What's Behind Newman's Own's Challenge Grant to the Westport Playhouse?

News out of Connecticut suggests that even celebrated theaters in relatively affluent areas sometimes need help. The Westport Country Playhouse was awarded a $75,000 Challenge Grant from Newman's Own Foundation, the outfit started by Paul Newman (of course) that's known for giving away its profits and — pardon the commentary – its impressive line of salad dressings.

On the surface, one would assume that the playhouse would be in pretty good shape. The Wall Street Journal recently named it Theater Company of the Year. It's situated in Westport, Connecticut, a well-to-do town about 50 miles from New York City with a median household income of $152,586. And it has the priceless cache of its association with with most famous blue eyes in movie history — Newman and his wife Joanne Woodward were instrumental in the Playhouse's founding.

But inevitably, there are certain things beyond the playhouse's control. Namely, the fact that it's really, really difficult to pay for operational and capital expenses with ticket sales alone. As the Playhouse notes, ticket sales pay for only one-third of their operating costs. 

This is a fairly common phenomenon, thanks to good old fashioned market economics, of course. The Playhouse, like every other performance-based nonprofit out there, must straddle that fine line between excessive ticket prices that can drive away an audience and prices so low that it severely restricts cash flow.

For example, one of the playhouse's signature offerings is its "Together at the Table Family Dinner." For only $10, families get dinner and a performance. A brilliant idea? Of course. But does it cover the costs? Unlikely. And so donations must fill the gap.

This grant will help the Playhouse in three ways: 

  • Building long-term organizational capacity and stability.
  • Increasing awareness of the Playhouse's role as an important nonprofit cultural resource.
  • Inspiring loyal patrons to invest beyond the price of a ticket.

The grant represents an interesting foray into arts funding for the foundation. Newman's Own has four main focus areas: organizations that encourage philanthropy, helping children with life-limiting conditions, organizations that empower people to overcome extraordinary adverse circumstances, and organizations implementing model solutions to issues of hunger and nutrition for under-served communities.

Newman's Own astutely launched that challenge on December 2, 2014 to coincide with #GivingTuesday, a national day of philanthropy. The challenge runs until the end of the year.