It's a Feature, Not a Bug

Often, New York theatre people say to me, "Well remember, it is show business." To which I usually answer, "Perhaps, but I don't work in show business. I work in the theatre."

That's only partly a smartass reply. It's also the truth. I have never worked in show business. I have never worked anyplace where money was more important than art.

A nonprofit arts organization is not a business, though I will admit, certain aspects of operation can be similar. But honestly, what business survives only if people give it money with no expectation of return? What business can stay afloat with a product whose price covers only half its cost.

But that's exactly the point.

Or to put it another way, that fiscal model is not a problem with the arts; it's the purpose of the arts, the reason for the arts to exist, so that people without lots of money can also experience and participate in this fundamentally necessary human endeavor, supported by the community as a whole.

Or to put it another way, it's a feature, not a bug.

Every show we produce loses money, not because we're bad at budgets, but because that's our model. Making theatre is incredibly labor and time intensive, and there are no economies of scale, since every show is so different and starts from scratch.

But there's a more important reason. To quote from our website:
New Line Theatre, "The Bad Boy of Musical Theatre," was created in 1991, at the vanguard of a new wave of nonprofit musical theatre being born across the country during the early 1990s, offering an alternative to the commercial musical theatre of New York and Broadway tours. The New Liners believe in what Broadway and film actor Laurence Luckinbill once wrote in a letter to artistic director Scott Miller: “Go broke if you must, but always over-estimate the public’s intelligence. They will thank you for it.”

The only company of its kind in the country, New Line was founded to involve the people of the region in the creation and exploration of provocative, alternative, politically and socially relevant works of musical theatre – daring, muscular, intelligent theatre about politics, race, violence, drugs, sexuality, religion, art, obscenity, the media, and other contemporary issues.

If we produce commercial, guaranteed sellers, then we're not New Line anymore; instead we're a pale, lower-budget imitation of The Muny and Stages. And we no longer serve our community. By definition, New Line has to be able to produce shows that don't sell out, and once in a while, even shows that sell poorly, to fulfill our mission.

Without going bankrupt.

Likewise, if we charge for tickets as much as it all really costs, our top ticket price would be $50-60 or more, and most of our audience couldn't afford that. Plus, as we know from the New York commercial theatre, the more a ticket costs, the less the audience is willing to take a risk. And we often ask our audiences to take risks...

You'll notice that nowhere does our mission statement mention money or profit. New Line exists to share theatre with the public. Charging money for tickets is a necessary evil; we do it only because we must to survive. Money is not the point.

The public "owns" New Line, because it is a public nonprofit corporation. The New Line board of directors represents the public. I work for the public. And the public (both individually and collectively) subsidizes us because they know that storytelling is vital to the health of our community and our culture. The Supreme Court ruled decades ago that the arts should get the same tax breaks (essentially subsidies) as other institutions that serve the public good, because the arts are inherently valuable to human society. Storytelling is how we pass down our history, culture, values, knowledge, Great Truths, etc.

All that said, New Line is at a major turning point, and I want to take some time to explain to all our followers what our current challenge is, and how we plan to address it. Maybe some of you reading this will be able to help us.

New Line has always lived on the edge fiscally. Some seasons we end in the red a little; some seasons we end in the black a little. Once in a while, we end up in the red a fair amount. We always find our way back, but things are a little different for us now.

We've moved into the beautiful Marcelle Theater in Grand Center, and we love it there. But there are two problems that have resulted. First, we agreed to pay about 20% more in rent, to make the project work financially. That doesn't seem huge, but... Also, we were hoping to seat 150 for most of our shows, but that was overly optimistic. We can fit 150 chairs in our space, but then we have a pretty small playing area, and not all the rows would be on risers. For our first three shows in the Marcelle, we seated 120, 130, and 134.

So our rent went up but our capacity (and potential income) went down. Even though our first two shows, Heathers and American Idiot, sold out every night, they still lost money. (I keep thinking if only we'd had 150 seats for those two shows!) And those two big successes also partially masked the new fiscal challenge we're facing. It was only during Atomic that I saw the problem clearly.

On top of our new situation in the Marcelle, we also lost two grants this season, for $5,000 each (one of them because the funder will fund only children's theatre from now on; no idea why we lost the other). And also, we had been told by another funder that we were eligible for a new category of funding, and that our grant from them would likely go up $5,000-10,000. Then later they decided that we weren't actually eligible after all...

Our annual budget is only about $120,000, so losing all that is hard on us. We usually bring in about $30,000 in individual donations each season, which is pretty decent, but we have to do better now.

A couple seasons back, we started looking for two $5,000 sponsors for each show (eight per season), and we have made some initial progress. We got three sponsorships each of the last two seasons, but we have to do better.

Just in the last couple weeks, two of our donors stepped up with additional gifts beyond their usual, and only then were we able to pay everyone on closing night of Atomic. But the problem remains and we can't rely on unexpected miracles. We also can't operate on a model that requires every show to sell out.

New Line has risen to "the next level" (I usually hate that phrase, but it fits) and I believe we need to step up as a board and an organization. We need to find and cultivate large donors – which, for New Line's purposes, means gifts of $5,000 or more. If we could find five or six new donors who would each give us $5,000 or more each season, our budget would be essentially balanced for the foreseeable future.

That both sounds like a lot of money and also doesn't seem impossible. But we need help.

We need help identifying the folks who could support us at that level, getting them to the Marcelle to see New Line shows, and then getting them to make a donation. None of us on the New Line board really have those connections, so we need someone to take our hand and lead the way...

How can you help us? Are you able to sponsor a New Line show? Do you know someone else who could? Do you work for a company that makes grants to local companies, and can you influence that process?

Fundraising is mostly about connections, so we're asking you to help us connect. New Line has been around for twenty-five years, but we are growing. We're paying more people than ever before, and we now have the reputation and clout to get lots of local and regional premieres. We're also making plans to create a children's theatre arm of the company (which should be self-sustaining). But we need to balance the budget.

In the meantime, even if you don't have $5,000, you can still donate to New Line and help us along. Just go to the Contribute page on our website, to donate through PayPal or to send us a check.

Don't feel like you know enough about us yet to invest in us...? Watch this:

I hope this post helps explain some of the complexity of how a small regional nonprofit theatre keeps the lights on. For our younger colleagues just starting companies, I hope this helps you plan for the future. For our audiences and supporters, we want you to feel invested in us and our work, to feel you have ownership in New Line. So when we have a challenge, we'll tell you about it.

To everybody who sees our shows and sends us checks, we hope you're proud of what we've built and the work we've done over the last twenty-five seasons. We honestly do it all just for you.

So much cool theatre ahead for New Line – Tell Me on a Sunday in August, then next season, Celebration in October, Zorba in March, The Sweet Smell of Success in June, and Out on Broadway next August. We've also gotten the rights to open our following season with the rock opera Lizzie in October 2017. New Line's work has never been more exciting than it is right now...

Long Live New Line! And Long Live the Musical!