Should Theatre Boards Be Eliminated?


Charles Lupia

Recently I involved myself in an online controversy by making derogatory comments on the boards usually fastened to theatres.  Some board members responded in a fury.  One said that boards do the best they can with what they’re given.  Theatre, he reasoned, “(I)s a dying art form.”

Now regardless of whether board members work hard, a problem exists when someone attached to a theatre thinks that the art is dying.  And this indicates a widespread problems with U.S. theatres.

Going out of the gate, I have to admit that I am prejudiced against board members as people who attend meetings.  I loathe organizational meetings as the biggest time wasters in the world.

But I’ve closely witnessed the destruction of theatres through their boards, although the artistic directors also have had culpability.  I’ve seen board members be abusive toward artistic directors.  I’ve seen boards reduce regional theatres to commercial shells of their former selves.

And this hasn’t merely happened to theatres.  I’ve also seen boards, through their lack of commitment, bring to dust such other arts organizations as symphony orchestras.

In New York City, we have historically had many board members very committed to the arts. Involvement in such arts as opera, theatre, music and dance are a way of life even to board members who are bankers or lawyers.  Perhaps the best example was that of Otto Kahn, the enlightened banker who served as chairman of the Metropolitan Opera board.

But outside Manhattan, it becomes significantly harder for theatres to find board members with a deep connection to the arts.  People often join boards for reasons such as the seeking of social prestige.  

In one theatre I knew, most of the board members went through an entire season without seeing any of the productions.  When one showed up to see the final play of the season, he commented, “You won’t catch me here.  I’d rather be at a basketball game.”

People who work as writers, actors, directors or producers in theatre tend to view boards as necessary evils.  They are required attachments to not-for-profit organizations.  Many theatres are, of course, not-for-profit.

But often boards push for agenda different from the theatre’s founding mission.  With a board on one hand and an artistic director on the other, the theatre becomes a cart being pulled being in two different directions.  This creates conflict and an often unhealthy environment, and the resultant productions are compromised in choice and quality.

It is true that many boards do good work for their theatres.  Many have wisely guided their theatres.  But perhaps we should rethink the nature and necessity of boards.  Perhaps legislation should be amended to allow small theatres to go without boards.  A theatre would sink or swim on the work of the artistic director alone.

I only pose these suggestions to stir the pot.  Theatre is there to make us think, and we should be constantly be thinking on how we can better make theatre.