An Open Letter to Philadelphia Theatre: A proposal for a collaborative future and a nurturing community

I would like to make a proposal to the Philly theatre community. One that will encourage deeper artists bonds, support small and struggling companies in this vibrant and overpopulated community, and help develop stronger national recognition for Philadelphia theatre. It will require sacrifices, accountability and cooperation. It could increase our audiences and enhance our product but only if we can see each other as brothers and sisters rather than adversaries. This plan works if we can place community before self-interest.

This idea has little effect on the mid-range theatre, those theaters that are financially solvent but who need to work each year to keep their performances funded. This is a proposal directed toward the biggest and smallest of us. Those mid range organizations gain collateral effects but would not be engaged in the actual activities. I must categorically admit that Iron Age Theatre is one of the smallest and so a potential beneficiary of this proposal.

Here goes:

I propose that each of the 5-7 big theaters in Philly adopt a small theatre each year for a one year term. This would create a relationship between those companies with the huge budgets and those of us with budgets of perhaps under $25,000 a year. I propose the small theatre label apply only to theaters who have survived at least five years in the region. I propose that a lottery system be created to connect the large theatres with the smaller companies through Theatre Philadelphia.

This relationship has three specific possible manifestations: (Each “mentoring” company would only need to choose one of these three options). Each choice has different levels of engagement, offering some flexibility in the larger theatre’s investment in the smaller company.

First, the larger theatre would include the little theatre in its advertising, giving the small team substantial access to a broader community. The large company would offer and use their mailing list for the small theatre postcards. They would put ads for the smaller theatre’s productions in their programs, etc.

Second, the bigger theatre would fund the smaller theater so that one of their productions that year could be Barrymore eligible.

Third, the bigger theater could share experience and resources. They could just make grant or supply grant writing support and education to increase the capacity of the smaller company. They could make all the small companies printed materials.

Although at first it may not appear so, there are some advantages for the big companies. Those benefits are, in some ways, ephemeral or potential, as opposed to the real benefits to the smaller companies. The overall impression of Philly Theatre nationally would certainly increase. We would become unique amongst the strong theater cities. Secondly, there is a financial benefit. Granters, funders and individual donors would certainly be attracted to companies who’s own altruism betters the overall community. How attractive to granters and donors would a company be who was fostering new or unusual talent?

Additionally, there is something to be said for helping smaller or marginalized artists find entre into our community. Jimi Hendricks was discovered opening for the Monkees. This icon of the musical world was discovered while playing as the second fiddle to one of the most commercially driven bands of the 60s and 70s. The chance for the financial giants in Philly to help reveal something magical within our community is a virtuous act. The ability to foster and engage with the riskier, smaller companies can only enliven the entire theatre scene. Which of the big houses in town will be the one to open the door for our newest geniuses to blossom?

There have been efforts to enhance our theatrical culture. Theatre Philadelphia  provides an award service to our community. The idea of recognizing great work in the community is important. The awards have the same benefit to Philadelphia theatre as my proposal. It enhances our profile and our reputation nationally. These awards also have significant material benefit to everyone in the theatre community except smaller companies. The rules are financially challenging for our small budget world even as they  establish reasonable salaries for actors and designers and directors. While recognizing the companies with power, success and money and justly raising the salaries of the working people, they are onerous on those of low budget. Like all competitive situations, the gap between rich and poor increases as the profile of the smaller poorer companies is overwhelmed as the larger groups gain credibility from the awards. I believe in the value of the Barrymores…I volunteered to be a nominator.

They returned, as one of the members of Theatre Philadelphia said at an early Barrymore meeting, because with a theatre culture as large as ours, Philly must find a way to recognize the great work happening in town.  It is a competition and a competition designed, by necessity, to be exclusive. It is a system that, again by necessity, cannot be on a level playing field. Still, I am sure that few of us in the arts see our profession as competitive by definition.

The press in our community is exclusive as well. How many top 10 ten lists from the Philly press are representative of a substantial proportion of the shows produced in town? How many of the plays produced in town get reviewed? I understand and appreciate the financial implications of reviewing every play and thus the need for this kind of restricted recognition.

Exclusive competition is fine as long as we balance that with a more community based expression of our spirit. We need to be better than making competition the defining recognition of our work. This proposal creates an opportunity for us to not only reward winners but support the development and health of the culture we are so anxious to celebrate by helping the weakest of us.

We need as companies big and small to wear the Rawlsian “Veil of Ignorance” and determine how we should treat members of our society if we did not know our position in it. Iron Age is committed to helping the little guy. We would do so whether we had money or didn’t.

Think of what it would say about our community if the big successful institutions were concerned about developing the smaller companies. How would we look to the national and international theatre community?

This proposal would also build a stronger community as the powerful and well-heeled build relationships with the rugged and raw.

This effort to foster small theaters can also avoid favoritism by using random pairing.  The one year commitment to the smaller company avoids burdening the larger theatre with a relationship that does not fully function and gives the smaller company a leg up whiteout creating a crutch. If the small theatre cannot capitalize on the year of very specific support, then that is fine, at least we as a community are watering all of the flowers in our extraordinary garden.

I make no secret that Iron Age would be one of the smaller companies. Our yearly budget is probably the salary of a single equity actor in a three-week rehearsal and three-week run production. I make no secret that I am firmly aligned with the ideas of social equity and I despise commercialism, consumerism and the like.

I am open to conversation or comment and willing to find compromise on this proposal. This is an opening volley, a foray into the uncharted waters of communal collaboration and mutual support….But imagine what we would look like to the world… A beacon of what the arts can be as a culture, a beacon of theatrical development. Think of the way we can collaborate to engage new audiences. What a world we can create if we carve out this path. A future where we reward greatness while supporting the struggling to build the art we all treasure and extol.


4 Responses to “An Open Letter to Philadelphia Theatre: A proposal for a collaborative future and a nurturing community”

  1. There are some really great ideas in here, and I would love to talk to you more about them. Although we are not “large” , Headlong has long been committed to this kind of community activism and resource-sharing, and are in the early stages of rolling out an Incubated Artists program that will try to do some of the things you talk about above. I also want to point out the Wilma Theater’s relationships with Ballet X and the Bearded Ladies, which appear to have been very successful for all parties, and could be used as a model. -Amy Smith

  2. Lynne Bell Says:

    I am very interested in being a part of this. Please let me know when everything is final.

  3. As an intellectual support or at least a contextual idea of some of the base concepts of my thinking, I offer this short podcast on Philosophy from a wonderful pair of Brits… What is Wrong with Inequality

  4. This proposal is wonderful. This would also work in the world if all big businesses were to follow its path. Helping each other….keeping it opened to everyone. This is a recipe for ‘oneness’.

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