It’s a popular thing, money. And so useful! It can’t buy you love, but it can buy you the Presidency of the United States, and, on EBay, someone else’s soul. In fact to be honest, it can buy you love, or at least something that looks so much like it that Woody Allen and Donald Trump can’t tell the difference. So let’s talk about money!
The history of Tulsa theatre is written in red ink. In fact, if there was actually such a book, something you could buy at Barnes and Noble, it would resemble a perverse, dramaturgical Bible. The red letters wouldn’t be the words of Jesus, they’d list all the bad business decisions local theatre companies have made. Company “A” manages to slowly accumulate a legitimate bank account balance? Blow it all on one show and go into debt instead! New York actor waltzes into town and raises serious money from the big donors for a “professional” theatre? Sock most of it away and then quietly slip out of town. (Not to speak ill of the dead in either case, but at least the dead won’t leave angry comments or unfriend me on Facebook. I have some quibbles with more recent events as well, but I’m going to wink at those. For now.)
Is it any wonder that local businesses and foundations aren’t falling all over themselves to give us oodles of cash? The well’s been poisoned! It’s important to say though, that minor quibbles aside, this happened well before the current crop of artistic and business directors took over their respective theatres. But this history of bad behavior is the background behind Tulsa community theatre's current financial crisis, which is now coming to a head because of the price increases at the downtown PAC, increases that most local companies simply cannot afford.
Nevertheless, even through the bad years, through it all, Kaiser never abandoned us. (Food for thought: what would this town be without the continuing generosity of George Kaiser?) For some years, the George Kaiser Family Foundation appeared to struggle with how to allocate money to our confusing profusion of local theatres, without finding a satisfactory solution. The TATE’s turned out to be that long term answer.
Why “confusing”? Well, suppose you had a little money left over at the end of the month, and you wanted to help make Tulsa a better place to live. You decide you’d like to see more and better ballet in town. Who do you make the check out to? Kind of obvious, huh. Suppose you wanted to support opera? Hmmm. Or symphonic music? Let me think. So all of those are simple solutions, and the ballet and the opera and the symphony benefited from that simplicity.
But theatre? Who gets that money? That was Kaiser’s dilemma. How to divvy it up so that it wasn’t arbitrary, or going to an incompetent, or to a secret bank account in Switzerland or Catoosa? The TATE Awards were the solution.
However, that raised a related question. That question has been a spectral presence lurking in the background of the TATE’s all along, and a topic for chit-chat among theatre people for a long as I’ve been chit-chatting with them. Would we be better off if we were also ‘simpler?’ Would it be better if Tulsa had fewer theatres, or maybe even if there was just one dominant theatre, rather than this profusion confusion? Basically, are there too many theatres chasing too few dollars?
Would it shock you to learn that most people directly associated with any particular theatre think it would be a good idea if one or two of those other theatres shut down? and maybe could you send your patrons over in our direction when you do? There are even people who think that a single dominant, regional-instead-of-community theatre, a theatre that was large and established enough to pay better than next-to-nothing, that that would be the ideal situation. Because, in addition to the other good it would do, it would also make the Kaiser Foundation’s job much easier. The Ballet, the Opera, the Theatre.
Don’t scoff. That’s the way it used to be. Theatre Tulsa was one of the anchors of the Tulsa arts scene once, with 7,000 subscribers and a place at the table whenever the discussion turned to civic or foundational support of the arts. Sara’s been rebuilding the theatre (over 500 subscribers now, up from a low of basically zero) and would love to see that kind of prominence return, and why shouldn’t she? And Kitty and company over at ATC, who took over the alpha dog spot when TT went into a slide and are fresh off a gold and silver finish at this year’s TATE’s, no doubt feel like their theatre would be a better candidate for King Of Our Little Hill. And why shouldn’t they? Besides the natural desire to see one’s own organization prosper, there’s an argument to be made that Tulsa would have a healthier, more productive theatre scene, and that we’d all benefit from that focused concentration of money, with the additional benefit that the best, most talented among us could maybe get paid.
There’s a rumor around that the goal of the TATE’s all along was to ‘winnow the field’, to pick one or the other of the prominent theatres to be the new golden child, allowing a single, well-supported company to become that regional theatre, on a par with the Symphony and the Opera. I’m not in a position to know whether that was the original thinking or not, but it certainly didn’t turn out that way. Instead, Playhouse, Theatre Tulsa, Theatre Pops, ATC, Heller and Odeum/Nightingale all have multiple wins. And the fortunes of those various companies rose and fell mostly due to circumstances that had nothing to do with the TATE’s.
But what actually happened doesn’t address the question of what should happen now. Should we consolidate? Would it be better for us to have a single, well supported regional theatre that pulls in the greater part of civic and foundation support? Do I have an opinion on that? Is the Pope Argentinian?
Check back soon for the next installment of Money! where you’ll hear me say, “Here’s what I think.” But in the meantime, remember that Sept. 17 is the day of both the TATE Adjudication Workshop and the TATE Season Kick Off that night. This is a big deal folks, as the TATE Committee has responded to our criticism and comments with a major overhaul. They want the community to be a part of the process, so don't miss this opportunity. And, these are both free events! See you there.
Arts Alliance Tulsa
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Tulsa Little Theatre
Tulsa Weekly Roundup
Am. Theatre Co.
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G Rated Theatre
Midwestern Theater Co.
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Sand Springs Comm. Th.
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