So I was looking at the PTI website the other day . . .

Philadelphia Theater InitiativePhiladelphia Theatre Initiative (PTI), part of the Pew Foundation’s Arts & Heritage wing, gives out serious cash each year to local theatre organizations to put on, bring in, and create theatre for Philadelphia audiences.  So I went to a PTI info sessions and was on their website, wanting to get familiar with their process so that I too may one day score some cash from them, and I was looking over to whom and for what PTI’s grants were awarded in 2010 and it got me thinking. . .  .

The 2010 awards (which support projects for 2011/12) are not breaking news, I believe these were announced last fall, but for the sake of the following discussion I thought I would list the grantees, and their amounts. The cash sums should not be read (well, maybe a little) as their view of the artistic worth—PTI basically awards for the entire budget of a production, which is good, not only does it mean that some companies learn how to properly prepare a budget for the first time, but that there are no excuses for not delivering on a show.

a) 1812 Productions: Your Show of Shows and Laughter on the 23rd Floor $83,000

b) Act II PlayhouseThe Pride of Parnell Street $60,000

c) Annenberg Center for the Performing ArtsThe Cripple of Inishmaan $75,000

d) Arden Theatre CompanyThe Flea and the Professor $110,000

e) Brat ProductionsAre We Not Men? The Devo Musical $50,000

f) Inis Nua Theatre CompanyDublin by Lamplight $14,500

g) New Paradise LaboratoriesExtremely Public Displays of Privacy $52,000

h) People’s Light & Theatre CompanyDividing the Estate $110,000

i) Philadelphia Live Arts Festival: The Devil and Mister Punch $110,000

j) Philadelphia Theatre CompanyRuined $110,000

k) Thaddeus PhillipsWhale Optics $20,000

l) Theatre ExileThe Lieutenant of Inishmore $60,000

m) Wilma TheaterMacbeth $110,000

For more explanations about the shows, PTI’s website has blurbs (or you click on above links). PTI, in commendable transparency, also list the names and affiliations of the panelists who ultimately decided on the grants (basically a bunch of New Yorker theatre people whose jobs we envy—funny, I so doubt that there is any panel of similar stature in New York that draws on a majority of Philly theatre professionals—oh well, enjoy the stipend!).

PTI grants are not given much, if any, media coverage, and no real critique that I am aware of. PTI is not keeping secrets—they want it known what projects they fund, they are proud of the support they give. It should be at least of interest to preview these major theatre productions of 2011/12, and it is furthermore deserving of serious review and critique. PTI is putting a big stamp on the kind of theatre produced in Philadelphia (one could even say flooding the market), and consequently helping identify the kind of theatre the city is/will be known for. I know, few care outside of Philly about what we do—though they should!—but we should care about how Philly theatre, as an entity, is viewed by the 8 million or so who live in the greater Philadelphia area.

Since PTI selects and funds entire productions, it is really taking on the role as the city’s most significant theatre presenter/producer; no one else comes close to producing this many works of theatre.  Their choices should be examined for their merit and interest, their impact on theatre artists in the city, their impact on the cultural landscape of the city, general trends in foundation giving in the arts, and on how they affect the growth of theatre generally in the city.

When I look at the grant awards list, it is nice to see so many strong companies are being funded. Though the list is overpopulated by white folks, it is still a solid core of organizations that offer a range of theatre choices for audiences to go see, and there are no slackers here. But I am most struck by how little original work is being funded, and then I am struck by how none of the original work includes playwright driven theatre. PTI’s mission, by the way, is to “foster excellence and artistic advancement in the region’s nonprofit professional theater.” (Somewhat tantalizing, somewhat in the realm of vagary. I believe they recently revamped their statement recently because elsewhere it reads “The Philadelphia Theatre Initiative (PTI) exists to foster and promote artistic excellence, imagination, and courage in the region’s nonprofit theater.” Courage? What?)

But there’s another important phrase we should throw in there, the current hot phrase of foundation giving—”new audiences.” By which they don’t really mean “new” audiences, they really mean audiences period, because what administrators in foundations like PTI, which is a tiny subset of the PEW octopus, hanker for are quantifiable numbers that justify their support. “You see, we are not just throwing money away to a fog of pretentious failure—look our projects got audiences!” (And of course this leads to another annoying habit—the performing arts justifying themselves as economic stimulus—”theatre audiences go to restaurants, park, stop by gift shops—sure we concede that art by itself is inherently worthless, but look at all the economic side benefits!”)

If you truly want “new audiences” you need to take a 10 to 15 year approach that concentrates on getting middle and high school students experiencing theatre. Till then the audience goals (“new audiences,” “diverse audiences,” “young [meaning 20-somethings] audiences,” et cetera) will be restated every 2 or 3 years, and 15 years later we’ll still be trying to get those “new” audiences, while another generation has passed on by. But that’s another article.

Ensuring quantifiable results is why you have 
$83,000 going to Laughter on the 23rd Floor (Neil Simon’s play about working as a writer on Your Show of Shows with Sid Caesar, Mel Brooks, et al) and Our Show of Shows (a combo of Your Show of Show bits mixed with 1812 bits in that same vein, I do not count this as original)— you are pretty much guaranteed an audience, i.e., numbers! A success! But what is mysterious about this funding is that 1812 produces a lot of new, original work. Neil Simon is like the Nutcracker, it does not need foundation support—go ask the Walnut Street Theatre, they rode the Neil Simon train for 30 years, and built the nation’s most successful audience subscription series, creating the blueprint studied by grad students in Arts Administration programs. What 1812 should get funding for is their original work, not the play in their season that is your safest bet to sell a shitload of tickets to traditional theatergoers.

