Theatre Ph.D. Dissertations

Something Beautiful: Craft and Survival in North American Alternative Theatre Companies

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


Theatre and Film

First Advisor

Ron Shields


The strategies that North American nonprofit theatre companies employ to ensure pragmatic survival and artistic advancement prove critical to their abilities to continue working. When the artists in these companies utilize alternative approaches to creation, the abstract quality of the resulting productions often exacerbates the need for successful survival tactics, as performances appeal to a limited number of paying audience members. Theatre practitioners who emphasize long-term performer training and the lengthy development of original montaged productions, such as companies building upon the artistic tradition of Jerzy Grotowski, represent one extreme sect of these marginalized artists. Relying on data gleaned from North American Cultural Laboratory (NaCl) in New York and Number Eleven Theatre in Toronto, two companies influenced by this artistic tradition, this study employs a grounded-theory method of analysis to examine the strategies marginalized nonprofit alternative theatre companies use to negotiate the tension between economic viability and artistic integrity. The study reveals that these groups engage in several common survival strategies with varying degrees of success. The major differences within the companies’ tactics derive from the groups’ varying working structures, locations, and economic conditions. As a result of these dynamics, each company relies on one particular survival tactic most fully to ensure continued existence and artistic refinement; NaCl orchestrates community-based events, whereas Number Eleven relies on an established leader. The results of the study suggest that through the practical action of employing strategies, transformations can truly arise. While Grotowskian practices can advance NaCl’s and Number Eleven’s quests for artistic refinement and fiscal survival, at times the practices also prove problematic in a contemporary North American context. The susceptibility to exclusionary politics within this artistic tradition compromises NaCl’s community-based survival efforts, while the performers in Number Eleven often perpetuate the tradition’s concept of a director as all-knowing guru, undermining the leader’s desire for more equality-based dynamics. The groups partially compensate for these weaknesses through cross-company collaboration. The artistic cross-pollination and fiscal benefits of these efforts prove integral to each group’s continued survival and artistic advancement, suggesting the appropriateness of this practice for North American alternative theatre companies.