Theatre Shop Talk Abounds at “Crisis to Creation: A Town Hall on the Future of NYC Performing Arts”

Photo Courtesy of the Segal Center

Photo Courtesy of the Segal Center

Live, innovative local theatre has always been a vibrant and cherished New York City tradition, far beyond the lights of Broadway. Adages about starving artists have always made for jokes, but since the global recession of 2008, nonprofit arts organizations have truly had to tighten their belts. Many artists were left in the lurch and others left the city altogether in the face of rising costs and fewer opportunities.

At the Segal Center, the focus of a February 9th town hall was how to make this impasse into innovation, with dozens of arts service organizations chiming in on how they have restructured post-recession. During the program “Crisis to Creation: A Town Hall on the Future of NYC Performing Arts”, discussion centered on maintaining an optimistic tone and laying out a buffet of services that artists could call upon throughout the city. But in running out of time, the event failed to open up the truly interactive dialogue promised by the description.

In opening the session, host Brad Burgess was pragmatic: “Theatre is about bringing people together. It’s not easy, it’s not cheap, and it takes a lot of work.” He exhorted artists in the audience to attend community board meetings and be a part of the changes taking place around them in the city. This began one of the central themes of the night, that artists must be active change agents in local city politics.

The service organizations profiled during the meeting were wonderfully broad and diverse, although their short presentations left no room for questions or further inquiry on their services. By starting off by reading a letter from La MaMa ETC founder Ellen Stewart, the audience was reminded that many NYC organizations exist to be a “pushcart” for artists to reach their full potential, just like Stewart received her start in the city by meeting a fabric merchant who showed her off and made critical introductions for her in the Lower East Side.

As an independent, ensemble artist myself, I enjoyed hearing the presentations and seeing how many ways these organizations were able to help artists, even if their budgets had been reduced during the financial crisis. I was particularly struck by the emphasis by these administrators to increase the voices of ethnic minorities in the theatre, a call that seemed to transform into a funding priority.

One statistic that struck me was given by the LIT Fund, which collects small donations from artists and redistributes them in the form of grants. Their presenter mentioned that if every Broadway show was taxed the same way that major league sports are taxed, that money would be able to fund 100 permanent resident theatres in New York City. This drove home the ever widening gap between for-profit and nonprofit theatre, and provided food for thought as to how emerging or independent artists can fund their work.

However, the atmosphere felt more promotional than dialogue driven. Each presentation existed in it’s own vacuum. There was no time given to respond to any of the initiatives presented, to ask questions, or to brainstorm with the presenters on how the theatre community could help tackle their organization’s challenges. It struck me as odd that an event marked clearly as a Town Hall featured no open forum component or any kind of call-and-response exchange. Perhaps this was for the sake of time, since the event had been running late.

Afterwards, there was a chance for audience members to mingle informally with the presenters in the lobby, but these conversations were insular. I came away feeling inspired by the number of services available to artists and called to participate more in city affairs, but still seriously craving the opportunity for conversation. When it comes to turning crisis into creation, it seemed from the Segal Center event that collaboration is a key step. Leaving no space for a collective conversation seemed like a big gap in an otherwise enlightening evening.

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