Mission, mission, mission

by James Haro

A conversation that sprang up a few months ago, brought on by Rocco Landesman’s statements about the state of theatre, explored the pitfalls of an over developed industry and an under developed audience. The economic lingo “supply and demand” creeped into our discussions again. We were asked, or it was implied, to think about slowing the growth of our sector, namely by cutting funding and discouraging new companies to open shop. Many many bloggers have taken their positions on the matter. Some agree, some with reservations, and some are almost defiant in their disagreement.

The position I’ll be exploring in this post, and the one I find most interesting in my study of non-profit theatre, revolves around the mission statement of an organization, the standard which your company members look to when they need to be reminded of what they are doing in the first place and why. It is also a concise message to your audience and community, expressing what you are doing for them. Boston Court’s mission for example:

“Boston Court Performing Arts Center is dedicated to presenting works that are creative, bold and daring.  We strive to challenge the audiences of Pasadena and the San Gabriel Valley with diverse programs in an intimate setting.”

What can be taken from these two sentences? Plenty and not more than necessary. First they address what they are: an arts center. Next they address what they do: present a certain kind of work. In this case creative, bold, and daring work. No High School Musical here folks, try a little “Twentieth-Century Way” on for size, or their upcoming “How To Disappear Completely and Never Be Found“. Finally, why do they exist? What is their task?  “We strive to challenge the audiences of Pasadena and the San Gabriel Valley with diverse programs in an intimate setting.” Brilliant. I’m not commenting on the content or structure of the sentence, rather in its message. Boston Court exists for the Pasadena area and beyond. Boston Court’s mission statement does a good job of identifying who they are, who they are serving and what they are presenting.

What is important, and something I notice younger theatre artists taking more and more for granted, is the idea of art for the sake of the community. That’s why I was not surprised but still disconcerted when in following up with some research on an organization, I won’t identify which, I saw the following (not verbatim, so you won’t find it by google searching):

“XXXXXXX THEATRE COMPANY was created by playwrights XXXXX and XXXX for the purpose of producing their work in reparatory…”

(It goes on but nothing worth copy/pasting)

Should an artist’s name ever be seen in a mission statement?

Maybe if the artist is dead. Say a theatre company that only produces Shakespeare, or Mamet (he’s not but I hear that plenty of people wish he were). Then yes, reasonable to be in a mission. Maybe a dance company founded by a dancer and based around their unique and identifiable choreography. Sure maybe. But Jeff Daniels founded The Purple Rose, his name isn’t in the mission. David Schwimmer co-founded Lookingglass, his name isn’t in the mission. How about two 20-something artists producing their own stuff? No. No, no no. Just…

My assumption, seeing as how they’ve registered with Fractured Atlas, is that as soon as XXXXX and XXXX are capable they will incorporate as a 501(c)(3) non-profit entity. Hopefully by that time these playwrights will have sharpened up their mission and taken their names out of it. If not, they will have created a charitable organization strictly for their self-advancement, a form of “theatre of exploitation.” This is a Vakhtangov term (part of my scene study reading) which describes an actor who takes on a role for his own selfish ends. My definition would expand to include any theatre artist taking advantage of the non-profit model to serve selfish ends.

Excuse me if my naiveté is showing (I do feel a bit of a draft) but what scares me is that this will become more and more common as artists look to the non-profit model as “the only option.” I’m not judging this organization or it’s founders, they may be the fire starters of the next revolution in theatre (almost laughed when I wrote that), rather I’m calling out the idea of further individualizing the artistic process. My work, my company, my success, and probably the most important factor in all artistic self-interest, my fame.

The non-profit world should not be one which is entered for self-advancement. If it happens as a result, fine, good for you, but it should not be the goal. The current model in which we in the non-profit arts are bound suggests we should be more than artists making art for art’s sake, rather, we do something “useful” (whatever that means), be purveyors of culture, teachers, and work toward the well being of our society. We are service people then, hands in our communities. We belong to them, that is our definition. We exist for our audiences, not for ourselves. A company’s mission states how a need or a problem is being addressed. If the problem is that your plays aren’t getting produced, that is your problem and not that of your community. Otherwise you suggest that your individual work is worthy of building an organization around. Congratulations, you’re what’s wrong with the industry.

Ultimately patrons and donors decide, and they should be discouraged from supporting these self-aggrandizing theatre companies. However, my grander point is to reject completely the mindset of “me first-community/audience after” when it comes to the non-profit arts. Or rather, we shouldn’t lose sight that the point of creating and maintaining an organization is to serve a purpose and fill a need, not serve to serve your purposes and fill your needs. Perhaps this is my idealism running away with me. I’m not even of drinking age (next month, wooo!). I don’t pretend that my position is fully realized or that my well of knowledge of the industry has more than a drop in it. I only know my perspective, what I see and what bothers me about it. So please if you have a differing one let me know in the comments section.

James Haro is a Los Angeles native currently attending Drexel University in Philadelphia, seeking his BS in Entertainment and Arts Management, Theatre Concentration. He co-operates a blog at www.AngryPatrons.WordPress.com.


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