Lessons from the National Theater Project Pilot
Devising a theater work is an exciting endeavor which draws upon the unique talents and creativity of a theater ensemble. Devising an initiative to support artist-led ensembles is equally exciting—that’s the experiment that NEFA initiated six years ago with the National Theater Project (NTP) pilot. The initial 12 NTP grantees have finished touring, so it’s an optimal time to share lessons from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s investment in the national touring infrastructure for artist-led ensemble theater.
NTP is entering its seventh round of grantmaking, having supported 37 new theater works. The pilot grantees represented a range of ensembles at different stages in development and with varied levels of experience in touring (e.g., The Builders Association, Latino Theatre Company, Rude Mechs, Universes). Theater ensembles were awarded $30,000 to $60,000 development grants and between $40,000 and $90,000 to support touring. Over five years, the 12 pilot ensembles have reached over 75,000 audience members in 60 different venues across 24 states.
Building an ecosystem. NTP engaged many players to strengthen the infrastructure for development and touring of new work, including a group of experienced theater professionals as Advisors to shape the grantee selection process and provide feedback and support to grantees. The pilot demonstrated that all types of venues could be successful in presenting artist-led ensemble theaters: regional theaters, university presenters, contemporary art centers, and various types of alternative spaces, festivals, and, in some cases, groups of artists/producing ensembles.
Attracting audiences. The pilot demonstrated that artist-led devised and ensemble theater can successfully expand the boundaries of theater in the U.S., attracting audiences new to theater and also deepening the engagement of traditional theater audiences. Different venues had different motivations for presenting an ensemble but most often the intention was to reach and engage new audiences. Venues gave high marks to their experiences with the ensembles, recognizing their skills in addressing complex topics and diverse perspectives.
Scale. Most pilot ensembles approached touring with the goal of flexible scale; half designed productions at a smaller scale than the premiere version. Scaling down productions proved more challenging than expected, especially when multiple versions had not been anticipated. In some cases, work that was originally designed at a regional theater and/or for a long run at one venue proved difficult to adjust for touring.
Touring subsidy. Ensembles reported that subsidies were very important in securing sites—even when negotiating with larger and prominent venues. Grantees had flexibility in determining how much of a subsidy of the artist fee to offer for a given venue. Most subsidies were between $5,000 and $10,000 although the percent of artist fee represented by the subsidy varied greatly.
Evolving support. As ensembles faced obstacles, NEFA and The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation stepped in to respond with program supports. When small ensembles were challenged by simultaneously carrying out development activities and managing tours, NTP provided additional funds for tour administration. To encourage potential presenters to view works in progress, presenters were offered travel subsidies. To encourage diverse aesthetics, NEFA initiated a two-stage application process, assigning Advisors to promising applicants to work on full proposals. These and other adaptations have continually improved NTP and strengthened national infrastructure.
Through a concerted commitment on the part of funders, Advisors, and NEFA’s program managers, the ensembles and the work funded have become increasingly representative of diverse populations and aesthetics. The commitment to be representative of the nation has been realized through outreach to theater artists from all parts of the country, extended conversations about looking at work through different lenses, and ongoing tracking of audience response to the work.
NTP’s funders and managers have recognized that flexibility is a critical attribute necessary to support diverse methodologies and aesthetics and work at different levels of scale. NTP remains a work in progress with adjustments made as lessons are learned.