Not the Big Evil Corporations

By now, you are probably sick of this Chase Community Giving thing. For those of you unfamiliar, it’s currently being done on Facebook where non-profits try to get you, the Facebook user, to vote for their non-profit to receive at least $20,000. The annoying thing about this if you are Facebook friends with people that are ensemble or staff members at a theater or are a “Fan” of a theater company, particularly in Chicago, is that you end up getting your wall spammed with pleas for votes.

I will be honest, I have voted for some theater companies to receive money. However, the theater companies I voted for I would give money to and they did make a good case as to why I should vote for them other than, “Hey, we did [show x] last season and it was awesome.” I even donated money to one theater, Strawdog Theatre, long before I voted for them.

And there are problems with this approach to funding. By asking on Facebook “walls” for votes and sending messages, you can eventually alienate potential artists and patrons because someone like me might be a “fan” of several theater companies competing for this. Some have suggested that by just asking for a vote you’re not actually making a connection with the audience. (Kris Vire wrote a piece for last week’s Time Out Chicago about the pros and cons of the Chase Community Giving.)

You need money to do theater and grants help provide that money. But is it worth participating in the social media equivalent of a student council election to get that grant? I can’t deny that $20,000 is a lot of money and sometimes you wouldn’t get that with a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, for example. But with a grant proposal from an arts council or from the NEA, you have to write grant submissions and try to prove to those overseeing the grant awards that your theater deserves the money. Ultimately it is up to a theater company to decide if it is worth their time to participate in this.

But while there are the theater artists that look at the Chase Community Giving as a possible nuisance to audiences, there are others that are upset because Chase is a BIG EVIL CORPORATION! (I also realize that the blog I linked to no one should be shocked by the writer making those remarks.)

First of all, everyone that is virulently opposed to this really needs to be quiet or calm down because I keep hearing about theaters trash talking those participating in the program, even referring to those theaters as “whoring” themselves out. If you have a problem with this, which a lot of artists do, including myself, that’s fine. But bashing other theater companies is not cool and when you do that, my respect for you as a an artist and/or a theater administrator significantly decreases.

Now that is out of the way, I would like to get to the main point. I realize that Eastern Iowa theater and Chicago theater are vastly different things, but in Eastern Iowa, it is not that uncommon for a production to be sponsored by a corporation with local ties. The first play I was in, Nate the Great, was sponsored by John Deere, who has plants in the Waterloo-Cedar Falls area. Still Life With Iris was sponsored by Quaker, who has a plant in Cedar Rapids not far from the Iowa Theatre Building. I believe a production of The Music Man I worked on was sponsored by Wells Fargo and while it might not have major offices in that area, it still seemed appropriate that Wells Fargo would sponsor that show. Target, who has two distribution centers in Cedar Falls, has sponsored quite a few productions at the Waterloo Community Playhouse and Black Hawk Children’s Theatre. Sometimes local businesses are at least one of the producers for a play. Hansen’s Dairy in Hudson, which produces dairy products from the family cows—and operates my favorite ice cream shop in the Waterloo-Cedar Falls area, Moo Roo—sponsors productions at the Cedar Falls Community Theatre, where one of the Hansens has performed in productions.

As a result of doing theater in Eastern Iowa for 7 years, I used to think that in order to do a play you had to have a company sponsoring the show. Does this mean that the sponsors were awkwardly worked into the play? No. They’re usually acknowledged in the curtain speech and on the posters. Sometimes at the Waterloo Community Playhouse, the sponsors will have tables set up in the lobby to let patrons know more about what they do.

And you know what? The theater companies in Iowa work really hard to get these companies to sponsor their shows. I know from first-hand experience that Danny Katz, who works for WCP, tries very hard to get sponsors and it’s actually pretty incredible to know how hard he tries.

As a result of this, if I was going to start a theater company in Eastern Iowa, I realized that I would have to court companies to try to donate money or sponsor a show. Does that mean I’m “whoring” myself out to corporate America or to even small businesses? No. It means that I’m trying to keep my theater company running. And most corporations and businesses want to do philanthropic acts. In essence, Chase Community Giving is philanthropy, even though the mechanics of the act are a bit debatable.

But as far as I know (and most of my knowledge comes from talking to Katz), these theater companies don’t just send out a Facebook message. They’re out there, meeting with businesses or at events in their city to try to get more audience members to at the very least see their shows.

Ultimately that is what theaters need to do: they need to make a face-to-face connection to get money or donations or an audience. Facebook is not a cure-all for our problems as non-profit theaters.

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3 thoughts on “Not the Big Evil Corporations

  1. Monica,

    Nothing feels better than being told to shut up in such a polite way.

    DH

  2. Very thoughtful post!

    I think soliciting donations from the corporate overlords is a necessary evil. I remember the late 90s/early 00s when Phillip Morris was one of the largest arts donors in NYC. Want to put on free Shakespeare in the park (and you are not the public)? You may need that tobacco money.

    My experience has been that corporate donors are much less intrusive in the artistic process than some Board members. Of course, if a play is rife w/ controversy, they may indeed pull funding, but that has proven to be the case with Board support, at least in NYC. NY Theater Workshop experienced this a few years ago (damned if I can remember the name of the production now!)

    One of my clients once received an angry phone call from a Board member of a ginormous theater here, b/c of the subject matter of a play we were presenting. Angry dude told her that if he were on the Board of her company, he would have pulled his money out and tried to shut the production down (this, of course, without seeing the play). Luckily, said client was in a position to laugh long and hard at him, as he is not on our board and she doesn’t feel the need to court him. But that experience was certainly eye opening.

    And, finally, I do think Facebook specifically and internet marketing in general is taking a lot of the personal out of all human transactions. While it’s a fantastic tool, it’s still important to connect in a very real, very human way.

  3. Thank you! And the play at the NY Theater Workshop that was controversial was My Name is Rachel Corrie.

    I actually know of a theater that has some of the corporate donors on their board. I don’t know how it works out for them, but it makes sense in terms of running a theater. And I have seen the intrusiveness of board members in the artistic process which makes me nervous about having a board for a non-profit theater. That story really is not shocking from the things I’ve witnessed and stories I’ve heard with boards.

    From what I’ve gathered, if a corporation is giving a theater money to produce a play then they trust the theater to put on the quality production they expect.

    I’m almost concerned that theaters are relying too much on Facebook. I know of theaters that try to get stagehands via Facebook instead of even a phone call or email. It can be used as a great tool, but you have to learn how to use it.

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