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Thursday, April 26, 2012

It Beats Paying Taxes

Imagine you had 18 million dollars to give to charity.  I think we can all agree that the best use of the money would be to give it to Yale Rep to develop new plays. After all, there are plenty of people feeding the hungry and curing AIDS already, right?  Thank G-d, somebody has finally figured this out, as yesterday the Robina Foundation made an 18 million dollar gift to the New Haven institution.

In 2004, in order to avoid paying his fair share of estate taxes, James H Binger a quite cultured  member of the 1% left his money to the Robina Foundation, which he founded.   Before all you development officers out there get too excited about making a grant proposal to Robina though, you should probably know that they only give to 4 charities, and accept no unsolicited proposals.  So not only did this corporate king avoid paying taxes, he placed a firewall around the money, ensuring the funds, taken from the tax payers coffers could only go to his buddies.  This is truly a remarkable use of the 501(c)(3) charitable deduction code.  Here we have a multi million dollar foundation which itself pays no taxes, that makes multi million dollar donations to Yale Rep, which also pays no taxes.  Next time you get angry at Mitt Romney's tax rate, you should bear this in mind.  

The message here is clear, by defining the majority of producing theater companies as charities, the tax code has ensured that the theater remain in the proper hands of our economic and cultural betters.  How much better it is to allow the 1% to allocate public funds for the arts as they see fit, the buffoons elected by the ignorant masses would probably just mess things up.  After all, what does Paul Ryan know about the works of Brecht.  He would probably think that lowering the deficit, or even building performance space open to public use, was more important than putting up a really exciting new musical adaptation of Midsummer Nights Dream.  And since so few people want to pay to see a really exciting new musical adaptation of Midsummer Nights Dream, it might never happen with public funds!  

One last thought, if we are so convinced that multi million dollar contributors own the political system lock, stock and barrel, why would we imagine that gifts to the arts have no effect on the art that is created?

Friday, April 20, 2012

9.5 Theses for the Reformation of American Theater

These 9.5 theses on the reformation of American theater were taped to the door of the Public Theater this evening.  Right after Sticky.

9.5 Theses for the Reformation of American Theater
In response to the decreasing influence of theater in our country, the following measures are designed to encourage greater growth in popular, commercial theater by ensuring that non profit theaters truly fulfil their role as charities, not competitors to producers engaged in the free market.  The excesses of these charities require a reformation of theater in America, the following theses represent a start in that direction.
1.  No theater company accepting direct federal funds should present any show which average tax payers cannot reasonably and regularly afford to attend.
2. No theater company accepting individual donations which decrease the federal government's revenues should present any show which average tax payers cannot reasonably and regularly afford to attend.
3.  No employee of a theater company accepting federal funds or donations should be compensated at a higher rate than a commensurate civil servant.
4. All theater companies accepting federal funds or donations which own a venue should make that venue available for rental at below market rates.
5.  No theater company accepting federal funds or donations should host any event not open to the general public.
6.  All theater companies accepting federal funds or donations should make free or deeply discounted performances available to the school children of the municipalities they reside in.
7.  No theater company accepting federal funds or donations should employ any person in any capacity on a volunteer or unpaid internship basis.
8.  All theater companies accepting federal funds or donations should produce a yearly statement outlining the tangible benefits they have provided to the general public.
9.  No theater company accepting federal funds or donations should accept any funds to be used for a show with a planned or anticipated commercial run.
9.5 All theater companies accepting federal funds or donations should be taking steps to earn the income they need to maintain their operations and decrease their reliance on charitable giving.
David Marcus

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Buffett Rule and Non Profit Theater

