound like folly, or fiscal irresponsibility. I'm inclined to believe the current crisis IS the result of that mistake, plus debt incurred from the fire two years ago, and a slow but steady drop in attendance because of the economy (my partner and I have noticed thinner houses at shows there since last spring).

Of course donations to a musical theatre are a tough sell in this economy, particularly to someone who has lost, or is worried about losing, his or her job. Particularly when said musical theatre is fairly far outside town. But as I pointed out in my year-end round-up, it's been a very good year at NSMT - and indeed, it may be telling that many of the theatres with the best artistic records last year (NSMT, the Merrimack, Boston Theatre Works) are either in trouble or have closed. Meanwhile, the Huntington and the ART - which has really cratered over the past year - smoothly sail along. As usual, theatre survives economically based on the power and resources of its base, not on the actual quality of its artistic product. Times are tough in Beverly, so the NSMT struggles, however worthy its shows are. Whether or not musical theatre is viable in general long-term is, of course, a question worth pondering in a recession - or is it a depression yet? (If not, it will be soon.) But I don't think many of the thoughts/suspicions of that blogger regarding the Magic Theatre apply to the North Shore.