Beauty and hope at centre stage
Meet the Taproot Theatre Company: artists-as-missionaries to huge audiences.
For American theatres, longevity is success. Success doesn't show up in financial statements—all theatres live on the edge. Just sticking around, being allowed to continue doing what you're doing, is the mark of a successful theatre. By this standard, Taproot Theatre Company of Seattle, Washington, is a wild success.
"Taproot" started as a touring company dedicated to "creating theatre that explores the beauty and questions of life while providing hope to our search for meaning." After thirty-one years, during which dozens of other theatres in Seattle have opened and closed, Taproot performs for more than 100,000 people every year: for 34,000 on their permanent, main stage, and double that with over 250 touring performances.
The idea for Taproot surfaced during spring break in 1976. A half dozen friends, all in their senior year of college at Seattle Pacific University, realized that they should start thinking about what to do once they graduated. Seattle had a deep love for the arts and a deep aversion to religion, so the friends decided to start a theatre company that would produce work that discussed issues from a redemptive, Christian point of view. They were too young and too brash to realize what they were in for.
"A deep love for the arts, and a deep aversion to religion"
Scott Nolte emerged as the de facto leader, helping them to focus their artistic influences, their social goals, and their faith into a coherent mission statement. He also established what would be Taproot's three core values: To Value Faith, Respect People, and Celebrate Theatre. In time, he was named Producing Artistic Director and his wife, Pam, whom he married in college, was named Marketing Director in addition to acting on stage.
Nolte can seem like the "anti-artist." Unassuming and perfectly at ease in a quiet suit and tie, he speaks plainly, and he tends not to draw undue attention to himself. In a culture where our image of "the artist" is arrogant, flighty, and temperamental, Scott Nolte projects confidence and humility.
"There's a bit of an activist in me," Nolte assures us. He calls himself a product of the civil rights, anti-war, and Jesus People movements. "Part of me feels a rallying cry: 'We need to do something, because society seems hell-bent on self-destruction!' But I'm not a preacher. I'm not an apologist. I'm an artist."
The most important support for Taproot's launch came from Seattle Pacific, a Christian university, and from the Noltes' church. While the public conversations about values, purpose, and social questions were once pursued in churches and other institutions of worship, by the time the Noltes and their friends were graduating college, fewer than 20% of Seattleites practiced any kind of religion. Committed atheists outnumbered dedicated believers. And the church-at-large wasn't part of the social discussion anymore.
The artists were. "Seattle absolutely adored the arts," Nolte says. He is quick to list the statistics: Seattleites went to the movies and the library more than residents of any other U.S. city, Seattle had more art galleries than Chicago or L.A., and Seattle had the second highest population of actors in the country.
So, their church encouraged the friends to view themselves as missionaries, bringing the Gospel into a new context and translating it into a new language. To reinforce the idea of the artist-as-missionary, Nolte and his friends raised support for their salaries during the first few years of the theatre. Over time they moved to a more traditional, non-profit model of taking their salaries from donations and earned income.
As with other missionaries, the founders sought to engage their "mission field." "We wanted to have a conversation with our community," Nolte says. "So we had to ask, 'What stories need to be told in order to start the kind of conversations we want to have?'"
The church was out of the social discussion, but the artists were in
Plays that take on serious issues with a missional perspective are often second-rate fluff, or else just thinly-disguised altar calls. Taproot looks for plays that don't deny the darkness of the world, that acknowledge the struggles people have, without running from controversial or depressing topics. Finding a full season of intelligent, complex plays that deal with these issues but still maintain a biblical worldview has been challenging.
"From the beginning, we didn't want to simply be a 'nice theatre for church people,' where they could feel completely safe and not bump into words or ideas that would unsettle them," Nolte says. "That's not the Old Testament prophets' model. That's not Jesus' model."
While he wishes the search for material to perform on the main stage that Taproot has operated for seventeen years weren't so hard, it has afforded the opportunity to spark discussion not just among audience members, but also among the actors and technical staff.
"Along with crossroads for the audience," Nolte says, "where we can get a minister to sit next to a Buddhist and have them laughing and thinking and working though the same kinds of issues together, we want to create crossroads backstage as well." Although actors and other artists who have worked with Taproot are eager to come back, only about half of them are Christians. Anyone who wishes may join the prayer before each rehearsal and performance, and Taproot works hard to make all artists feel valued, regardless of whether they share the company's values. But proselytizing and criticizing others' perspectives or lifestyles are forbidden.
