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Nonprofit stage grows – Critics worry about selling out

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New York’s Roundabout Theater Company has gone from a 150-seat venue in a supermarket basement to a $25 million, 750-seat showplace thanks to a sophisticated fundraising system, the New York Times reported July 27.

 The theater’s journey from poverty to becoming the second-largest nonprofit theater in the U.S., with an annual budget of $20 million, is a powerful example of the changing world of the nonprofit stage.

The Roundabout has added about 29,000 subscribers in the last 17 years, through customer-friendly programs like wine-tastings and early-bird curtain times.  Its fundraising operation has 20 to 30 people working the phones.

The theater spent $60,000 last year on lobbying the city and the state, or $11,000 more than the Museum of Modern Art.  It also received $8.5 million from American Airlines, naming its new venue the American Airlines Theater.

The Roundabout also accepts “enhancement” money, which is controversial in the nonprofit world.  Enhancement money is given to nonprofit productions by commercial producers who want to test a play’s potential for future commercial runs.

In spite of its success, the theater has critics.  Commercial theater producers resent that the theater’s productions are eligible for Tony Awards, but do not have to repay investors or pay union labor costs.  And some in the nonprofit world say the Roundabout has sold out.

Defenders say that the Roundabout produces plays that commercial venues for the most part have no interest in.  To nonprofit critics, they point out that the success of the Roundabout does not take resources away from smaller, more experimental theaters.

For full story, go to the New York Times.

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