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Rocco Landesman: Too Many Theaters?

06/26/2012 02:42 pm 14:42:20 | Updated Aug 26, 2012

Rocco Landesman, the Chair of the National Endowment for the Arts, is at it again. A few days ago in Minnesota, Landesman repeated the comments he made at the Arena Stage in January of 2011. As reported by the University of Minnesota's student newspaper the Daily, during the Q & A session Landesman wondered aloud whether "there are too many theaters." He explained, "If there were fewer theaters, they'd have the resources to pay their artists more."

I like Rocco Landesman. I like his willingness -- indeed, his seeming need -- to stir up controversy and tweak the supporters of the status quo. I like that he wears snakeskin cowboy boots with his business suits and that one of his favorite restaurants is Steak 'n Shake. But this particular "bombshell," as the Daily calls it, is not only so broad as to be useless as a characterization of the theater scene as a whole, but reflects Landesman's blind spot as a former Broadway producer: He thinks that theater exists only in a few major metropolises. After all, this was the man whose first controversial statement as Chair of the NEA was to say that he didn't know if there was a theater in Peoria, but if there was he was sure it wasn't as "good" as Steppenwolf. Not very wise for a man who is supposed to be the head of the National Endowment for the Arts.

Looking at the facts, exactly where does Landesman see too many theaters? Everywhere in the U.S.? I live in Bakersville, N.C. (pop. 357), and I haven't noticed the place crawling with actors and directors. In Asheville N.C., which has a strong arts economy, there is one professional theater, the North Carolina Stage Company. The fact is that there are only a very few cities in America where that might even be thought to have "too many theaters," and one of those is his beloved New York City. Perhaps that is his only frame of reference, although lately he has been touring the country promoting the NEA's "placemaking" initiative, so one would think he'd know better by now. Apparently not.

In the early 1950s, regional theater pioneer Margo Jones (a figure that Landesman, as a Yale Drama School graduate, surely knows), wrote in her groundbreaking book Theatre-in-the-Round:

"What our country needs today, theatrically speaking, is a resident professional theatre in every city with a population over one hundred thousand. According to the 1940 census figures, there are over one hundred such cities in the United States. For reasons which will become evident in this book, I believe it would be easier to start in the larger centers, although I am certain that once all these cities acquired resident professional theatres, smaller communities would want them, too; and possibly within some ten years the one hundred and seven cities whose population runs from fifty to one hundred thousand would also have their own theatres...I believe that the best way to assure quality is to give birth to a movement which will establish permanent resident theatres throughout the country."

Now there is a vision for Landesman.

According to the League of Resident Theatres, the leading member organization for American regional theaters, there are 76 resident theaters in the United States. Of those 76 theatres, sixteen (21 percent) had populations under 250,000 and 12 (15.7 percent) had populations between 50,000 and 100,000. Of those twelve with populations between 50,000 and 100,000, only three were in counties under 250,000. Why does this matter? Because it is an indication that most of these cities are suburbs of larger cities. We're talking Skokie, Ill.; Cambridge, and Lowell; Mass.; Jupiter, Fla; and Pasadena, and Costa Mesa, Calif.

By contrast, the percentage of American counties with populations under 200,000? Ninety-one percent.

Further, an examination of the demographics for these smaller LORT cities reveals that the average median household incomes for the group of $66,720. Compared to $45,018 for the U.S. as a whole, this is almost 1.5 times the national figure. So we find that the vast majority of theaters are urban; of those in smaller cities, they tend to be wealthy suburbs of metropolises. My research has also shown that funding from the National Endowment for the Arts is centralized in certain states of the union, with New York and California getting the lion's share. Indeed, a recent study by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy entitled Fusing Arts, Culture, and Social Change, made a very dramatic revelation that I wrote about here. Author Holly Sidford wrote that fully 55 percent of foundation arts money went to the two percent of arts organizations with budgets over $5 million dollars. Is this something Landesman wants more of?

Isn't it time that the NEA truly live up to its name and become a national endowment? Perhaps instead of trotting out this "too many theaters" canard every 18 months or so, Landesman might make a truly outrageous suggestion that the NEA and foundations make a concerted effort to diversify their giving rather than centralizing it more than it already is. That would make his tenure as Chair truly groundbreaking. We need more theater, not less; and we need them spread across the country, not clustered in a few places. If he wants to stir controversy, I guarantee this suggestion will do it.