What Can Mellon's Big Grant to an LA Theater Group Tell Us About the Future of Nonprofit Theater?

Center Theatre Group, a nonprofit theatre organization based in Culver City, CA, recently received a $1 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to help build out its program offerings across the Los Angeles area. A closer analysis suggests that their approach can be viewed as a model for other big-city nonprofit theater groups looking to secure donor dollars.

Three things in particular about the group's approach caught our eye:

First, the grant marks a transition from "non-text" work towards ensemble-based collaboration. The $1 million gift comes five years after Mellon's grant supporting the commissioning, development, and production of "non-text-based" work, which was underrepresented in the Southern California area at the time. This new grant marks the next phase of Mellon's interest in the group, and the funding will be used to "collaboratively create contemporary work from ensembles, devisers and writers, supporting the creative arc from commissioning through development and production."

Second, ensemble theatre is ascendant. Group-affiliated director Diane Rodriguez noted, "In the last few years, we have seen the ensemble movement grow and flourish in this country. This program is part of that movement" This ensemble-centric approach puts the group in direct contact with diverse companies across the country and the world. For example, one project in development is "Hope" by Evelina Fernandez and the Latino Theatre Company, which examines the Mexican diaspora in the United States in the mid-60s.

Third, the group's programming offerings are deceptively diverse. We must admit we were slightly surprised here. The press release announcing the Mellon gift referred to the group as an entity that combines "performance, technology, imagery, music, heightened text and often, but not exclusively, a non-linear narrative." At first blush it sounds like a somewhat experimental outfit, but further investigation revealed that this was only partially true. Sure, the group does offer seemingly experimental offerings, but they won't shy away from Broadway hits or classics like "Porgy and Bess."

In fact, this latter approach is a classic example of balancing that fine line between commercialism versus creativity. Will people pack their theaters to see shows like "Porgy and Bess?" Absolutely. And the income generated from these plays will help fund smaller or more experimental plays as well as other educational offerings and locally-focused programs. For example, the group encourages Southern Californian playwrights to submit their ideas to the group. If the group likes it, they'll work with the playwright to bring it to the stage.

For more insights around what Mellon looks for when doling out theater grants, check out IP's guide on this topic here.