The American Theatre is Not Built for Us

Theatre can be a world of contradictions. It’s a space, it’s an experience. It’s a service, it’s a product. It’s a community builder, it’s a gentrifier. It’s a means of education, a townhall, it’s just entertainment.  As a writer-director, I’m looking to connect to an audience, engage the local community, express myself and entertain — so how come I measure my success by ticket sales, sold out crowds and glowing reviews? How come my success as an artist can be measured at an end of quarter board meeting? The American Theatre exists under the umbrella of American Capitalism. Its survival has always depended on ticket sales and various forms of investment from the upper class. With the relatively recent advent of the non-profit theatre, we’ve convinced ourselves that the non-profit and the commercial worlds are separate when, ultimately, they abide by the same rules of capitalism. We’ve convinced ourselves that the non-profit is a safe space for the artistic, the creative, the developmental, but the systems in place were never built to support the artist or the financial failure that can come with further exploring the New.

The system was not built for us artists. However, this blanket statement hasn’t always been true. There have been many attempts to democratize the American Theatre, only for artists to be washed ashore by the tidal wave that is capitalism. There were the repertory companies of actors and director/managers that toured the country in the 1800s, and the revelatory Federal Theatre Project of the 1930s. Then, there was the Regional Theatre Movement that modeled itself off of European theatre models in the 60s that largely influenced our administrative models today. Aesthetically, we can trace how we got from one artistic moment to another, but what’s lost on us is the Economic History of the American Theatre and how its affected Artistic Development today.  Right now we live in a moment of the in between. We have a lot of folks, purists, waiting for everything to go back to the status quo without knowing where we came from. On the precipice of societal change, now is the time for artists to look back at history, question our models, examine the possibilities, and imagine a new future.


Make no mistake — The American Theatre started with Indigenous People creating rituals and live storytelling events as a means to pass on legacy. When this soil was invaded, along came many productions of Shakespeare and eventually a few original melodramas such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin. These were known stories, known plays, known intellectual property and therefore known to make theatre managers money. Prior to 1870, the American Theatre was encumbered with mostly “stock companies”, ensembles that toured the country with multiple productions in their repertory. These companies, for the most part, began in New York and toured to any city with a venue. Directors served as producers and managers taking on many roles from booking the venues to casting and staging the many plays an ensemble performed. That dynamic might sound familiar to Artistic Directors today. The success of these companies were solely dependent on ticket sales and their ability to attract investors. Some companies would go on to attract stars from Britain to join their ranks for a performance for a very special sold out, one-night-only event.

Eventually, having a star became mandatory in order to produce a play in the 1870s mirroring what we often see on Broadway today. As celebrities raised their salaries, ensemble salaries dropped, causing actors to leave their company and pursue stardom of their own. Railroads continued to develop making it clear that touring one full production with a set and celebrity (instead of repertory productions with minimal sets), was much more financially successful than that of the stock company. These new star driven shows were called the “Combination” system. Theatre Managers who curated their venues soon became businessmen who looked to make a profit. They formed what was known as the Theatre Syndicate, a circuit of venues across the country, making it easier for a venue to stock a season with plays from the Syndicate’s circuit.

The Theatre Syndicate included well known names like the Shubert Brothers, who bought over seventy theaters across the nation, including at least 13 theaters in the city of New York alone.  They would determine what plays were to be produced and which were not as they moved from only booking large cities to eventually taking over smaller cities, pushing out Stock Companies. If artistic curatorial gate keeping didn’t exist before, it certainly existed now. As costs of touring increased, these New York companies eventually decided to stay in the city, beginning what is called the Death of the Road. Those acts would go on to perform in New York in the earliest vaudeville shows. It’s clear that as the productions moved into the hands of businessmen, theatre became centralized and artistic and curatorial decisions were made in service of the dollar. If you wanted to see culture in America, touring productions were becoming few and far between. You had to go to New York for that.