Similarly, of all the funding opps for the Wilma, famous for its world premieres of plays by prominent playwrights, why would MacBeth get the nod? Is there a shortage of Shakespeare all of the sudden? He doesn’t even require a fee! And the Arden is getting support for their children’s show, which are usually terrific, but they are also their money-makers and most popular shows.

All of the companies on the list deserve support from PTI, they all do quality work. They also all produce/present original work/ world premieres. (Let me take this moment to say that I am totally psyched—even though I hate musicals—to see Are We Not Men? Devo the Musical—how brilliant is that? If Jocko-Homo doesn’t get audiences to their feet, nothing will. Done right, this show has hit potential. Done wrong, it’s still going to be awesome.)

But out of 13 funded projects, only 4 are to be “original” works, 2 of which are based on either a book (Arden’s The Flea and the Professor) or the music of a band that has sold millions of records (Devo). That leaves 2 truly non-asterisked original works that have gained funding: Whale Optics, of Thaddeus Philips/Lucidity Suitcase, and Extremely Public Displays of Privacy by New Paradise Laboratories. That makes 2 out of 13 funded projects original works of theatre. Now both those works are devised, cross-disciplinary works—created through improvisation and experiment with actors, designers, directors, musicians, videographers, etc. There should be more support for this type of work on this list. Still, neither is a play. These are not works of literature interpreted for performance, which is, and continues to, the basis of drama since 450 B.C.E. So the grand total of original new plays supported by PTI: zero! Yes, the artistic advancement of Philadelphia theater has arrived: no more new plays, goddamit! ZERO—because that’s how we’re going to win new audiences to theater—with ZERO new plays.

Is it just me or is that INSANE? I am not promoting the idea that PTI even fund Philly playwrights—a $10,000 fee could pretty much get a company to commission a new work by any American playwright you want (aside from the three playwrights in the world who actually make their living from playwriting). How about that for a proposal? Balance new works by prominent and up-and-coming-to-prominence playwrights with all the cross-disciplinary/devised work done here, and you have the basis to claim that your city is the shit.

For any given year it’s true that you might receive an overabundance of one kind of proposal and less of another. But that doesn’t account for ZERO original plays, and only 2 truly original works, especially since of the 11 theatre companies putting on plays, their seasons tend to incorporate at least one world premiere. PTI states that the decisions of what projects get funded are made by their panelists, not members of PTI. But this is really a half-truth—there is a lot of gate keeping before those applications come before the panelists, and PTI works closely with companies to shape their proposals. This is both admirable and problematic—they want you to do it right, but they are also influencing what is the right artistic choice as well. And as anyone who has ever done committee work knows, the goals of the parent organization very much influences the conversations of the committee. Frankly, it is important that a committee clearly understands those goals; they guidance and if they don’t have it, they then ask for it.

The irony of PTI’s support of ZERO original new plays is that all the work that is being brought in (with one exception) are PLAYS by PLAYWRIGHTS. These are established plays, some award-winning, some old as shit, some very famous. Whatever they are, they are not new. Award-winning means that somewhere else it already won an AWARD. It means that its significance has been realized long before it came here. In other words, Philadelphia is irrelevant to the establishment of the work.

There are some odd things about these plays as well—4 plays are by Irishman (and set in Ireland), one by a dead Englishman, one dead and one almost dead American playwright, and finally one prime of life American playwright who is the ONLY WOMAN in the bunch. A couple questions (actually more than that, but I’ll focus on these two) arise from this—one, if PTI places so much value in plays, why does it not place value in play creation? And two, is it not odd that vast majority of these plays have no connection to the experiences of your average Philadelphian either in time or place? Ireland may have a disproportionate amount of great writers but are four Irish plays really going to either gain new audiences or advance local artistry? Or will they just inspire local companies to put up Irish plays with bad accents in the hopes of getting PTI funding?

This is not to say that these aren’t works worthy of Philadelphia productions and presentations—all of the projects are worthy productions, and I’d like to attend the majority of them. It’s just that as a group, under PTI’s banner, that the troubles arise. Without new, original works, you really cannot claim advancement. Without new (and potentially exportable) productions, you’re really just cycling shit in and out—you maintain the status quo, which is not advancement. If you have nothing to export artistically, then you are never going to go beyond being provincial. You cannot be an important center of performing arts without being the place where new works of performing art are created.

P.S. For those in nonprofits and foundations who like to jack-off to how corporations do things, let me put it this way: Route 128 and Silicon Valley did not happen because they were recycling old technologies.

P.P.S. Whomever and whatever PTI’s chooses to support, it is ultimately incumbent on Philly theatre artists to (in many cases to continue to) create new and interesting work. The question is will PTI, which is a major player in the performing arts community, support the kind of theatre creation that will help distinguish the city as an important center for theatre.

P.P.P.S. Another Sondheim revival is not what will put Philly on the theatre map.

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About the author

Josh McIlvain

Josh McIlvain is the artistic director of SmokeyScout Productions which he co-founded in 2008 with Deborah Crocker (to whom he is also married!). He has had more than 115 productions of some 70 plays throughout the U.S., including more than 38 New York City productions. Josh is also the leader of the rock collective Josh McIlvain & The Generals of Sexcop (listen to the hot tracks at sxcp.bandcamp.com!), the editor/publisher of Philly Fiction (collections of short stories set in Philadelphia and written by local writers), and the editor of the FringeArts booklet and blog.