On the night of the World Trade Center attacks in 2001, Nolte received firsthand evidence that the cast and crew recognize the value of the Christian ideas and values Taproot is expressing, regardless of their religious affiliation. Every actor showed up at the theatre, unbidden, for rehearsal that evening. The production in rehearsal was A Joyful Noise, a play which had premiered in New York City only eighteen months earlier about Handel's composing Messiah.
"They wanted to be part of something that was redemptive," Nolte says of the cast. "They wanted to be part of something that was hopeful."
Crossroads, on stage and backstage
However, long before Taproot could spark conversations, Scott Nolte had to learn how to run the operation. Neither the Noltes nor any of the other founders of Taproot knew anything about running a theatre company—in 1976 there were few, if any, MFA programs in Arts Administration, and few internships at major playhouses.
One of the first tasks of any "non-profit" is to form a board of directors. The early board was vital to Taproot's success. "Assembling our board of directors really began with the question, 'What skills do we need at the table?'" Taproot needed people with experience in accounting, fundraising, and the professional side of the theatre business. Nolte says that having Taproot's mission and values clearly articulated and on paper from the beginning was a tremendous help in finding the right people. They were able to put together a board that supported Taproot's mission and were adept at striking a balance between the theatre's practical and creative demands—Do they use money to update the computers or to replace the lights? Should budget be spent on more actors or more box-office staff? "Having our DNA, who we were and what we wanted to accomplish defined, allowed us to assemble key staff and a board of directors who were not only smarter than me, but who would also share Taproot's vision."
As the company launched, Nolte started to seek out every source of knowledge he could.
He developed a voracious and life-long appetite for books. There is an ever-cycling stack of books on business, non-profit management, and theatre in his car.
He sought out theatres and theatre companies that were pursuing both a commitment to a defined vision and a commitment to making quality art, and looked at them as a benchmark for what Taproot could do.
"I place a high value on my friendships with other theatres' artistic directors, administrative leaders, and even some critics," he says. "There are lots to be learned from exchanging our successes, failures, and challenges. Ninety percent are not Christian, but good practices—artistic and business—are often models worth adapting."
Thanks to Nolte's intentionally developed business sense, Taproot hasn't faced some of the crises that poorly conceived risks have visited on other arts organizations. Pam Nolte credits Taproot's longevity in part to its patient, methodical growth. Over the years, several times the company's future seemed doubtful. But Taproot survived, thanks to sound financial planning and the support of loyal patrons.
"Scott is a visionary leader," she says. "But like all visionaries, he wants to move fast." She credits Taproot's board and staff with tempering his impulsive side, teaching him to channel his energy and enthusiasm into something more deliberate and sustainable. She says he's developed "a good business head."
"There is a surprising consistency between our founding intentions and where Taproot is at right now, thirty-one years later," Nolte says. When you see one of Taproot's shows, "it's not about didactic measures or an altar call. It's the delivery of a story and counting on the audience to be responsible enough or bothered enough that they'll go away and sort through what the story had to say."
Public trusts they won't read John 3:16
Taproot's commitment to raising key issues instead of prescribing answers was instrumental in developing consistent venues for their touring, which laid the foundation in Taproot's early years, and continues today. "Before the main stage, I used to joke that unless you were in a public school, jail, or church, you'd never see Taproot." Today, Taproot tours issues-based plays to clubs, corporate functions, and churches as well as to elementary and secondary schools.
Despite touring to churches, Taproot has always spent relatively little energy trying to get churchgoers into the doors of the main stage theatre, or actively seeking bookings at churches and church events. They've developed a reputation among the religious community for plays that, while not overly gentle or saccharine, also don't contain gratuitous or indecent material, so the religious community feels confident attending. Not focusing exclusively on building a church audience allowed Taproot the freedom to build relationships with public institutions who have grown to trust that they're not just looking for an excuse "to get on stage and start reading John 3:16 to the kids."
What role does Nolte feel Taproot's plays should have in the spiritual lives of people who aren't Christians? "I'm not a pastor," he emphatically insists, to the audience, or the cast and crew. If anything, Taproot seeks to make change in people's spiritual lives easier, not to be the catalyst for that change.
"After all," Nolte says with a contented grin, "someone has to put a stick in the ground and dig out a hole before anyone can plant a seed in it."