I grew up in the New York metropolitan area, and I vividly recall the ad campaign for the New York State Lottery: "All you need is a dollar and a dream."
But I never imagined that one ex-monk's dream would be to use lottery winnings to bankroll the production of a dense, impenetrable, and frequently harrowing 900-page novel from a deceased Chilean writer. But that's exactly what one Roy Cockrum did.
Let's start from the beginning, shall we?
Roy Cockrum, age 58, is a former actor and stage manager who studied theater at Northwestern University near Chicago and became an Episcopal monk in 2003, only to leave his order several years ago to care for his parents in Tennessee. To my knowledge, Episcopal monks don't believe in being rewarded for "good deeds," but nonetheless, while caring for his parents in Tennessee, Cockrum won the $153 million Powerball jackpot.
And so Cockrum did what any of us would do. He started the Roy Cockrum Foundation, which is "dedicated to helping nonprofit theaters 'reach beyond their normal scope of activities and undertake ambitious and creative productions.'" The foundation did not disappoint.
Its first grant, described as in the "high six or low seven figures," went to New York City's Goodman Theater to support a five-hour adaptation of Roberto Bolaño’s 900-page novel 2666. I read the book, which centers on a fictional Mexican border city plagued by unspeakable violence, and it is truly mind-blowing—except for the one section of the book exclusively devoted to describing this violence in skin-crawling detail. I skipped that section.
Needless to say, it wouldn't be my first choice for a theatrical work.
The foundation recently announced its second grant recipient (and no, it's not a 10-hour interpretation of Joyce's Ulysses. Though it does sound like a smash.) The recipient is the Steppenwolf Theater Company in Chicago, to support a production of "Mary Page Marlowe," a new play by the Pulitzer Prize-winner Tracy Letts. A spokesman for Steppenwolf declined to specify the size of the grant, but called it "a large and unprecedented contribution."
What can nonprofit theaters take from all this? First, programmers should embrace ambitious productions because of their own inherent value. But they can also be heartened that more and more foundations seem willing to fund bold new works. (The Cockrum Foundation considers grants by invitation only.)
While Broadway continues to resemble an overheated ATM machine, this rising tide of philanthropy is lifting the boats elsewhere. The Cockrum announcement comes a few months after news that Don Russell, a longtime supporter of alternative New York theater, gave $200,000 for a major endowment to the Innovative Theatre Foundation, the organization dedicated to celebrating Off-Off (yes that's two "Offs") Broadway.
All in all, good news abounds for creators, produders, and fans of original and exciting theatrical work.
Now if you'll excuse me, I'm heading down to the 7-11 to spend the dog food money on a pile of 10X Super Fast Cash scratch-off games. I'm feeling lucky.