In New York, you could find companies that gained a following and existed for their local communities. The African Grove, one of the first black theatre companies in America, operated out of Harlem. The first recorded play written by an African American man was by William Henry Brown in 1823 titled The Drama of King Shotaway, founded on Facts taken from the Insurrection of the Caravs on the Island of St. Vincent, Written from Experience by Mr. Brown. No known copies of the play currently exist. The African Grove’s shows would sell out with black patrons: free, enslaved, middle-class and working-class. They would produce original work like Brown’s and the typical theatrical fare of the time. The press repeatedly decried the black man speaking Shakespeare text. White hoodlums visited and jeered during showings causing the theatre owners to seat them at the rear of the theatre, claiming white patrons did not know “how to behave themselves at entertainment designed for ladies and gentlemen of colour.” The police raided the place constantly, sometimes arresting actors as they recited their lines and were dragged out of the theatre. The commotion from the untamed behavior at black performances (mostly caused by white patrons) caused the African Grove to shut down despite its commercial success. Just shows that in America, racism can be stronger than the dollar.



With the advent of musical theatre came more production costs and as production costs increased, so did ticket prices. Between Talkies, the Stock Market Crash, Higher Costs of Production, the high Manhattan rent, and the growing power of unions, at the start of the Great Depression producing theatre was more expensive than ever before. Meanwhile, films were copied and sent across the country, across the world. The average theatre ticket cost $2.25 while the average movie ticket cost only $0.25. The economic disparity between the art forms became clear. In order for a play to be produced, it required investment from the Upper Class, same as film and the Theatre Syndicate that ruled the road, but now plays were to be exclusively enjoyed by those who could afford it, barring a special occasion. Between ticket prices and the industry being centralized to New York, theatre became inaccessible. This should sound familiar to practicing artists today.  Similar to today’s environment, smaller enterprises existed, but prominence was given to cultural mainstays that carried investment from the upper class.

Since then, there have been two large movements to shake the system and democratize American Theatre, the first being the Federal Theatre Project in 1935. With Franklin D. Roosevelt’s The New Deal, he allowed space for Hallie Flanagan to create The Federal Theatre Project. At a total cost of $46 million dollars (roughly $878 million considering inflation), this revolutionary social program was intended to create jobs for theatre workers, experiment with new forms and techniques in the American Theatre, relieve the burden of economic success, and decentralize the culture from New York to allow theatre to be seen in underrepresented towns across the nation, much like it had been before the Death of the Road. Subsidized by the government, the program toured productions across the country to venues ranging from churches to suburban cul-de-sacs. Unlike the work created in the 1800s, a lot of this work was original, and culturally specific. This was theatre for the people again. Because the work was subsidized by the government, it was allowed to be experimental. The play could succeed or fail, lessening the constraints of ticket sale goals or critic panning. Flanagan also created smaller units, theatre companies divided by culture, to support German (New York City), French (Los Angeles), Italian (Los Angeles, New York City, various towns in Massachusetts) and Black theatre. As work today becomes more culturally specific, could you imagine today’s government further supporting that work? The work was political and daring. If you thought theatre was surface level melodrama and vaudeville acts, you’d be mistaken. Flanagan produced theatre for social change.

The Black Unit was given multiple cities to create their work as Flanagan believed that Black playwrights needed space to tell their own stories. The project gave Black artists the opportunity to work outside of their unit, cross pollinating with other units.  As it was becoming clear that Flanagan was curating political work and supporting the Black Artist, The House of Un-American Activities shut down the Federal Theatre Project despite its commercial success. HUAC was a product of McCarthyism and targeted any group or individual that was deemed by them as communist. HUAC Chairman Martin Dies of Texas explained, “racial equality forms a vital part of the Communistic teachings and practices.” Thus, the Federal Theatre Project was shut down, the power of the American Theatre was re-centralized to the economic center of the country (New York City) and returned to the hands of the Upper Class. Hallie Flanagan had created a bold program that made theatre affordable, accessible to all. Due to racism, it was destroyed. It says something that theatre that was built for the people was deemed Un-American. It lasted only four years, 1935 – 1939. America said loud and clear: Theatre is not built for the artists or the masses to survive. It was built for the rich.



