Contributed by guest blogger of the week, Paul Bargetto.
One of the major pillars of the crisis that faces Independent/Off-Off theater is the misdirection of funding dollars. This problem is universal and includes the City, State, grant makers, and private individuals. Throughout the city, it is presenters, and primarily their buildings and administrations that are consuming the lions share of available funding. A quick glance around town and one can see millions of dollars being spent on upgrading and renovating buildings (PS 122, DTW, 3LD, the Kitchen, and HERE to name a few), all of which maintain staffs of full time curators and administrators. A significant percentage of this funding was borrowed and this has placed very expensive burdens on the institutions that threaten their sustainability. While I do not complain about having new spaces and beautiful lobbies and cafes, I wonder very much where the artists who produce the work enter into the funding equation.
The reality is that all of the spaces I have mentioned are presenting plays by small local companies and ensembles that are incapable of paying themselves even a minimum wage. The mostly all volunteer army of Independent Theater – (the Artists) work at rates that would be criminal in any other industry, and must work outside jobs to survive. So while the buildings have improved, the quality of the art inside has not. Theater takes time to develop and when the artists toil in part time dedication the result is to be expected. When will an equal gesture of funding be made toward the artists who make the work?
The system as it stands today means that there is rarely any reward out there for the successful production or ensemble. Beyond the temporary glory of a great review, where is the great production left at the final curtain? With touring options incredibly limited, with festivals offering no cash prizes, with Off Broadway transfers a myth, with funded residencies non-existent, where do the artists find the resources to keep producing? The clever and well connected ones are going to Europe, or are making solo pieces. For the rest, the best advice going is "get a millionaire on your Board!"
Since that dream is out of reach for most of us, (but not all!), I believe that what is needed are year long fully funded residencies that provide not only space, but salaries for the artists! Why are buildings continually created or renovated without equal endowments to properly program them?
The last question is whether or not the City’s existing spaces are being properly utilized. New York is a University Town and almost all of them have a theater, and many have more than one. Since these theaters already exist and are often under utilized (See the Skirball Center), why are more not given to deserving small companies as funded residencies? How interesting it would be for the current drama students to share their space with a real working company!
I have been working in New York long enough to see many small companies go under or completely transform their core artists. It is heartbreaking to see so many promising artists get ground down by the nearly impossible demands of simply keeping body and soul together and a roof over their head. Independent Theater is consistently making the work that the rest of the theater establishment has abandoned. It is serious and challenging in both form and content and is pressing the boundaries of the art form.
The Artists making this new work have out of necessity dedicated themselves to a monastic poverty sustained only by the measure of their belief. Does it really have to be this way? The time is ripe for a reconsideration of our funding priorities and time for the artists to claim their fair share of the pie.