Thursday, January 8, 2009

Bailouts or I Don't Mean To Be A Dick, But...

I'm sure every theatre artist across the whole nation has seen it by now, here, or here, or here, or in your inboxes. It's big news and a big deal. I haven't donated money, mostly because I'm crazy-stupid-out-of-control poor right now, but my feelings about it are complicated. The thing that brought me out of my short, semi-retirement was a fundraising drive from a theatre I've been associated with. I've got very, very mixed feelings about all of this, some of them are...kind of...hard, I'd have to say. I really feel things like this are part of a culture of begging that disadvantages all of us. Before you jump right to "What a Dick!" allow me to elaborate. You might still think I'm a dick at the end of it, but at least it'll be clearer why.

So, okay, a major institution makes a series of bad decisions, operates outside of its means, substitutes fantasy numbers for real numbers, takes money from a number of sources in good faith and when it all comes crashing down, as such schemes are wont to do, they put their hands out and start begging for help. When it's a bank or a mortgage company, it's a bailout and a fair number of us say, "Screw it, they made bad calls, they should pay the penalty." When it's a theatre, though, we e-mail all of our friends and raise high holy hell, as though, without this theatre, theatre will cease to exist, all opportunities will dry up and we'll all have to get day jobs. Oh, wait...

Snark aside, I found myself getting pretty pissed off about this campaign, in exactly the same way I got pissed off at the bailout and in much the same way that I got pissed off at the theatre that asked me for money this past fall. It wasn't all straight up, communist, righteous rage, but it was close. Thinking about the situation at the Magic, though, made me think about all of those times that theatres put out all-points bulletins for money. Yes, this financial situation is bad and will affect all of us, artists and audiences. But let's also be honest: this is the first time a theatre has come close to collapsing. There are a lot of reasons why, but usually it's one thing: gross mismanagement. Which, despite the way their website puts it, is actually what happened at the Magic. It wasn't just the bad economy; it was bad choices. Choices made by staff members, by the board.

When I first heard that they were $300,000 in the hole, I was shocked. The financial crisis had hit a lot of places in a lot of different ways, but it seemed like a lot of money to suddenly go missing. Way too much money. I was actually very gratified to read that article, because then it makes sense. Plus I was glad to find that there were consequences for someone. Like the bankers and the bailout, too often with arts organizations, they have these shortfalls and whatnot and do these fundraising pushes, but the people at the top keep their jobs. That doesn't make any sense at all. If we expect the CEO of Lehman Brothers to step down, we should expect the CEO of a theatre to step down. We should expect the board to step down. Their whole job, legally, is to check the numbers and make sure everything is kosher. And clearly, they didn't.

These things happen in theatres because we let them happen. Bad managers, sometimes even criminal managers come along and they bankrupt our theatres and we all bond together in the spirit of kumbaya and the community and bail them out. And, sure, they hire better managers immediately, but we all know that down the line, there will be another bad manager, or overoptimistic manager, or whatever. Like the banking industry, most theatres are living just outside of their means and eventually, it's going to catch up to them. But have no fear: they can just beg their way out of it.

The other thing that pisses me off is that they're asking the artists. And usually they go for the artists they've worked with. Who have usually already given of their time and (quite often) money. There's this patronly attitude of "We've stood by you, now you stand by us." As though the relationship wasn't reciprocal. It almost feels like a shakedown, like the implicit promise is "Keep us afloat so you'll have a job one day."

I wonder, if you looked at the list of donors, how many "civilians" you would find on it. A theatre with 30-year history in a city should have pretty strong ties to the community. And I'm sure they do. But does it look like this? That's what happens when a community rises up to save something of value to it. It would be pretty telling if the community that rose up to save the Magic was the theatre community. It would tell what community they're serving. But that's probably another post.

The Magic has a great history and they've got a great season planned and it does seem like the confluence of a shitty employee and a bad economy sucker-punched them (though this post asks a number of the right questions). Bad news all around. And no one is going to step in overnight to replace them. But...(again, approaching dickitude here) would it really be the end of theatre in SF? Really? All of those artists who've worked there, who live in San Francisco, they're going to stop working tomorrow? The audiences who have supported the Magic will stop going to theatre, won't be able to find another play they're going to like? Really?

We talk about how important, how vital, how necessary to human life theatre is, yet we never invest in that. We invest in the opposite proposition constantly: that theatre is so special, so rare, so difficult and magical, that only a select few can produce it correctly, there are only narrow bands that it can survive in and it must be protected. I don't know if we get it both ways. I don't know if it serves us to have it both ways.

Listen. I don't wish the Magic, their staff or anyone ill will. I've been there, seen some good shows, had a reading, met good people. This isn't just kneejerk bitterness or contrarianism. I do wonder what a business model based entirely on begging is doing for us as a community. I do wonder what a culture that says gross mismanagement is okay is doing for us. And I don't know what message it sends to the world. It would be a shame if the Magic failed. But it's also a shame if the Magic is saved and three months later, we stop asking why it nearly failed.


Megan said...

I really enjoyed reading your perspective, thanks.

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for this. I've been looking for a different take on the Magic situation, and you have provided it.