Besides revolutionaries like Founding Artistic Director Joe Papp who fought for a theatre that was “Free for All” at the Public Theatre in the 1950s, the next time the American Theatre sought to decentralize was approximately thirty years later. The 501c3 non profit professional theatre company is a modern invention from the 1960s.  Before the 60s, the Ford Foundation’s theatre grants were primarily directed toward individual theatre artists. In 1961, Ford pivoted to supporting theatre organizations and approved grants totaling $559,000 for four nationally recognized theaters:, the Alley Theatre, in Houston; the Arena Stage, in Washington, D.C.; the Phoenix Theatre, in New York, and the Actor’s Workshop in San Francisco. This was only the beginning. The foundation asked that theatres match Ford’s donation to offer actors a living wage.  Ford aimed to recreate the European repertory theatre model by offering first rank professional actors full season contracts at $200 per week. According to the 1961 Ford Foundation Annual Report, “the test of the actors’ commitment— particularly of those who decide to leave New York, the theatre capital of the country” was crucial to the experiment. Keep in mind, there’s one large difference between the Ford Foundation’s relatively short term support of these theatre companies, and the European repertory theatre model — continued financial support from government subsidies over an extended period of time. There was a concern as to whether local audiences would continue to support their local repertory theatre after the Ford Foundation had stopped their support. They were right to be concerned. Only 4 years after the Ford’s grant award to the Actor’s Workshop, the company closed due to the fact that the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce could only support one theatre company and they chose American Conservatory Theatre (ACT) – which is still standing today. Without continued government support, the Actor’s Workshop had no chance of survival after the Ford Foundation’s single grant award.

To support their venture into the regional theatre investment, the following year The Ford Foundation formed the Theatre Communications Group (also known as TCG) from a grant of $244,000 to operate out of New York and serve as the hub for professional, community, summer-stock and university theaters across the country. Keep in mind, in the year 1961, The Ford Foundation had a net worth of $2.1 billion dollars and benefited directly from the Ford Motors Company’s performance in the stock market. Foundations are oftentimes supported by the upper class, but the Ford Foundation’s ability to perform at this level was directly due to  their automobile’s commercial success in the market. The foundation’s income was directly fueled by its successful voyages in capitalism.

Ford’s next move truly spurred the beginning of the Regional Theatre Movement. In 1962, The Ford Foundation granted $6.1 million to nine repertory theatre companies: Actors Studio, New York; Actor’s Workshop, San Francisco; Alley Theatre, Houston; American Shakespeare Festival Theatre and Academy; Arena Stage, Washington, D.C.; Fred Miller Theatre, Milwaukee (now Milwaukee Rep); Mummers Theatre, Oklahoma City; Theatre Group, University of California Extension, Los Angeles; Tyrone Guthrie Theatre, Minneapolis. The 1962 Annual Report states, “The Foundation will assist groups capable of continued artistic development and of the attainment of a sustaining level of income from other sources within a reasonable period. The overall aim of the program is to help the participating theaters ultimately sustain themselves through box-office receipts.” The very foundation of the regional theatre movement, the American non-profit theatre and artistic development, was left in the hands of box office sales. While Ford’s initiative intended to support the artist, a company’s ability to sustain itself was reliant on commercial appeal. This is unsustainable in theatre. As any Development department will tell you, it takes way more than box office ticket sales to survive. Many theatre companies that aim to survive based off the wave of box office sales have seen their fiery end. The model that was handed to the Regional Theatre was doomed from the start without subsidies from the Federal government. Much like small companies that attempt to be a large institution on day one without continued loyalty built over time, these organizations will always struggle to sustain themselves.

Only three years after this wave of Regional Theatre support came to pass, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed legislation to create the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Taking a page from his predecessor Roosevelt, Johnson believed that the arts and humanities belonged to the people. The NEA is a federal agency whose funding and support “give Americans the opportunity to participate in the arts, exercise their imaginations, and develop their creative capacities.” Arts and Culture in America not only provide jobs and support for local businesses, they’re a driving force in American economics. In 2017, Arts and Culture provided $877.8 billion to the economy or 4.6% of the nation’s domestic product. You would think that the NEA’s budget would be proportionate to that. Nope. The NEA’s annual budget for 2021 is $167.5 million, up almost 17 million dollars since the year 2017 with no thanks to our 45th president who attempted to eradicate the agency entirely. Compare that number to that of Britain’s culture ministry which has spent over $1 billion on the arts annually for years. Bipartisan support for the NEA has allowed the agency to persist and grow with the understanding of how much the Arts are a driving economic force in the country. With a budget of only $167.5 million, the NEA’s grants are small with the hope and understanding that public funding stimulates private giving from individuals. While I’m thankful for the NEA, parts of their model only work with the continued support of large donations from individual donors who have started to dictate the curation of Arts in America.