The new hot topic in politics this week is the Buffett rule, the President’s plan to ensure that people making over 1 million dollars a year pay at least 30% of their income in taxes.  I was curious about the potential effects this plan would have on giving to non profit theaters.  Well, don’t worry, it turns out, it will have no effect at all, even if it ever passes congress.  The Buffett rule has an interesting exception, it still allows for tax exemptions for charitable giving, including giving to the arts.  For many this will be reason to rejoice, it ensures that the stale loaf of bread that is American theater will stay on the shelves for a few more years.  I do have to wonder though, what makes arts giving so important that it outweighs the other tax expenditures that the Buffett rule would eliminate.
I don’t think it is too cynical to suggest that part of the reason the Buffett rule has come into vogue, is that it highlights the paltry sum that Mitt Romney pays in taxes compared to his income, about 15% (in fairness the President only pays 20%).  So why does Romney only pay 15%?  The answer is capital gains.  The capital gains tax rate is 15%, so when the vast majority of one’s income come from investments, the lower rate applies.  So why should this be?  The justification for low capital gains rates is that money used to invest promotes new business and jobs, it allows companies to attract investors by offering those investors a tax benefit.  This should sound familiar to proponents of non profit theater.  501(c)3 theater companies attract donors by offering those donors a tax benefit as well.  
So essentially, the argument from the left is that it is immoral for individuals to defer payments to the general operating fund of the federal government simply because they happen to be investing in profit earning companies and taking significant risks while doing so.  However, it is perfectly proper for those same millionaires to defer payments to that same general fund if they happen to be contributing to Roundabout’s production of “Anything Goes”.  I humbly submit that this is absurd.  The notion that millionaires who give to major NFP institutions which pay their CEOs six figure salaries, while gaining myriad social advantages (galas, special tickets, names etched in frosted glass) and taking no economic risk have a moral superiority to millionaires who risk their money on companies with much broader fiscal impact on our society is silly.  We don't have enough money in Washington’s coffers for food stamps and unemployment insurance?  Take it from GE and Walmart, but for G-d’s sake, the Public simply must have enough money to pay movie stars whatever movie stars get paid to perform Shakespeare in the park again and again and again.

UPDATE:  I found this article on Firedoglake that outlines just how art giving can be used to get millionaires under the 30% tax minimum.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

"The Best Man Revisited"

Regular Blog readers may remember an exchange I had with Huffington Post blogger Rob Taub concerning his claim that Gore Vidal’s “The Best Man” currently on Broadway is a bipartisan play.  Now that the reviews are out, I thought it would be interested to look and see what the critics thought about the play's politics.  Below is a sampling which I think shows rather well that these critics rightly saw the clear political statement Vidal was making in the play.  When we read the comparisons between Cantwell and Russell, the plays conservative and liberal candidates, let’s bare in mind that Vidal reffered to Cantwell as “the worst man in the play”
"While Vidal’s chief inspirations for these composite characters were Adlai Stevenson and Richard Nixon, respectively, there are glimmers of any number of contemporary figures in both men. Larroquette’s Russell has the patrician air of John Kerry, the philandering reputation of Bill Clinton and even a touch of Barack Obama’s brainy remoteness, which he’s constantly reminded is a political liability, along with his erudite humor. McCormack’s Cantwell is a folksy populist in the Sarah Palin mold and an ostentatiously religious attack dog à la Rick Santorum. "
"For his battling candidates, Vidal created the liberal William Russell, a philosophically lofty former secretary of state whose womanizing has put his marriage in the deep freeze, and the conservative Senator Joseph Cantwell, whose wholesome family life masks a ruthless determination to acquire power."
"Vidal's insights resonate today, whether in Tea Party true-believer pressure or birth control controversies, to the point of being scary."
"For those unfamiliar with Vidal's politics, Russell is a proud liberal and Cantwell a darling of the conservative set — though the latter's many flaws include a readiness to adapt his positions according to the polls. Cantwell is called a "ring-tailed wonder" more than once, and in a climactic confrontation, Russell hisses at him, "You are worse than a liar. You have no sense of right or wrong."
I think it is clear that the critics have no doubt what political persuasion the play is promoting.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Why it Doesn't Matter if Broadway Does Straight Plays

