Theatres Sharing the Bandwidth

by Teresa Eyring (bio), executive director, Theatre Communications Group, Inc.

The Fusing Arts, Culture, and Social Change study spotlights concerns about the distribution of private foundation dollars to arts groups in a nation that is witnessing rapidly shifting demographics, emerging artistic traditions from Asia, Africa, Latin American and the Pacific Rim, an increasing number of hybrid forms, and more artists pursuing social justice aims through their work.

What the numbers and this study don’t capture are the often invisible ways in which larger and mid-sized organizations deploy financial, human and capital resources for the benefit of individual artists, smaller organizations and diverse communities. These systems of mutual support often go unnoticed by the wider public, but they are tremendously valuable. As we continue our conversation about funding equity, we must also acknowledge the impact of the actions these larger theatres are taking, and share models that are working.

I think of the La Jolla Playhouse and its “Resident Theatre Program” started under artistic director Christopher Ashley. Each year, a local company without a venue is selected for a year-long residency. They receive two productions in LJP’s performance space–rent free. They receive sound and lighting support, as well as marketing and fundraising advice. Companies that have benefited from this relationship are the San Diego Asian American Repertory Theater, MOXIE Theatre, Mo’olelo Performing Arts Company, and Eveoke Dance Theatre. La Jolla Playhouse doesn’t receive any special grants in order to serve as home to those companies. They simply do it in order to share their bandwidth, and to support the larger cultural ecosystem.

This is part of a wider trend profiled in a recent American Theatre Strategies article. Programs like Arena Stage’s Visiting Companies Initiative, Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s Garage Rep program, New York Theatre Workshop’s Companies-in-Residence program and South Coast Repertory’s Studio Series are all examples of the power of collaboration between larger and smaller theatres.

There are also unsung ways in which larger organizations and their staffs lend support, visibility and infrastructure to emerging artistic communities. One example can be found in Portland Center Stage’s “Ideas in Play” program, which seeks out diverse community partners whose missions can be served by creative use of PCS facilities and staff. These partnerships include: The Hispanic Chambers “After Hours” networking event; Women & Race, a discussion series presented by PCS and the local YMCA; and the Colored Pencils Art Collective, a vigorous collective of fourteen nationalities and ethnicities and five religious traditions dedicated to facilitating intercultural learning through artistic expression.

My former home, the Children’s Theatre Company, is fortunate to have a full-time music director, Victor Zupanc, who is constantly building relationships in the local and immigrant music communities. When CTC premiered Nilo Cruz’s adaptation of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings, Zupanc searched for local musicians playing in South American traditions. He found and hired a harpist from Paraguay, a percussionist from Brazil, a guitarist from Argentina and a flute/pan pipe player from Ecuador, and CTC paid for all of them to join the local musician’s union. Not only did this build unexpected ties to emerging artistic communities in Minneapolis, but the music was gorgeous!

Here at TCG, where diversity is a core value, the staff and board regularly investigate challenges that exist with respect to an ever-increasing plurality in our field. For instance, there are only a few artistic directors of color at the helms of the largest theatre institutions. What is the right strategy to affect change in this area? We believe that at least one puzzle piece is in the active development of a new generation of leaders of color–and connecting these talented individuals to the larger national theatre community. Through funding partnerships with foundations, such as the Nathan Cummings Foundation and the Joyce Foundation, TCG launched a number of programs, including a young leaders of color initiative, which allows these talented theatre practitioners to attend conferences, develop new thinking and build networks.

One outcome of our national conversation about philanthropic equity may be a shift in the awareness and priorities of some funders to award more dollars directly to marginalized groups. Another outcome may be a series of funding strategies both to document and to cultivate more relationships and practices — such as those described above — in order to help strengthen art-making and build overall capacity in marginalized artistic communities. In a world where there isn’t enough funding to begin with, there may be clear advantages to exploring both avenues.