How Do Community Theaters Define Success?

What does success look like for community theater companies? Is it sold out shows or subscription sell-outs? Does it come in the form of government grants and substantial donor contributions? Or is it simply the ability to say that you have produced a performing art piece of considerable quality?

So, how do you define success?

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines success as the following:

the fact of getting or achieving wealth, respect, or fame;
the correct or desired result of an attempt; and
someone or something that is successful: a person or thing that succeeds.

While these are all completely valid definitions, I particularly like point 2; success is all about achieving a desired result or better yet, meeting goals.

Business Insider recently published an article by Drake Baer detailing the ways in which nine of the world’s most “incredibly successful people” determine success. Among the definitions from the likes of Arianna Huffington of the Huffington Post, British politician Winston Churchill, and Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh was a gem of a definition from the late, great acclaimed author, Maya Angelou:
“Success is liking yourself, liking what you do, and liking how you do it.”
Yes. Ms. Angelou hit the nail on the head with her definition; furthermore, we can use it to more clearly define the success of a musical theater. The success of a community theater company cannot (and should not) be defined by the sell-out shows or government funding – these are results of a company’s success rather than success itself. Success is found in achieving what I believe is every community theater’s ultimate goal: to produce high quality live works of art that are meaningful and resound with an audience, and have a fantastic time in the process.

CC Image by GotCredit

That being said, this is not the way in which we currently define success in the arts and culture industry. Emotional impact and personal enjoyment are not as easily measured and shared as box office statistics. In an article by Rebecca Novick, Diane Ragsdale (then of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation) speaks of the biggest ongoing issue regarding the current funding infrastructure:
“Funders and others have had such a limited idea of what a theater should look like, we’ve institutionalized the process to such a degree that we’ve constrained these organizations in terms of how they’re structured, how they make work, who they make it for. We’ve lost track of what we really need to put on a good show.”
Lyn Gardner of The Guardian very recently wrote of the exact same issue, which also permeates touring companies: “in part, these problems arise because the funding system is skewed towards funding buildings and then touring companies who will create suitable product for those buildings.”

CC Image by 401(K) 2012

At the end of the day, we really can’t know what community theater will be like in 50 years. What we do know is that the current state of performing arts audience engagement and financial support is dwindling. As Novick suggests, we need to rethink the way in which we support this art form and how success is measured; there is so much room for growth, creative problem solving, and unparalleled change ahead for community theaters. While the future for community theaters is unclear, what lies ahead is most certainly exciting.

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