Cancelled 'Visit' points up risks in commercial-nonprofit alliances

The cozy but complicated relationship between New York’s not-for-profit theaters and the city’s commercial producers hit a notable speed bump recently, with the sudden yanking of the long-aborning new musical “The Visit” from the Public Theater’s season schedule.

There was consternation and disappointment all around — for the theater, the commercial producer and the artists involved. Also a little embarrassment, for the seemingly sudden and very public derailment of a production from some major theater players. In announcing the cancellation, the Public Theater cited the withdrawal of “enhancement money” from the commercial producers involved. But producer Barry Brown, the show’s longtime champion, disputed the wording: The producers hadn’t been just enhancing the production — sweetening the pot in exchange for commercial rights down the line — they’d promised to fund the entire $1.5 million staging, he told Variety.

That striking revelation raised a couple of questions. Why was the Public Theater, one of the city’s major not-for-profit entities, essentially housing a commercially backed production? And what are the dangers involved when not-for-profit theaters and commercial producers — entities with, one assumes, divergent aims and interests — come together?

At a larger level, the derailment of “The Visit” is an example of the stumbling blocks that may become more frequent as not-for-profit theaters and commercial producers continue to work closely together, as almost everyone agrees they will.

Peter Franklin, co-head of the William Morris legit office who reps both “Visit” director Frank Galati and book writer Terrence McNally, notes the practice of not-for-profits working in tandem with commercial producers is a relatively new one, dating from the last decade or so.

“On the whole, I think the relationship is healthy for both parties,” he says, “but we’re blazing a trail with all this. The nonprofits aren’t used to working with commercial producers, and vice versa. This is an outgrowth of working on musicals, which have simply become too expensive for not-for-profits to produce independently. We’re all trying to find a way to codify this part of the business, but so far it has resisted those attempts.”

In an ideal world — and often in the real one — the relationship benefits both parties. Commercial producers get to limit their financial risk and enjoy the benefits of the not-for-profit theaters’ built-in audience base and artistic staff. The theaters limit their risk, too, and are able to present more ambitious productions.

But if the city’s not-for-profit theaters are busy courting commercial money — or being courted by it — what happens to their onetime status as an alternative to the commercial marketplace?

Andre Bishop, the artistic director of Lincoln Center Theater, remembers when things were very different.

“When I began at Playwrights Horizons in the early ’70s, these arrangements between nonprofits and commercial producers were unheard of,” he recalls. “I distinctly remember our charter actually said that the theater was to ‘exist as a clear alternative to the commercial theater.’ In the past couple of decades, all the not-for-profits — in New York and across the country — have gotten away from that.

“But they had to, to grow and become the real forces that they are now. And the world has changed, the economy has changed.”

Lincoln Center Theater does not, in fact, accept enhancement money, although Bishop says this is not policy, and the theater has co-produced two shows, “Carousel” and “Parade,” with commercial producers. (In fact the latter show was another instance of a not-for-profit getting burned by such an alliance, when Garth Drabinsky’s Livent, the show’s co-producer, imploded just as the show opened.)

“I think it is possible to accept enhancement money and not compromise the mission of these theaters,” Bishop says. “But if the only reason the theater is doing the play is because there is a nice chunk of change that comes with it, that’s disgraceful. And I think that does take place in New York today.”

George C. Wolfe, artistic chief of the Public Theater, was unavailable to answer questions, but the theater’s managing director Michael Hurst disputes the idea that not-for-profits were established with a specific mandate as an alternative to the marketplace.

“I don’t think not-for-profits were established to specifically create non-commercial work,” he says. “Who is to say what is commercial or not? I don’t believe that a few years ago, anyone would have thought that Suzan-Lori Parks would have a show on Broadway, but now her work is a huge draw for theatergoers. Our mission is not compromised with commercial money. In fact, it often enables us to produce work that is more daring or risky.”

Carole Rothman, who heads the Second Stage Theater, admits to wariness of the quid pro quo involved. Under her tenure, the theater has shied away from accepting enhancement money, although its primary mandate — to rediscover works — makes it a less likely resource for commercial producers looking to back new shows.

“It adds another voice into the pot, which can be fine: Sometimes the relationships work fantastically and sometimes they are disastrous,” Rothman says. “But the question is: If you are only doing a show because someone is putting money into it, how can you call yourself a nonprofit?”

Observers agree the situation with “The Visit” was unusual. Hurst confirmed that the funding from the show was all to come from the commercial producers involved.

One reason, according to Franklin: Money trouble at the Public. “I’ve never seen a nonprofit theater as broke as they are now,” Franklin says bluntly, “and that’s going to create some strange bedfellows.”

The producer who withdrew his investment was Kevin McCollum (McCollum’s usual partner Jeffrey Seller had no involvement in the show). But McCollum says it was not a sudden decision, as it might have seemed, and had nothing to do with his faith in the show, but rather with his dissatisfaction with the process of its development.

“I said going in that I didn’t want to commit money unless there was a workshop before the Public production,” McCollum says. He had already contributed money to the show’s Goodman Theater production. “For various reasons it became clear that that wasn’t going to happen, so in June, I withdrew my participation.”

That raises the issue of artistic control: When not-for-profits and commercial producers collaborate on a show, who is calling the shots?

“It’s hard to take a producer’s money and say, ‘We don’t want to listen to you,’ ” Franklin observes.

But Todd Haimes, artistic director of the Roundabout Theater Co., says he is careful not to cede any control when accepting enhancement money.

“On shows that have been enhanced, like ‘The Look of Love,’ ‘Cabaret’ and ‘Nine,’ the money is only taken with the understanding that the artistic decisions are all ours,” he says.

But Haimes admits the availability of enhancement money can affect the company’s decision to go forward with a project.

“We’ve never done something we didn’t want to do just because there was money attached,” he says. “But some things we want to do, we can’t without help. We’re currently looking for money to do ‘Assassins’ next year. Because of the financial climate, we are trying to protect our downside if a show is not commercially successful.” If no commercial producers step up, the show will probably not go on.

Daryl Roth, a commercial producer who has contributed enhancement money to various shows, says she does not insist on having artistic input, but has forged relationships with theaters that allow for some give and take.

“I have been doing this for quite some time, and for the most part, both parties have been very happy,” she says. “It’s true that sometimes the nonprofit theater doesn’t want to collaborate; they want the money but don’t want your input. And I haven’t made it a prerequisite — certainly there are some areas t
hat it’s not appropriate for me to be involved. But most of the time, it’s just a matter of having a good, open dialogue.”

Roth specializes in producing straight plays, where the need for enhancement money is not as pronounced. All agree it’s the price of musicals that has inspired the increasing collaboration between not-for-profits and producers; the cost of a major musical has now skyrocketed beyond the means of virtually all of the city’s not-for-profit theaters.

Indeed it’s the Public Theater’s previous disastrous forays into producing musicals on Broadway — the losses stemming from productions of “The Wild Party” (which the company kept open after co-producer Scott Rudin ended his involvement) and “On the Town” (which the company largely produced on its own after commercial partners backed out) — that have contributed to the company’s precarious financial state, and thus its inability to contribute any money toward a production of “The Visit.”

One notes an irony here that points up the danger of blurring the line between the commercial and non-commercial spheres: It was partially the Public’s attempts to act like a commercial producer that have now inhibited its functioning as a healthy not-for-profit.

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