In his recent Wall Street Journal article on the failure of Broadway to mount new straight plays, I was very pleased to see Terry Teachout take a serious look at the important issue of inflation in the theater market.  The rate at which the cost of producing theater has risen on Broadway (and off) is astounding, and is well shown by Mr. Teachout’s statistics.  He places much of the blame on high marketing costs, and the expense of star power.  It turns out that Daniel Craig and Hugh Jackman were paid $100,000 a week to appear in “A Steady Rain”, an enormous jump from the $1,600 a week that is the AEA Broadway minimum.  This really begs the question of how Equity dares to call itself a union when a member can make 1.6% of the salary of another member doing the same job.  I imagine that their answer is that it is not the same job, but it’s not because Hugh Jackman is 98.4% better as an actor than the average Broadway performer, its because he is a draw.  
The key thing to understand is that people were not paying to see “A Steady Rain”, though I’m sure it is an estimable play, people were paying to be in a room with Daniel Craig and Hugh Jackman.  This became quite clear to me last year, when Jackman just cut out the middle man altogether.  I remember walking down 42nd street, and seeing a huge poster of him with the show title “Hugh Jackman, Back on Broadway”.  I thought to myself, but what is he going to do?  I sort of imagined him strutting from stage left to stage right, doing little dance moves and giving an occasional thumbs up to the audience.  And I imagined an audience that was enjoying themselves while watching.  Now I have no problem with this, I don’t go around judging whether having fun is any more or less important than seeing “good art”.  But it does make me wonder if we should really be paying much attention to straight plays on Broadway, if they really have cultural significance, or simply serve as a diorama in which to place pretty people.   
Towards the end of his article, Teachout wistfully addresses the smaller theaters, the off broadways and regionals, sort of wishing that the brave work they put on would be taken more seriously by our society, so that their success was not dependent upon a Broadway transfer.  It is a strange paragraph in which he exempts his own paper and the New York Times, from a broad description of a  boorish media that refuses to promote true culture.  Teachout basically seems to be saying “oh well, what can you do?”  Of course that is the imprtant question.  But its not; how do we get Broadway to produce more new plays, but how do we get society to care about the vast universe of theater that is not on the great white way.
Complaining about the lack of important new plays on Broadway is like complaining that there isn’t more fine modern dance at strip clubs, a talented dancer at a strip club may be a plus, but it is hardly the point. There are a whole host of reasons that people attend Broadway plays beyond the importance or value of the play.  But this is not to say that commercial theater is not capable of being the engine of new play development in our country.  For that to happen, we must broaden our idea of what commercial theater is.  Today we use the term pretty interchangably with Broadway, because the vast majority of non Broadway theater is in fact non commercial.  This system in which the NFP houses are meant to develop shows that go to Broadway makes no sense.  It treats all theater shows as if they are the same basic shape and size.  As if plays are like cut diamonds that can be dropped into any setting, and the clearest, brightest stones find their way into the Tiffany platinum ring of Broadway.  As Teachout points out, that is the only way that our society ever really considers a play to be ultimately successful.  
Its time to start thinking about theater the way we think of restaurants.  Some of our favorite restaurants are fine dining spots, but some are also take out joints, and many exist in the area in between.  For a good BBQ joint, or casual Italian place to be successful it is enough that they satisfy their clientele, nobody anxiously awaits the moment when they will turn into a white tablecloth dining room of the elite.  Theater which is created with lower overhead in more casual environments and which involve drink and food sales offer a real commercial alternative to both Broadway and the Not for Profit houses.   
Mr. Teachout is correct to place much of the blame for soaring theater prodcution costs on marketing, but there is a deeper reason why that is happening.  Broadway and major off Broadway producers are playing a zero sum game.  There is a limited pool of people for whom a Broadway show is an entertainment option, and all the shows are fighting for those same people.  So if Spiderman spends 1m on marketing, I better spend 1.1m and so on.  New forms of theater attract new kinds of audience.  So instead of the tens of thousands of theater artists in our country trying to fit through the keyhole of Broadway someday, we should focus on theater with new atmoshphere, theater that is fun and theater that is cheap.