Let Others Make That Decision. They Usually Do.

Here's another glimpse inside the world of running a small nonprofit theatre...

We apply for government grants every year and two of those grantors, the Regional Arts Commission and the Missouri Arts Council, use citizen review panels to help judge the applications. After all the decisions are made, and they tell us how much our grant is (we got raises from both MAC and RAC this season!), they also send along a list of comments from the panelists.

Which can be both encouraging and maddening.

Quite a few of these comments are awesome. One MAC panelist this year wrote "The large variety of extraordinarily positive reviews, along with the pictures illustrating high production values, clearly illustrates artistic merit." Another wrote, "New Line has intelligently and clearly established and carries out its specific purpose as a company committed to producing high-quality, socially and politically relevant musical theatre. It exhibits a savvy reliance on social media to provide an interactive educational component."

Another one wrote, "Has distinct unique niche (adult musicals between the avant garde and mainstream rep) in community arts scene. Heavy involvement with community via volunteer efforts, working with local businesses, etc. Actively pursuing greater diversity inside and out." Another wrote, "The theatre you deliver is important to the community!" And another wrote, "Your product is strong. It is a welcome part of the scene in our community! Thanks!"

Wow! Thanks, folks!

We also get a lot of very weird comments. For years we used to get some vaguely derogatory comments from some MAC panelist in outstate Missouri, who apparently didn't think St. Louis deserves its Big City reputation. This person once commented that New Line isn't "avant-garde" enough because we were planning to do Spelling Bee that season, and he had already seen it in Springfield.

Sorry, dude, but New Line doesn't do avant-garde theatre. Never has.

We often get weird reactions to our use of the word alternative when we describe New Line as an "alternative musical theatre company," or when we describe our work (as we do on our website) as "daring, provocative, muscular theatre about politics, sexuality, race, religion, the media, and more, offering an up-close-and-personal alternative to the big, commercial musical theatre of New York and Broadway tours, since 1992." In other words, New Line's work is an alternative to other, more conventional approaches to musical theatre. Not avant-garde, not "cutting edge," just different. One MAC panelist once complained that New Line wasn't "avant-garde" enough to use the word alternative. They all need to look up the word alternative. The relevant dictionary definition is "employing or following nontraditional or unconventional ideas, methods, etc.; existing outside the establishment: an alternative newspaper; alternative lifestyles."

Or an alternative musical theatre company.

This year, one panelist complained that Rent is too "standard." If he'd just read the reviews I submitted with our application, he'd see that our Rent was anything but standard. Weirdly, he complimented us and dissed us at the same time: "The musicals vary in quality, as do the productions. When they are good, they are very good. When not so good, average." Ouch! Okay, opinions are like assholes, right? He goes on, "The material, considering they are characterized as 'alternative,' provides an opportunity to see work that is rarely done although Rent is pretty standard." Well, he's right that our programming frequently gives our audiences a chance to see new or obscure musicals, but that's really not our primary agenda – our mission is to present politically and socially relevant musicals. If Rent doesn't fit that description, I don't know what show would.

I keep adjusting our descriptions in our application from year to year to address these misconceptions, and last year I revised it heavily to explain exactly what we do in really clear terms. Here's part of the main essay I wrote about our company for the application:
Now in our 23rd season of professional, alternative musical theatre, all of us at New Line still believe live theatre is one of the most important and effective forums in American life for exploring the issues and events that most deeply affect our lives – and for personalizing those issues through our stories. We believe that artists owe it to their community to address these issues, and New Line was founded on those principles.

Our twenty-two seasons of success prove that we produce work that is accessible to a wide audience, while focusing on challenging, adult material that explores political and social issues, sometimes more obviously, sometimes more subtextually – mostly shows that The Rep, Stages, and The Muny will not produce. We are not an avant-garde company and we do not generally consider our work controversial. Since there are plenty of local companies producing family-friendly musicals, we do not duplicate that effort and we keep New Line's focus on the adult work that our audiences love so much. Every season since our founding has included at least one world premiere or regional premiere, often more than one. We produce brand new works, as well as older works reimagined, and radical reinterpretations of the classics, all of them socially or politically relevant in some way. New Line has produced 68 musicals over the years and five world premieres in just the last seven seasons.

That's pretty clear, isn't it? And now that you've read that, does Rent seem out of place in our repertoire?

Maybe it's hard for some people who like to put the world into nice, neat, little boxes, because New Line just doesn't fit into any existing category, which is probably why there aren't any other companies doing exactly what we do (though there are quite a few now who partly do what we do). Our mission statement says we produce politically and socially relevant works of the musical theatre. That's not all that hard to understand, is it?

But it can get even crazier than that. Imagine my frustration when I read comments from the RAC panel a couple years back, and came across this – "Everything about this organization is quite exciting with the notable exception of the work on stage, which is subpar compared to most other organizations in St Louis doing similar work."


So "everything" about New Line is great except we make lousy theatre...? And where are the "other organizations in St. Louis doing similar work"...? There's no other company in the whole country that does what we do, much less in St. Louis, and the national press and the local press understand that. And even more frustrating (but probably good) is that the comments are all anonymous, so I can't ask what he meant, and give him the information about us that he lacks. Still, I can't get too upset by stuff like this because it's so silly; if our work was really "subpar," we wouldn't have oceans of rave reviews to quote and we wouldn't be thriving after twenty-two seasons. So this person doesn't like the kind of work we do. That's fine. They won't be the first. To paraphrase Frank N. Furter, "We didn't make it for you!"

And the bottom line is that MAC gave us an almost 50% raise this year, and RAC gave us a 10% raise, and that's pretty great. All that really matters is that our audiences keep buying tickets to see what the mad geniuses at New Line come up with, and that our donors keep supporting our work.

As much as shit like this annoys me, I have to take a step back and realize that I chose this Road Not Taken for myself. I chose to forge (or at least adopt) new rules for making musicals. I chose not to travel down the expected path, and I have to accept (even embrace?) that the world isn't always comfortable with that. Rather than getting pissed, I just have to understand where the resistance comes from; after all, we are asking people to change how they think about musical theatre and theatre in general. Like Mother Jones, New Line's job is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

While singing.

And when all is said and done, the only opinions that really matter to me are the audiences' and the writers'. The rest is just noise.

Long Live the Alternative Musical!