Sunday, April 08, 2007

Paper Mill, the Paper Tiger

I know everybody in the industry has gotten hysterical, and probably rightly so, about the financial problems that at first seemed to threaten the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey. What makes me personally nuts, though, is how everyone gets hysterical without dealing with the blame issue -- as if huge nonprofits like Paper Mill have every right to stay open when its board -- as the Star-Ledger has reported about today -- has been so fiscally irresponsible. Not irresponsible, I should say, in the sense of improprieties committed or someone well-manicured hand reaching into the proverbial kitty, but simply not doing the fundraising, the financial due diligence, required to sustain such institutions. And what makes me every more upset is how little theatre people, much less general audiences, tend to understand about board governance and the nonprofit business model.

When I was a kid, my grandparents had a nice house on a corner lot in College Point, Queens. Nice backyard, cute front yard, and relatively quiet -- but this particular corner represented the intersection of two main arteries in and out of the area, and it didn't take much for drivers to use it like a drag strip. So my grandparents used to have accidents on the corner all the time. My grandmother, I think, used to say that nothing would change -- say, a stop light or a stop sign being put up -- until someone was injured seriously enough for people to pay meaningful attention, which is what ultimately proved to be the case. Well, Virginia, ditto with Paper Mill and a lot of nonprofit theatres across the country that have lazily coasted on old models or old thinking or old(er) generations for too long. And now that there's been an accident at Paper Mill (following the metaphor), all of a sudden everyone is concerned and paying attention? Feh, and a pox of their houses: There shouldn't have to have been a death or a dismemberment on my grandparents corner for a stop sign to be put up, and there shouldn't have been the threat of bankruptcy and closure for the board of Paper Mill -- or anyone else, for that matter -- to pay attention.

Oh, but that's right -- this in a society where the sacrific of preventative medicine is considered a monetarily prudent thing to do. Let the people suffer.

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