Sunday, February 21, 2010

The DCPA is giving up on the future of theatre in Denver

This blog went on something of an unannounced hiatus last spring when my free time and writing energy were consumed by finishing my masters thesis, but that's all done now, so here is my return to action (at least until April, when I leave with the Peace Corps to teach English in Kyrgyzstan, at which point I hope to transition this into a blog about that experience).

* * *

It should be clear from some of my previous posts that I go pretty regularly to see shows at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, and the availability of good theatre in Denver is important to me. In light of that, I was shocked and appalled by the news today that the DCPA is cutting the National Theatre Conservatory. At first glance this may seem to be just one more of the countless tragic minor tragedies of the recession, but a closer look reveals just how much the DCPA board is shortsightedly and dangerously throwing away something of great value to the future of theatre in the city of Denver.

The NTC is one of the top theatre graduate programs and the only congressionally chartered MFA program in the country. Like all forms of education, training top-notch actors is an investment in the future of theatre. In the same way that giving a man a fish is less work on that one day than teaching him how to fish, education rarely looks like a good deal if you only focus on short-term return on investment. The DCPA claims that the recession (including less success from recent touring Broadway shows) is forcing them to end the program in order to save $1.2 million that will redirected toward making sure that there are no cuts to the Denver Center Theatre Company and the Denver Center Attractions (those big Broadway shows). I don't dispute that maintaining the quality of the DCTC should be the top priority, but completely ending the NTC for $1.2 million/year is throwing away the future in order to avoid any uncomfortable belt-tightening in the present.

Like it or not, the value of an education is closely related to the reputation of the institution, and by completely ending the program, the DCPA board is throwing away all of the value that has been accumulated by the NTC name, and the tricky thing about good reputations is that they are easy to lose and very difficult to regain. Whatever the financial situation of the DCPA, their decision to eliminate the NTC rather than simply changing it says one of two things. One possibility is that they are so foolishly short-sighted that they cannot see that completely ending the program to save money during a time of hardship is like a panicky investor who sells his valuable assets when their price is at their lowest and then rues his folly when things recover and he sees how much value he has thrown away. The more frightening possibility is that they have bought into the prophesies of the doom-sayers who argue that theatre is a dying medium, and that they have decided to sacrifice the NTC in order to prop up their core programs for as long as possible until the whole institution goes belly up. Either way, this incredibly short-sighted decision casts doubt upon the future of the DCPA and the whole Denver theatre community.

I've groped for some way to see this as anything other than a disaster, and the best that I could come up with is that maybe the DCPA board is only pretending to be stupid and is really cynical and manipulative. The phenomenon of donor fatigue is well-documented, and one of the best ways to get people to open their wallets is to manufacture a crisis (just look at the way campaigning politicians have mastered the art of spinning each new development into an opportunity for their supporters to give money). They are saying right now that they will be eliminating the program with no plans to ever bring it back, but everyone knows that they would reconsider in a heartbeat if a deep-pocketed donor offered a big gift to keep the NTC going. Sad as it is, I actually find myself hoping that the board decided that making this shocking announcement suddenly and without warning was the best way to galvanize potential donors into providing the support that they need to get through the recession. Unfortunately, it seems equally possible that they might be killing the NTC as a way to spur donors into giving money that will go towards the theatre company and Denver Center Attractions: "Better donate now, or the plays you enjoy might suffer the same fate as the conservatory."

I could keep listing all of the different reasons why this surprise decision is really stupid and dangerous, but there's little to be gained by it. It all boils down to the fact that throwing away the future to "save" the present is a horrible mistake, and I can only hope that we will not someday look back at this as the beginning of the end of quality theatre in Denver.