Legal Ways to Fix the Not-For-Profit Theatre Industry

Rickey Orr

The United States’ not-for-profit theatre industry is in a lot of trouble. Rising costs, dwindling audiences, and lower aid from individuals and governmental organizations have left many theaters in unrecoverable budget deficits.[1] To mitigate these factors that were accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic, theatres across the country have laid off staff, canceled their production seasons, and/or shuttered their doors altogether.[2]

It is essential that the not-for-profit theatre industry survives. These theatres are often the only professional theatre in their area, are a launchpad for original work, and a pipeline to future Broadway productions. Forging a new path for this industry may be hard, but it is the only option we have. Here are some ideas of how to rescue and reignite the not-for-profit theatre industry:

Federal Department of Arts and Culture

The creation of a Federal Department of Arts and Culture could give necessary funding to the nation’s not-for-profit theatres. It could also give these theatres a national profile and the means to promote themselves to the American public. This could include an hour-long national PBS special or a commercial featuring a celebrating attending a show, like the AMC one with Nicole Kidman.

Make the performing arts a K-12 core subject

Making the performing arts a K-12 core subject could create new theatergoing audiences for years to come. This long term strategy would involve children growing up and participating in the arts, whether they ultimately pursue it professionally or not, and develop a lifelong passion and respect for the arts.

When these children are adults, they would be more willing to attend shows, and possibly vote for or pass legislation benefiting the performing arts. This method would also show society what the arts can do for their community, while allowing theatre itself to become more valued and respected in society.

A federal bailout for the not-for-profit theatre industry

A federal bailout for the not-for-profit theatre industry could deliver funds immediately to struggling theatres.[3] The relief money could require workforce development programs or diversity pipelines be instituted at any theatre that uses their funds.

Consider using property tax-backed bonds to fund theatres

Using taxes from property sales could fund not-for-profit theatres. This would require local governments to pass legislation or redirect funds. However, it is important to note that theatres located in areas with higher property taxes or more expensive property would receive more funding than their counterparts in lower income areas.

Start a new federal theatre program

The creation of a new federal theatre program, like the Works Public Administration’s (WPA) in the 1930s would give not-for-profit theatres numerous benefits. It would create many jobs for artists across the country and reaffirm theatre’s vital contribution to our society.

Pass the Creative Economy Revitalization Act and the Promoting Local Arts and Creative Economy Workforce Act

The Creative Economy Revitalization Act is similar to the WPA’s Federal Theatre Program as it would create workforce grant programs at not-for-profit theatres to prioritize artists who became unemployed during the Covid-19 pandemic.[4] This program would be administered by the National Endowment of the Arts and the Department of Labor.

The Promoting Local Arts and Creative Economy Workforce Act (the PLACE Act) would create workforce development programs, include the creative economy in government-wide strategic planning, make specialized bank services for arts organizations, create tax credits, allow artists to receive FEMA disaster benefits and create an interagency council focused on the growth of the creative economy.[5]

A new business model for not-for-profit theatres

Another way to move pass this theatre crisis is to rethink how theatres are funded. Perhaps a model other than the 501(c)(3) model is necessary. Hopefully, one focused on creating sustainable businesses.

To increase audiences, theatres could copy patron loyalty programs used by hotels and airlines.[6] The key would be to get subscribers to feel as if a season has been personalized for them in the same manner subscriptions in other industries are.

Another idea is to cut down costs by sharing resources with other theatres. This includes increasing the number of coproductions and sharing the same sets and crew members.[7]


[1] Michael Paulson, A Crisis in America’s Theaters Leaves Prestigious Stages Dark, N.Y. Times (July 25, 2023),,%2C%20in%20some%20cases%2C%20closing.&text=There%20is%20less%20theater%20in,Fewer%20venues. [ ] [].

[2] LA Times Today: Shocking Closure at L.A.’s Mark Taper Forum Reflects a Crisis at Regional Theaters Nationwide, L.A. Times (June 23, 2023), [] [].

[3] Isaac Butler, American Theater Is Imploding Before Our Eyes, N.Y. Times (July 19, 2023), [] [].

[4] Creative Economy Revitalization Act, H.R. 5019, 117th Cong. (2021).

[5] Promoting Local Arts and Creative Economy Workforce Act of 2020 of the PLACE Act, H.R. 7487, 116th Cong. (2020).

[6] Lily Janiak, Can Bay Area theaters make subscriptions sexy again?, S.F. Chron. (Aug. 1, 2023),,seems%20to%20confirm%20that%20notion. [] [].

[7] Alexandra Pierson et al., Theatre in Crisis: What We’re Losing, and What Comes Next, American Theatre (July 24, 2023), [] [].