Take It to the Bank: Jack Tamburri on Fringe, non-profits, and theater

Anyone who’s every worked in the peculiar engine that is a non-profit organization will appreciate Ferdinand’s Fringe Festival production NOT FOR PROFIT, which explores the strange world of non-profit theatermaking. As Ferdinand creator Jack Tamburri tells Phindie, it seems to have something to do with Sturgeon’s Law. [Wilma Theater Lobby, 265 South Broad Street] September 16-19, 2015; fringearts.com/not-for-profit.

New Sad Slide

Phindie: Have you worked at many non-profits? 

Jack Tamburri: I have been working at non-profit arts orgs for as long as I can remember. My father ran symphony orchestras for most of his career, so arts administrative spaces were what I understood “work” to be from a young age. Throughout college my internships were all at theaters, and after college I got a part-time job in a box office and then worked my way up into the administrative structure of that institution. Even while I was in graduate school, my work-study assignments were all engaged with the functioning of a large nonprofit theater. In months when self-producing devised theater doesn’t pay the bills (so, most months) I still do front-of-house shifts at theaters around Philadelphia.

Phindie: What makes them interesting places to work?

JT: They’re driven by passion—everyone there is either just starting their career or has made the choice to be in the arts despite knowing that they could make more money deploying their skills in the corporate sector. Either way, the engine is passion for the art onstage. That’s what gets people into the sector and keeps them there.

In my experience, there is a “do-more-with-less” ethos in nonprofits that can be by turns energizing and crazy-making. These institutions view themselves as eternally underfunded, whether their annual operating budget is two hundred thousand, three million, or more. Because of the way the funding structures work and because earned income (ticket sales) traditionally makes up 60% or less of a non-profit theater’s budget, there’s a constant feeling of starvation and a culture of begging-without-calling-it-begging that can start to feel like living in the Twilight Zone for the folks who work there. The flipside of this difficulty is that well-run nonprofits focus on ingenuity, dedication, and personal relationships. Great non-profit leaders find ways to make employees feel valued other than through financial remuneration.

Phindie: How did you come up with the idea for NOT FOR PROFIT?

JT: NOT FOR PROFIT began for me as two separate ideas rolled into one—to make a Fringe comedy with MJ Kaufman again and to examine the efficacy of nonprofit institutions in producing and distributing theater.

Phindie: What themes are you trying to explore?

JT: The project has been through a lot of changes as we’ve been developing it. It started as a satirical “takedown” but once we started exploring the characters who inhabit these offices, we got really interested in the sacrifices they make and the profound degree to which they devote themselves to their theaters. It’s still important to me that we point out the disturbing gulf between the artistic process and the audience that exists in all theaters of a certain size, but I don’t want to vilify the administrators so much as reveal what they’re up against. These days it’s much more about the twin problems of where the money comes from and how to put the work in front of an audience who might actually be affected by it. How do you go to someone who can give you ten thousand dollars for a production and tell them you want to make a play that they probably won’t like and in fact might be angered or offended by?

Phindie: What was the development process like? 

JT: The development process has been very simple and very satisfying. MJ [Kaufman, the co-creator] and I began with a set of questions, then brought the actors into that conversation. From our lengthy, wide-ranging talks about theater production and the culture of theater people, we began to get up from the table and explore improvised scenes among various characters who interested us—the development director, the intern, the ingenue, the board chair. MJ took that material and created a draft, which was really fun and woolly and bizarre—and LONG. The actors and I took those pages and made cuts and rearrangements, combined characters and solidified voices and proposed some new shapes for sequences. We’re currently finishing that up with MJ back in the room to write some new scenes and polish the whole thing before we put it up.

Phindie: What did your collaborators bring to the table?

JT: The actors—Jennifer MacMillan, Doug Greene, and Christina May—each brought a unique perspective on theatermaking through each of their personal histories in the Philly theater community. They shared personal stories about struggling to make ends meet, or paranoia about casting, or bizarre encounters with funders. They’ve also brought a really clear sense of voice to each of their characters, which has helped us immensely in shaping the show.

MJ himself is, of course, one of my favorite writers in the American theater. He strikes a difficult and exciting balance between being provocative and being accessible. His work, though it ranges all over in form and theme, tends to combine a really personal charm with a strong political point of view. He’s also not precious about process—he was thrilled to hand off his pages for us to muck with, tear up, and build into something new before handing them back to him.

Phindie: Do you think the non profit environment is conducive to making good theater?

JT: I think leaving theater production and distribution to the open market would be disastrous. The entire field would look like Broadway—risk-averse, riddled with celebrities from other fields, endlessly repeating itself. Of course, interesting work made by artists who also understand the market and their place in it would get through—but I think it’s a shame to ask artists to excel at marketing their own work as a matter of course. A lot of great stuff would get missed if you made that a prerequisite.

Phindie: Are there any other models you can envision?

JT: I don’t subscribe to the idea that the subsidized theater of Europe is the obvious answer. A lot of that work can feel complacent in its stylization and contemptuous of an audience that isn’t already familiar with the history of the form (of course an education system that familiarizes the general public with the history of art certainly helps).

I believe Sturgeon’s Law. Whether you’re in the national theaters of Europe or the American nonprofit regional theater, ninety percent of the work is going to be boring or insincere or wrongheaded. That’s just how art works. It is really really hard to make a great piece of theater, so most of it that gets made is only just okay. I don’t know how you design a funding and production system to support that that looks much different from what we’ve currently got without actually starting from the education system—teaching children how to engage imaginatively with a difficult piece of art instead of expecting to be passively entertained by it.

Phindie: Do you have any other picks for this year’s Fringe?

JT: I’m also working on Underground Railroad Game with Jenn Kidwell, Scott Sheppard, and Sarah Sanford and that piece is going to be intensely funny and uncomfortable to watch. I can’t wait to open it and see how audiences respond.

I’m excited to check out Tangle Movement Arts’s The Girl’s Guide to Neighborly Conduct. I love circus performance, and I’ve been working with the folks at Tangle to gather the queer artists in this year’s Fringe for cross-promotion and audience sharing.

Brenna Geffers is one of my favorite Philly directors but I’ve never seen her work with the Philadelphia Opera Collective before, so I’m stoked about Jump the Moon.

Finally, I recently met a couple artists from out of town who are bringing their piece Growing Into My Beard. to a few different Philly locations. That show sounds really personal and fun—I’m a sucker for weird coming-out stories.

Phindie: Thanks Jack!

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About the author

Christopher Munden

Your faithful correspondent and publisher Christopher Munden has written and edited for many publications, websites, and cultural institutions. He was an editor/publisher of the Philly Fiction book series, collections of short stories written by local writers and set in Philadelphia. He's also a soccer coach and a pretty good skier.