A Congress for Theatre

Monday, October 25, 2010 Leave a Comment

The conversation surrounding innovative not-for-profit board structure has been gathering momentum, including our own Heather Cohn’s participation in the GIA Conference that explored fiscal sponsorship as an alternative model to the tradition 501c3. This is an especially important conversation for Ensemble companies, where a horizontal power structure builds in a board’s checks and balances into the internal decision making process. However, a majority of grant organizations require a 501c3, so should Flux choose to grow beyond our current resource level, developing a board is something we may need to deal with. And given the horror stories about boards significantly changing the nature of artist-driven institutions, this is something we’re very cautious about.

In my recent post about The Wider Frame, I considered how the challenges facing theatre are almost always microcosms of larger societal challenges; and when theatre turns outward and imagines itself a means towards exploring those larger questions, it will find itself essential again. In applying that thinking to the questions surrounding current board structure, I imagined a different model, and wondered if there are examples out there already.

What if a theatre board were more like a congress?

I know, it’s hard to imagine wanting anything to be more like our current legislative branch. But a fundamental difference would be in reconsidering the constituencies of this hypothetical theatre congress, and their role in creating the legislation of a theatre’s programming.

In politics, constituency is defined through location. In this imaginary theatre congress, constituency is defined through territory of influence.

What do I mean by territory of influence?

Within any community, there are of course sub-communities organized around business, religion, education, culture, sports, etc. A theatre congress would identify ALL of those territories of influence – from the local church to the high school to the minor league sports team to the hospital – and seek a representative from those territories to serve on the congress.

Imagine a meeting where a representative from the local mosque sits next to a rep from the college who is challenging a point made by the rep from the sanitation union who is sitting next to a rep from the local paper who is seconding a motion from the rep of the skater community; and all of the representatives are advocating for a theatre season that celebrates the lives and explores the challenges of their constituencies.

How would this conversation drive programming? How would it shape outreach? Would it be all Babel, or would it lead to a theatre facing outward to its community, and a community turning towards the stage?

There are significant logistical problems to this model, varying from a lack of potential interest from certain constituencies to the financial stability a board is supposed to steward. But the congress model is not mutually exclusive to a traditional board, though I think if done right it could serve a similar purpose.

Regardless of whether it replaced a traditional board or supplemented it, a theatre congress might naturally move a company towards better serving their communities by ensuring every territory of local influence a place at the table. Cities of a larger size might have a hard time defining these territories, but both small and large companies would need to grow such a congress constituency by constituency.

Whether this congress assumed the full powers of a traditional board, or served more in an advisory role, seems to me a question with an answer unique to each organization, and to be explored very carefully, making sure the conversation between company and congress was meaningful enough to be more than simply symbolic.

Obviously, this idea is in its infancy, but I’m curious if any models approaching something like this exist. It seems to me that board development is driven primarily (perhaps by necessity) to those who have the resource capacity to be financial stewards; and representation of a community, when considered, is seen through the broad (but important) strokes of gender or race. I wonder if there are any organizations out there who track down all the local territories of influence and make sure as many as possible have a place at the table, regardless of whether they have financial resources, and even if they share some contradictory values. Do these examples exist? Could a theatre survive a table with so many seats?


  • Aaron Andersen said:  

    It is not that unusual for an NFP Board to seek out representatives from different constituent communities. It is what good, mature organizations do.

    However, it IS very common for this representation to be partial and/or to turn into tokenism. E.g., it is extremely common for a Board to suddenly realize one day that they're in a city like Chicago, and they want to connect with communities of color, but there are no African American or Latino members of the Board or Staff. So then, a "suitable" minority representative is sought out, asked to join a governance structure that is already very culturally "White" (most Boards), and then asked to help the org reach other people of color. Results, obviously, will be mixed and not universally successful.

  • August Schulenburg said:  


    Thanks for writing! I know that theatres often seek community partners and look for board members from those communities; but I haven't heard of theatres targeting those communities community comprehensively and inclusively and with the specific intent that those board members would be representing those communities; I would love to find any examples of that.

    And yes, I agree the idea of being specific when reaching out to communities that aren't well represented is essential...

  • Gwydion Suilebhan said:  

    I am quite inspired by this post, Gus. I am, as I think you know, an avid proponent of community-centric (or audience-centric) theater, and I can see how this sort of board structure might lead us in that sort of direction.

  • August Schulenburg said:  

    Thanks, Gwydion! The trick of course is in the execution, and I see anything approaching this for Flux at least 4-5 years (and many internal discussions) away. But if it seems like a good idea, the decisions we make now can lay the groundwork, and I'm hoping they'll be some kind of example of this kind of congress of theatre out there;if there's one thing the blogposphere has taught me, you were never the first one to think of an idea:)

  • abjms2 said:  

    You may wish to read about the history of Cornerstone Theater Company, in a book by Sonia Kuftinec called Staging America.