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A Passion to Give

Brett Neveu on how to give to theaters without writing a check.

    Theaters need dough. That’s something anyone who has ever attended any theater, big or small, knows from the get-go. The majority of Chicago’s theaters are non-profits, so they rely on donations, grants and ticket sales to keep them afloat from season to season. Asking for money is a part of that bag, so it shouldn’t be news within our strained economy that theaters are hurting. Ticket sales seem to be the least affected (folks still want to see live theater, be it at a reasonable price), but monetary donations are beginning to dry up. It is too early to tell how the full season will run its course, but chances are the cost-effectiveness of running a theater (or a show) will dismantle the ability to produce (Forbidden Broadway’s canceling of its show three weeks early a prime example). The offstage world and the onstage worlds currently exist in the same money time frame; neither has any extra to spare, and they will continue to pare down their budgets until comfort or failure. It’s a difficult position for patron and presenter, one that leaves both frustrated and staring at each other’s turned-out pockets.
    There are ways for both to navigate around and over this time of uncertainty, and for the time being, the solution may not have to rely singularly on cash. Passion for a project is always free, or can be, and passion is what most of Chicago theater runs on. Having spent 20 years writing plays, I’ve realized that the majority of these works have been “passion projects” (plays I wrote not for money, but because
I felt a passion about a specific issue or a certain subject matter). The same passion translates to why individuals donate to theaters; they see something by those artists that moves them, so they wish those artists to continue working in hopes that they will continue to create moving projects. This passion for a theater does not cease when we can no longer afford to mail a check. It continues and perhaps even pokes at us more when we find ourselves becoming detached from a theater we have supported for years.  How can individual donors continue to feel connected to their passion while still paying attention to their pocket books?
    Time. Time is the one thing that theaters need most of (besides, yes, money). Time to build sets, time to rehearse, time to fold programs, time to organize auditions and time to come up with strategies so they can survive the next year. If you are a “lost donor,” unable to find a way to connect with your favorite theater(s), then give the theater(s) some of your time. Call them and ask them if they could use an extra hand. Ask them if they need anyone to usher. Ask them if they need anybody to help paint a set or if they need anybody to bring a few cups of coffee over to rehearsal. Your support would not only be welcome, but surprising. Even if you only have a few hours to spare, those few hours could mean a company member doesn’t have to vacuum the lobby. That’s a great way to feed your passion.
    Another way to keep the passion flowing is to donate stuff. Theaters (especially the small ones) always are in need of things—computers, phones, chairs, power tools, paper towels, paint, wood, etc. If you’ve got a pile of stuff in your garage, basement or attic, call your theater of choice and ask if they could use a [fill in the blank]. Your donation of stuff saves the company money, lets them know you’re thinking of them and often translates directly into what you see on stage. I remember donating an antique red velvet chair to a theater company and then later seeing that same chair in one of their plays. I thought, “Hey! My chair! It’s part of a show instead of just sitting in my storage space!” I felt good about donating and good about the chair. It was a win-win.
    Being creative with your passion is how theater can survive this current money crunch. If you can still be passionate by sending money, by all means, keep the cash flowing. If you do find yourself in a tight spot and are wondering how you can keep connected with your theater(s), get out there and meet them, help them and give them stuff.
    Chicago theater needs whatever passion you’ve got.

Published: December 05, 2008
Issue: Winter 2008 - Annual Philanthropy Guide