Let’s Disconnect the ‘Disconnect’ in Nonprofit Theater

Just because a play delivers "excellence" doesn't mean it delivers "impact."

Let's play "Find the Disconnect"!

Let’s play a game. Call it “Find the Disconnect.” To clue you in about the game, remember my list of “fraught, flinch-worthy phrases” from my first story on CFR. The game, and this article, concerns item number 10 on my list:

Excellence in production / design / art.

“Excellence” has to do with production values in theater — script, set, costumes, lighting, sound, music, performances, etc.

Now let’s play.

Here are five cover stories from The Week. These ran between Aug. 10 and Sept. 28 of this year. Ready to “Find the Disconnect”? Go:

Time’s up: did you “Find the Disconnect”?

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Probably not — it was a trick question! To see the disconnect, you’d have also needed to see Theatre Communications Group’s list of the five most-produced plays of 2018-2019 (save A Christmas Carol, which far outpaces these):

  • A Doll’s House, Part 2, by Lucas Hnath: Many years have passed since Nora Helmer’s famous exit at the end of Henrik Ibsen’s classic A Doll’s House. Now there’s a knock on the same door. Nora’s back. But why? What will it mean for those she left behind?
  • Sweat, by Lynn Nottage: When layoffs and picket lines begin to chip away at trust, friends find themselves pitted against each other in a heart-wrenching fight to stay afloat.
  • The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, adapted by Simon Stephens from the novel by Mark Haddon: It is seven minutes after midnight, and 15-year-old Christopher stands beside his neighbor’s dead dog. Finding himself under suspicion for the death of the dog, Christopher is determined to solve the riddle of how it happened. His detective work takes him on a thrilling journey that upturns his world.
  • Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley, by Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon: In this sequel to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, an unexpected guest sparks Mary’s hopes for independence, an intellectual match and possibly even love.
  • The Wolves, by Sarah DeLappe: A portrait of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for nine American girls who just want to score some goals.

These are all fine plays. Award-winning plays. Plays by amazing playwrights whose works span the universe of subject matter. Gunderson, for example, is in my opinion one of the best playwrights of the last 25 years.

But the plays have nothing to do with what most people would consider the most relevant subjects of the day. If you guessed that that’s the disconnect, you win the game!

And the question is why this is.

I say it’s because too much stock is put in “excellence.” Would you rather see a play that embodies production “excellence” but possesses neither meaning nor impact, or a play that possesses meaning and impact but doesn’t necessarily embody “excellence.” Or relevance.

At too many nonprofit theaters, when “excellence” is cited as a key attribute of the mission (“we’re committed to developing excellent plays…”), the final product too often turns into cultural claptrap. Of course the work excels — why would the theater produce it otherwise? But, then again, “excels” at what? Being excellent? Or relevant?

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This isn’t the fault of the playwright. Playwrights write about what playwrights write about. But every play is not suitable for every audience, especially those for a nonprofit mission. Regrettably, artistic directors of some nonprofit theaters pick plays based on their personal relationships, not on their company’s mission. Then, to justify their choices, these artistic directors engorge the plays with expensive production values to hide their lack of fidelity to the mission. When shiny production values obscure the mission, audiences may become confused as to the purpose of the nonprofit. Confused audiences then disengage — a nice way of saying that they stop showing up.

This is like the student whose mission is to get As rather than actually learning something. The student’s As become the ends, not the means, toward something beneficial.

This is like the French restaurant, in an ill-advised attempt to increase its customer base, adding to the menu a terrific Kung Pao Chicken — and not some Franco-Sino version, but a straight-up Szechuan dish. Patrons wanting a good Kung Pao Chicken don’t frequent French restaurants for it. Not only won’t these patrons order the Kung Pao Chicken, they’ll begin to mistrust the restaurant. Confused as to the restaurant’s identity, they’ll seek out a purer French experience the next time they hanker for coq au vin.

This is like Benjamin, in the film The Graduate, excelling at saving the damsel in distress by jamming a huge cross into chapel door handles in order to lock people inside and run off with the bride instead of holding to his original mission of personal fulfillment. After doing this, what has Benjamin achieved?

When impact and meaning are absented from the conversation, that is “disconnect.”

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Given that theaters, opera companies and ballet companies choose seasons, performers, directors and designers months, even years ahead of time, “disconnect” is not surprising. Of course their programming isn’t always “connected” to what’s relevant right now.

And maybe this is what Law and Order, John Oliver and Samantha Bee are for. How often do you see a regional theater promote its latest production as “relevant to today’s issues”? If your marketing must point out your product’s relevance, your product is “disconnected.”

By the way, the opposite of relevance is not irrelevance. To borrow a brilliant Elie Wiesel quote, the opposite of both relevant and irrelevant is “neutral indifference”:

The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.
The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference.
The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference.
And the opposite of life is not death, but indifference,
indifference between life and death.

“Neutral indifference” will kill your arts organization faster than high-risk, mission-driven failures. Given that nonprofit arts groups have relatively few opportunities to create impact with their mission, “neutral indifference” wastes time, energy, money and reputation.

Which brings me back to excellence. For theater to have an impact it needn’t necessarily be intellectually excellent. High-impact, meaningful arts organizations don’t require audiences to engage in cerebral gymnastics, even when featuring the work of the masters.

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Several years ago, I interviewed the artistic directors of two large Shakespeare companies for the NPR program “All the World’s a Stage.” The show was intended to be a backstage look at the issues that, then as now, adversely hamper the effectiveness of nonprofit arts organizations. I asked the artistic directors to define their style for producing Shakespeare.

“Oh, we do it the traditional way,” chirped the first artistic director. When asked if it meant scant costumes and boys playing women and groundlings, he responded, “No, no, no. You know: tights and pumpkin pants.”

The other artistic director gracefully answered that she understood the first approach but preferred another way. She told a story of a sign she had someone place above the stage door: “Please leave your baggage at the door.”

So the next time your curtain rises and the audience applauds the set, beautiful as it may be, maybe its time to re-investigate your mission. Is there a disconnect between what you put on stage and the impact your mission should have on your audience and community? If so, here’s the latest headline: “Beauty is Fleeting. Impact Changes the World.”