"From the Ground Floor." Behind a Unique Theater Education Gift

  photo: wavebreakmedia/shutterstock

 photo: wavebreakmedia/shutterstock

While recently ruminating on the expanding influence of the Shubert Foundation, I called attention to the growing influence of institutional arts funders in fields that traditionally lack robust individual support like dance and theater.

Theater, in particular, has made some strides in expanding the donor base across the past few years—I'll get to that in a second—but at the end of the day, the field still remains disproportionately reliant on the benevolence of foundations.

This is why I found a gift late last year from NBC Chairman Robert Greenblatt so interesting.

Greenblatt donated $500,000 to the Educational Theatre Association’s (EdTA) fundraising arm and newly established non-profit organization, the Educational Theatre Foundation, earmarked for JumpStart Theatre. The program’s goal is as simple as it is refreshingly novel: to create sustainable musical theatre programs in middle schools where there previously were none.

The overall mission of the foundation is to provide financial support to enhance theatre education and to expand access to theatre programs for every child. EdTA developed the JumpStart Theatre program in partnership with NYC-based companies Music Theatre International and iTheatrics. 

"I'm extremely proud to be getting in on JumpStart Theatre from the ground floor," Greenblatt said." As someone whose life was fundamentally enriched by a robust theatre program in my high school in Rockford, Illinois, I believe that bringing theatre to young people in as many schools as possible is vital. 

"We know the powerful social and developmental benefits that kids get from the arts, and it’s up to us to fill in the gaps as public and government funding becomes more scarce."

Starting from Scratch

Greenblatt's gift seems relatively straightforward, but there's actually a lot going on behind the scenes here (weak pun unintended).

For starters, consider the larger arts education landscape. Public funding at the local level remains stagnant. In some regions, it may never return to pre-Great Recession levels. Donors have risen to the challenge by providing financial lifelines for imperiled school districts or shoring up existing programs.

EdTA’s JumpStart Theatre, however, is a new program focused on middle schools that have no theater footprint whatsoever.  The program equips non-theatre teachers with the skills and resources to produce their school's first musical through a proven combination of hands-on mentoring and boot-camp style training.

On the heels of a successful pilot in its home city of Cincinnati, JumpStart Theatre will be expanded next to St. Louis and San Diego through partnerships with STAGES St. Louis and the La Jolla Playhouse in La Jolla, California.

EdTA's JumpStart Theatre also netted a gift from the Schubert Foundation, which on the surface, doesn't seem surprising, until you learn that the gift marks the first time the funder, which was established in 1945, has given a grant to an educational program outside of New York City.

Other 2017 donors include Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, the Houghton Family Fund, and ArtsWave.

By pushing into new markets and generating donor support, EdTA's success reflects a demand for non-collegiate theater education—an often-ignored sub-niche of arts education philanthropy—in underserved communities. 

Not only is this all very cool, it's also very rare in an arts education funding space that typically finds donors plugging leaks rather than building new programs from scratch.

An Outlier Among Patrons

As noted, the theater landscape, while mostly reliant on foundation support, has a healthy share of patrons. These include Hollywood and Broadway insiders like Diane Lane, Meryl Streep, and Lin-Manuel Miranda, financiers like John A. Griffin and Barry Diller, alumni boosters, and regional donors.

We’ve also seen a new crop of "outsider" donors across the past year, like like Qualcomm cofounder Dr. Andrew Viterbi, DC-base real estate investor Curtis T. Bell, and even a Powerball winner, one Roy Cockrum.

Nonetheless, these donors almost exclusively direct their giving towards big-city professional troupes, nonprofit venues, or their alma mater’s theater program. By supporting a brand new program aimed at school kids in places like Cincinnati, St. Louis, and La Jolla, Robert Greenblatt is an outlier.

His public philanthropic CV, meanwhile, is pretty thin. I did, however, discover that in 2011, he received the Stephen F. Kolzak Award from GLAAD, which is presented to an openly LGBT media professional who has made a significant difference in promoting equality.

And in 2016 Greenblatt was presented with the Actors Fund Medal of Honor, which is awarded by the Actors' Fund of America to individuals and organizations that are "committed to enriching the entertainment community."

Greenblatt may be a philanthropic outlier and a relative newcomer. But given the fact he's supporting a theater education organization at the "ground floor," he may also turn out to be a trailblazer. That's certainly his intention.

"I hope my gift will encourage other theatre and television professionals, or anyone who values young kids having access to the arts, to join me in supporting this great program," he said.