Theater Creatives Reveal What Industry Needs in Sundance Institute Survey (EXCLUSIVE)

Sundance Institute Survey Emerging From the Cave
Courtesy of Sundance Institute

As Broadway gets back to business and live performances resume around the country, the Sundance Institute has released a new study that diagnoses the state of the theater industry and imagines its future, with input from more than 75 of the field’s most influential artists, leaders, donors and administrators.

Listen to this week’s “Stagecraft” podcast below:

Released Wednesday and publicly available on a dedicated website, “Emerging From the Cave: Reimagining Our Future in Theater and Live Performance” collects the thoughts, ideas and proposed solutions from a diverse group that includes creatives Lynn Nottage, Michael R. Jackson, Suzan-Lori Parks, Robert O’Hara, Ty Defoe and Shaina Taub; artistic directors Maria Goyanes, Jim Nicola and Nataki Garrett; and producer Mara Isaacs, among many others. The study was conducted by Jesse Cameron Alick, the longtime Public Theater dramaturg who was recently appointed associate artistic director at Off Broadway’s Vineyard Theater.

Launched in January, the study had originally been conceived as an internal document that would help Sundance explore new iterations of the organization’s prominent theater development programs. “But as I talked with people, we just started to talk about everything,” said Alick on the new episode of Stagecraft, Variety‘s theater podcast. “We started talking about the Black Lives Matter resurgence, the theater field in general, how we paid our artists, who should be leading us.”

During his series of hour-long, virtual, one-on-one discussions with the study’s 76 participants, Alick began to see the same topics and themes emerge. “It really made me think, oh, we’re on the same page,” Alick said. “Seeing literally dozens of people talking to me about the same problem and offering up similar solutions to that problem was a beautiful thing.”

In the study’s findings, discussions coalesced around four themes. One was the idea of decentralizing the field’s power hierarchies in favor of shared or circular leadership structures, along the lines of those recently put in place at the Public Theater (where an artistic team weighs in on all creative decisions) or at the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia (led by a rotating group of artistic directors). Other frequently raised subjects included holistic artist support, rooted in paying artists more and sustaining them with salaried positions; and what comes next for digital theater, which participants agreed seems likely to stick around and evolve further as creatives and companies explore live/digital hybrid models.

Alick identified the survey’s fourth key theme as “field ideation,” or the practice of talking about big ideas. “Theater and live performance need a home for thought and conversation,” Alick explained. “Right now we do not have an ability to have a healthy conversation. Our conversations get very tense. Oftentimes leadership and people at institutions clam up and hold things tight, and they’re very, very worried. There’s quite a lot of fear and apprehension in the field, and we have to figure out how to talk to each other.”

The full report grew to about 150 pages, Alick said. In addition to the collected interviews available on EmergingFromTheCave.com, there’s also a film and a presentation about the study’s findings.

“We are beginning a conversation that we hope artists, funders, and organizations will continue in order to provoke new modes of support,” said Keri Putnam, the CEO of Sundance Institute. “We understand that some of these issues are not solvable by arts organizations alone. In fact, we feel strongly that a lot of the solutions need to originate from places outside the institutions.”

To hear the full conversation with Alick, listen at the link above or download and subscribe to “Stagecraft” on podcast platforms including Apple PodcastsSpotify and the Broadway Podcast NetworkNew episodes of “Stagecraft” are released every other week.