Handing over the keys to a house that's on fire
How the refusal to quit while you're ahead is killing the American theater
A pal and colleague of mine recently shared this post she saw on Tumblr and it really got under my skin. Especially in the ... whatever phase of the pandemic we now inhabit, this kind of refusal to see anything other than lasting "forever" as success is rearing its head across the American theater landscape. Wrapping up a company is unthinkable, not because of how the theater serves its community, not because the art they create and the artists they support are creating essential, theatrical, alive events that audiences can't wait to see - but because closing would be failure and we didn't suffer this long - especially through the past two and a half years - and make it this far just to turn around and fail.
The refusal to, as another colleague framed it, declare victory and turn your company's closure into a celebration is also, I suspect, rooted in this obsession with longevity, legacy, and the imperative to build something that lasts. The trouble is - it often doesn't. Maybe because it wasn't really built to in the first place.
This is evident in two recent closures of significant, beloved organizations - the House Theatre and the Lark. A couple years ago, the Hypocrites met a similar fate. A quick tl;dr of these situations and others like them could be framed this way:
A Ten-Step Plan for the Rise & Fall of an American theatrical institution
charismatic and talented (usually white) man founds organization
organization builds due to aforementioned charisma and talent of man and his friends
donors & funders are compelled by charismatic man's talent and resolve
audiences come in droves! great success & celebration! ... for a bit
charismatic man is
invited to make work for more money at fancier places
accused of wrongdoing
organization is handed off to a woman, ideally a woman of color
woman (of color) learns that charismatic man has left an awful mess for her to clean up
board and donors miss the charismatic man and his "bold vision" and possibly blame woman for making the mess she actually just inherited
board, donors, and audiences abandon ship
company "fails" under woman (of color)'s leadership
I'm curious how an industry that traffics in the ephemeral, that ostensibly understands that what makes the time we spend together precious is knowing it won't last, an awareness that the eventual strike is built into every opening night, that knows all about death and ghosts and mystery became so afraid of letting go. (I mean, we know it's white supremacist culture, patriarchy, and capitalism, but permit me the wistful question for just a moment longer...)
What if the goal wasn't to build something to be handed off? What if the goal was to make space for the next group of generative, charismatic artists to create something themselves rather than inherit something from someone else? What if only the resources left over after a company declares victory were shared, repurposed, to be built into new systems and structures imagined by the artists who come next who then, eventually, share what they've learned and the resources they have left with the generation to come and so on and so on?
Look, I know how hard it is to close a company. Ten years ago, my friends and I shuttered New Leaf Theatre, a small Chicago storefront company that to this day is what I think of when I think of artistic home. But the most strategically sound thing we ever did was decide to say goodbye, on our terms, to the thing we loved. We made the decision mid-season, poured everything we had into our final production, and threw a big party to thank our community for its love and support. And then we took the money we had in the bank and split it among other small companies we loved.
I understand that closing down or "renovating" a larger company presents more challenges - but I have to think that an experiment like that would be less harmful than handing over the keys to a house that's on fire to someone who won't even have time to call in the fire brigade before the whole thing burns to the ground.
We're overdue for another significant evolution in our industry. What if just like folks are seeing when it comes to retrofitting versus demolishing and rebuilding structures in terms of climate change, arts organizational renovation could be a solution to the issues we're encountering now? Perhaps renovation would be a more palatable way for founders to release their companies while still leaving space for the folks coming up to shape the resources in ways that are true to their values and curiosity. Perhaps, at this point, anything is worth trying if it might stop the fire from continuing to spread.