Why Is This Visionary Bankrolling Off-Off-Broadway Theater For Perpetuity?

Pity the visionaries. They wake up in the middle of the night with a bold and uncompromising, well, vision, only to roll over in frustration, realizing that modern technology can't bring the idea to fruition. And so they wait.

While it may not be the best analogy, given the dubious quality of the films in question, George Lucas cited this dilemma as one of the reasons he decided to bring the last three Stars Wars prequels to screen. For 30 years he had a vision, yet during that time, existing technology couldn't appropriately translate that vision. However, thanks to the advancement of CGI technology, he eventually felt comfortable in resurrecting the franchise. Lucky us.

We bring this up in the context of recent news from off-off-Broadway (that's two "offs" for those keeping track at home). Around here, we often look at what compels givers to give. We like to assume the role of armchair psychologist and toss off psychological theories that would make Freud blush. Things like honest-to-goodness benevolence, arrogance, and guilt.

But sometimes givers give because modern technology, at long last, catches up to the wild visions dancing in their heads. Such is the case with the godfather of avant garde theater, Don Russell.

Russell has cultivated off-off-Broadway productions for over a half-century through generous charitable giving. He's kind of like an avant guard Pied Piper of sorts, seeking out the most gifted experimental innovators in the field. He even wrote a book called Avant-Guardian: 1965-1990: A Theater Foundation Director's 25 Years Off Broadway.

All of this work culminates in his most recent give: $200,000 for a major endowment to the Innovative Theatre Foundation (IT Foundation), the organization dedicated to celebrating Off-Off-Broadway.

And by "celebrating off-off Broadway" we mean it. Over the past decade, the IT Awards has honored 1,800 individual artists, over 500 productions, and 420 theater companies. Their work is especially important given the precarious state of Broadway nowadays. As the New York Times recently noted, there are 40 theaters on Broadway. Yet in the spring of 2015, only three original American plays will be put into production.

As a result, off- and off-off-Broadway outfits understand that they can no longer view themselves as a "farm system" for the "big leagues." They need to create and innovate as completely self-sufficient ecosystems, unconcerned with the siren call of the Great White Way.

This, of course, isn't news to Don Russell. The writing's been on the wall for ages. Besides, we venture to guess he never cared about splashy Broadway productions anyway.

So the question is this: Beyond the most obvious reason that the IT Foundation supports experimental theater in an ever-shifting industry, why did Russell cut the check? The answer would make George Lucas take a break from conjuring up merchandising schemes and slowly nod in approval: Technical advancements have finally matched Russell's most ambitious visions.

"Since today's protagonists themselves have embraced such far-reaching technical advances that allow for amazing presentations undreamed of earlier," Russell noted, "I encourage them by funding an organization such as the Innovative Theatre Foundation, that is then capable of granting awards and recognition to a far broader range of performance-related categories than ever before."

While specifics on how this money will be spent have not yet been made public, the foundation has confirmed that a portion of the funding will be used for organizational infrastructure and a portion will be passed onto the artists and companies working off-off-Broadway.

The lesson? Visionaries can be a principled, stubborn bunch. But with a little patiencesay a half-century or sothey can also be quite generous.