It’s also important to note that just this past December 2020, Congress passed the Save Our Stages Act, which will grant $15 billion dollars in funding to “eligible live venue operators or promoters, theatrical producers, live performing arts organization operators, museum operators, motion picture theater operators, or talent representatives who demonstrate at least a 25% reduction in revenues.” Without this funding, it’s estimated that nearly 90% of the industry would fold. This act was made possible through the work of Senator John Cornyn (R-TX),Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Representative Peter Welch (D-VT), and Representative Roger Williams (R-TX) in the House. It was also championed by Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY), with 230 bipartisan cosponsors. This bipartisan support is an example of true democratization. While this act from our congress is generous, it’s made possible by a lobbying effort by multiple arts groups, including the Broadway League, National Association of Theatre Owners, the National Independent Venue Association, as well as Actors’ Equity Association and SAG-AFTRA. Artistic leaders and activists across the country made this hallmark moment happen.

In an interview with Variety’s Stagecraft with Gordon Cox, Nataki Garrett, Artistic Director of Oregon Shakespeare Festival, attributes their survival through this pandemic year to the healthy relationship her company has  with their Governor Kate Brown. “We [OSF] fought for access to any kind of resources because we knew as a coalition of non-profit theaters that the only way for us to come back would be through that kind of funding.” Thanks to the $15 billion that will be deciminated to companies and venues across the country, some arts organizations can have the hope of keeping their heads above water for the moment. It will take more funding in the future to maintain economic health for arts organizations.  Over the years, many artists have taken to advocate for the arts in state government and it’s something we should continue to do in order to be as properly supported as other countries we so admire.



The American non-profit theatre company has five main streams of income: single ticket buyers, subscribers, donors, board members and foundations/sponsorships. For the most part, in order to allow a company to pay a living wage (most of them don’t), theatre companies rely on members of the upper class to support the theatre where the government can not. The upper class make up the board, the subscribers, the donor base, and therefore, oftentimes, the single ticket buyer too. How many times have you talked to an Artistic Director who’s directly controlled by their subscribers, their board, their local critic? Without appeasing these revenue streams, they won’t be able to keep the company alive. Their concern can’t be in serving the art, they have to serve their revenue streams first. The task should be in straddling both, but values get confused in dire times. The system is not built to serve us.

Take German Theatre, for example. In an interview with Goethe UK, German theatre director Thomas Ostermeier speaks on the state of German theatre: “Germany, compared to other countries, is giving a lot of money to theater. And these financial subsidies make that strong theatre landscape. Any country, any nation could have the same quality of art. In some other countries they have a stronger film industry or stronger fine arts scene. In Germany, it’s theatre, but it’s due to the fact that we get a lot of subsidies.”

If the NEA was better supported, they could provide the arts and culture sector another Federal Theatre Movement that would support artists across the country. Did you know that the Arts Endowment staff, including the chairman, cannot lobby or participate in efforts designed to influence Congress regarding appropriations, law, legislation, or policy? Any donation made to the NEA can only be applied to the agency’s infrastructure and not to the grants it awards. We, the artists, have to do a better job advocating for the NEA because the NEA can’t advocate or lobby for itself.

The point Ostermeier makes about priorities is important. If I was to produce a film for $500k in Georgia, the state would give me 20% (and an additional 10% if I include their now ubiquitous logo) in tax credit that could be sold to a media company. Why? A film production, such as The Avengers (which was shot in Georgia), brings jobs to the state and supports the local economy. Film, as an industry, has an obvious reciprocal relationship with the United States financial system. Not only does it help the US economy, it serves as a means to broadcast the American way of life. Because the Film industry supports the American economy, the American economy supports the film industry. Such a reciprocal relationship exists within theatre, but maybe it’s not so obvious. It’s well proven that theatre stimulates the local economy by bringing business to restaurants and other storefront businesses that might lie in close proximity. Much like everything else that relates to these two mediums, (besides Broadway tours) theatre stimulates the local economy while film potentially stimulates the international economy. Capitalism’s presence in the American theatre is why non-profit organizations are concerned with ticket sale success. It’s why our work is so product-oriented, even in a time when all we could be focusing on development and process. It’s because as much as we all keep the word commercial on the hush, the non-profit theatre is oftentimes simply an incubator for the commercial.

