Farming The Arts

A couple weeks ago on the Americans for the Arts blog, Joshua Russell suggested a farm system for arts leadership similar to what professional sports teams use. I got to thinking about that concept in the context of arts organizations in general.

My first thought was that there is already a farm team feeder set up for so many segments of the performing arts, going something like: high school —>college/conservatory —> professional. Depending on the discipline, then you might get into different strata for theatre companies, symphonies, dance companies where performing with one is more prestigious than another.

Farm League Actors?
Then I started thinking about whether some sort of system like this might be possible in theatre since that is the area whose training and performance system I am most familiar. There are, in fact, a number of college/conservatory theatre training programs with very close associations to LORT theatres that provide actors, stage managers and technicians with practical experience (and the theatres with less expensive labor.) But there is a lot of room for expansion. Given a huge infusion of money and a shift in funding structures, could Broadway and the League of Resident Theatres (LORT) create a feeder system? Done right, it could shift the focus away from NYC, Los Angeles and Chicago as the ultimate career goal and strengthen theatre regionally. Of course, it would take about 25-30 years for attitudes to shift sufficiently away from the holy trinity as a career destination.

Toledo Tyrones, Guthrie Triple A Team
There is already a tacit acknowledgment of stature, but I imagine some people, as a matter of ego, and there is plenty of that in the arts, might not like to have their local theatre overtly regarded as substandard to the organizations they feed into. On the other hand, a lot of people find minor league baseball games and the parks that house them to be a lot more fun and family friendly than the majors. Presumably, there would be some sort of investment of funds and resources from up the chain to sustain the system of cultivation. That might improve quality on many fronts for the single A to triple A level theatres.

Setting Down Roots

I think it would also go a long way to solve some of the concerns Scott Walters and Tom Loughlin have about the careers theatre training programs are preparing students for if there were viable career opportunities that allowed people to maintain a long term regional residency. It might not stem the tide of too many people pursuing too few opportunities, but it might keep creative people closer to home where they could apply that skill in ways that would bolster the local economy.

The Wise Farmer Plans Long Term
Ultimately, short of an immense shift in thousands of elements, I don’t anticipate this happening any time soon. At least not on a national scale. I think a single regional theatre could make a commitment to sourcing locally. They could go to a couple of training programs and commit to employing their students with an eye to keeping them around for a long time. Every college program I have been associated with has a pretty good idea what high schools feed them. The colleges and the theatre could go to them and say they look forward to seeing their students on their stages and they hope the schools continue to maintain strong arts programs. The theatre could also go around to other theatres throughout the region looking for up and coming talent.

Then the theatre could employ their board connections directly and indirectly to create a program where artists could secure good rents and mortgages and get other incentives to stay locally. In turn some of those who are attracted/retained to the area can target the feeder schools as teachers and visiting artists to help cultivate that resource–and eventually expand to other schools.

By the way, this is partially how the whole regional theatre system was supposed to work. Instead, they turned to NYC to do most of their casting. This hypothetical theatre would be looking to lure people back or give them an incentive to never go. To some degree, it would actually be healthy for the theatre to have people go away to work with other actors and organizations and then return. While Broadway may always be the gold standard in many respects, it might be best to have people going away to work in places that served regional communities because those are the audiences the theatre wants its people to learn to serve.

Shifting The Conversation
But in terms of a national movement, I think there is a better chance of Walters and Loughlin succeeding in changing the way students are trained and the way their expectations are shaped than having most theatres change how they source their talent.

Sports and Theatre
In that context, my mind turned to a comparison of the athletics and farm system for professional sports. The systems aren’t completely analogous, but there are enough similarities to speculate a little. The problem area that Walters and Loughlin identify is the college/conservatory stage where people choose to major in theatre hoping to make a career of it.

For college sports, a lot of athletes are offered scholarships to play for the school. There is a fair amount of controversy about this because there is a lot of money invested in non-academic pursuits at educational institutions. Victories bring prestige and increased donations from alumni. There is also criticism made of the fact that these students generate a lot of money for the school, but often don’t get a good education out of the deal because of low expectations of them or even lack of time to excel in both sports and academics.

Practical Professional Expectations
But the thing is, despite all the investment into the athletic programs and the players, you pretty much know that not everyone is going to get to play professionally. There are far fewer professional teams than there are college programs that can feed them. There are 32 NFL teams and about 120 college football teams in Division I alone. There are only a select few who can successfully operate at the level required by professional sports.

You occasionally hear about athletes getting short shrift on their education or having irrational expectations of being recruited to play pro right out of high school. But how many people will complain if all of Alabama’s defensive tackles didn’t get drafted to the NFL even though the school finished first in the football standings last year?

Status Enumerated
Statistically, every defensive tackle that graduates each year may have a better chance of going pro than every acting student that graduates, but for all practical purposes, the chances are the same. So what is the difference? Why aren’t more athletes taking temporary jobs, biding their time until their opportunity comes?

Well, for one thing, I think its partially that numbers help define your place in sports. You know how fast you can run, how many times you have completed an action successfully and how many times you didn’t. Personality and passion also contribute to whether someone wants you for their team, but the statistics provide a baseline comparison between you and everyone else and you know what teams value. You may think you weren’t used to your greatest potential, but you probably have few illusions about an athletics career going forward.

What Are Ian McKellen’s Stats?
In the arts, things are much more subjective. Assessment is as much about how you have improved and demonstrated you have started to grasp concepts as it is about your overall talent. Just like there are only a few people who have the ability to hit a 90 mph fastball and solve complicated physics problems, there are only a very few with magnificent acting talent. Except that personality and good looks can be just as important at the end of the day as skill. Trying harder won’t get most of us any closer to hitting that fast ball, but with such subjectivity muddying the evaluative waters, it is easy to believe success is just a matter of patience and trying hard.

In an earlier time, I think those who instructed would have had an easier time trying to disabuse their students of this notion. Now that we can watch people try out for American Idol at the mall and make it to the final rounds based heavily on charisma inspired voting, I think it is harder to convince people that the odds are greatly against them period, much less based on lack of ability.

I Didn’t Go To Class Because I Was Practicing Being A Lizard*
One of the great similarities between theatre students and athletes in Division I colleges is that grades often suffer as a result of their pursuits. (Though there is far more pressure on instructors to grade athletes more leniently.) Because of their great emotional investment in theatre, those students often neglect to complete assignments or even attend classes in favor of theatre related activities.

A number of theatre departments threaten dire consequences for students who let this happen by commission or omission. But as I have mentioned before, I think Tom Loughlin’s idea that students need to be trained to employ their abilities more widely becomes more apt. If students are going to cut class and neglect studies to do arts related stuff, you might as well have them channeling their passion toward doing something that will develop skills with wide applications.

*I didn’t skip class, but I did spend a lot of time practicing being a lizard for my scene work in Edward Albee’s Seascape

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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