I’ve had too many conversations with Artistic Directors who are prepared to put an exciting vision on stage, then back out at the thought of their subscribers balking. Economics affect programming and we all know this. This has been true for a long time. Artistic Directors are not programming to what they want to see, they’re trying to predict what white couples from the suburbs want to see. They see them as a default broad audience with expendable income that they can appeal to. Even the smaller companies hope and pray to be institutions with buildings and boards and Tony Awards on their shelf. For all my railing against capitalism, commercialism and so on you’d think that the solution lies in a space that negates those truisms. No. I’d like for the NEA to gain more funding and with the recent support of Support Our Stages, I would hope that arts organizations can gain a stronger relationship to their state and national governments. In the meantime, I want to offer paths for financial security in theatre organizations.



Before we step into those muddy waters, we need to talk about development. The non-profit theatre, for the most part, can support Literary Development and not Collaborative Development. As a writer, I understand the practice of writing and workshopping is a collaborative skill, but for the purposes of this essay I’ve divided developmental processes into these two terms. Literary Development is a process that supports work generated by the writer. It’s the least expensive form of development due to the fact that you’re normally only supporting a single writer through staged readings and brief workshops. Supporting Collaborative Development, meaning projects that are built from the collaboration of a multitude of artists, will always require more funding. Because of a lack of funding, we have to assume that Literary Development will continue to be the core of development within the regional theatre. If I am to pitch a project to a regional theatre, I must have a script in hand in order for the Artistic Director and Board to understand the project’s potential. For other forms of development, we have to use academic spaces. Throughout the past couple years, universities have provided the majority of my developmental space. They have been able to offer me more than a reading with music stands, but instead, full workshop productions with actors and designers. These are resources that regional theatres often fail to provide. You won’t have the exact actors or designers you might otherwise require, but there’s the prospect of artistic freedom that regional theatres cannot afford. Universities can be the foundation for the experimental in the American Theatre. As some of the only institutions that have managed to stay afloat financially, more artists should use universities to create collaborative work outside of the Regional Theatre System. This should be available to anyone and not only privileged folx with a bachelor or masters degree.



We need to redefine the broad audiences we seek to attract in Regional Theatres. Before the Pandemic hit, every American artform was looking to take advantage of the Experience Economy. Films thrived from 3D/IMAX, the music industry profited from concert ticket sales, TV ratings thrived during live events, restaurants hired Experience Designers — every medium took advantage of liveness except for the one medium that did it naturally… theatre. Our artists are trained to build live experiences, but we continue to operate under the leadership of Baby Boomers who look to their subscribers for inspiration. Our definition of theatre is so small it has prohibited us from creating experiences that could truly attract a broad audience.

Millennials command a $1.7 trillion in annual spending with the Experience Economy alone. While we think the majority of a theatre’s income will always come from an older base, that doesn’t necessarily have to be true. We actually live in a country where the upper class is made to believe that a donation is a hand out. I’ve been part of campaigns where lower income households were much more likely to give as they understood the power of a contribution. There’s a broader, more equitable audience to pursue. White Suburban Subscribers aren’t a broad audience, they’re a niche. A true broad audience would allow us all to own the American Theatre. We don’t pursue these audiences through marketing, but through programming. No matter how you market your upcoming work to seem younger or more hip, it doesn’t matter if the programming doesn’t match. In fact, it breaks trust for people who fell for the marketing only to find the work not match the campaign. The potential unique experiences we can create, the events that artists could develop collaboratively for broad audiences, are not only more exciting to me artistically than the typical season offering, they’re potentially more profitable.

We also have to understand that companies should and must be able to appeal to niche audiences other than the white suburban elite. When a company only produces white plays, I don’t try to convert their values and make them pay lip service to something they don’t believe in. I just avoid them like the plague. That being said, I’m talking about the small company’s urge to appeal to similar audiences as the largest companies. We don’t all have to appeal to the broad. When the smallest companies are producing the same work as the largest companies with the same processes and structure, what’s the difference between the two besides net worth? They attempt to echo a process that doesn’t fit their container. When small companies are unable to be experimental or specific to their audience, their aesthetic of the community flattens. I’d love to see smaller theatre companies specify the smaller communities they wish to serve. What theatre company is serving the crowd coming out for the Pitchfork Music Festival in the summertime? As we’ve come to know in the age of the internet, a niche audience can still be millions of people. Instead of producing three productions a year, can you produce one truly excellent one that has paid artists for their time in development and production? Your niche audience becomes excited for your one annual offering before the production tours and the company readies for the next development process much like the Combination system from the 1800s. So often our relationship to growth and success is dependent on whether a production meets ticket sale goals and whether a company increases their budget instead of artistic quality and community engagement. How do we create systems in which everyone is paid and the focus is on artistic quality over economic growth?

As Artists, we know how to build a fandom. We know how to build stories that can reach a community and keep them energized from story to story. Those skills need to be applied to the way our industry’s organizations are run. Instead of depending on large donations from a small subsect of our population, let’s create experiences that welcome all audiences. Let’s keep them involved from story to story, showing our process. It’s always a wonder to me that theatre artists willingly create in a vacuum, give themselves three days of tech and cross their fingers on opening night. Let’s create transparent processes that allow our work to be seen while it’s made, and use audience response to guide future development and artistic success. Let’s build focus groups. Creating a direct line to our audiences will build trust with our institutions, and allow multiple streams of income from a broader variety of people.



At the end of the day, it comes down to a question that has ringed in every Black Lives Matter protester over the past 6 years, Who do you serve, who do you protect? Our future lies in accepting that the non-profit theatre system is commercial and while it was built to serve the artist, it has developed into a system that oftentimes serves a niche audience: white people from the suburbs. The Regional Theatre movement was built to rebel against commercialism, but I’m not sure if that’s possible under American capitalism. Our companies exist within this economic structure so how do we use that commercial system to our advantage? How do we pivot our theatre companies to serve the American Artist and the American Audience over a select few? We’ve started to see more Artistic Directors allow the artist to lead the process, but only when they feel the product will serve the subscriber audience. Foundations can make this reversal as well, and allow foundational support to be dictated by the artist’s process instead of the foundation’s. The only way to expect a new, innovative and bold product is to allow space for new, innovative and bold processes. This means that as artists, it’s our responsibility to use the system to create new processes that might make new experiences, or attract new audiences. Artistic Directors need to allow us that space to service an audience outside of their subscribers.

Artistic Leaders, we have to support the multi-hyphenate. With the knowledge that the American theatre economic system was not built to support the artist, we know that expecting a full time career as a freelance artist in the American Theatre comes with pain and martyrdom. The only way to survive is to align oneself with an institution whether that’s in administration or academia, each come with their own pitfalls. We need to be allowed to create work in other mediums that pay an equitable wage as theatre works to find new economic models that sustain the theatre artist. With this knowledge, we can also see that at We See You White American Theatre is deeply important. The demands of this movement not only acknowledge the given financial inequities in our industry, but also reveal the lack of care shown to the  artist. It’s one thing to not pay a living wage, it’s another thing to not treat artists with respect and transparency. If I’m not getting paid well, I might as well be treated right.

When I was a teenager, I remember having an Artistic Mission: to make theatre an everyday part of American Life. That’s a pretty bold statement from a 19-year-old starting a non-profit theatre company in Boston. I remember saying, “I want to make theatre that my sister would like… and my sister hates theatre.” I tell people I gave up on this dream, but deep down I know it’s still something I hope to see. Film and television are not our competitors, especially when all anyone wants to do is go out and do something with their loved ones. We simply have to give people a reason. There will always be something special and unique about sharing a communal live moment with a group of people, their reaction affecting you and vice versa. It’s a sensation that has withstood the test of time, and this sensation, this connection – will drive us into the future.

Other Sources:

Mitchell, Loften. Black Drama. Hawthorn Books, 1967.

Poggi, Jack. Theater in America: the Impact of Economic Forces, 1870-1967. Jack Poggi. N.Y., Cornell University Press, 1968.

PHOTO: Writer-Director Monty Cole in tech for a workshop production at the California Institute of the Arts for his Goodman Theatre Commission, AMERICAN TEENAGER.

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