Not Feeling the Risk of Others

Kerry Ingram as Matilda. Photo Credit: Tristram Kenton

Kerry Ingram as Matilda. Photo Credit: Tristram Kenton

I saw Matilda in New York recently and loved it. Then again, I’m a fan of Roald Dahl’s books and Tim Minchin’s music and comedy, so I was probably an easy mark.

But I’m not alone. Roald Dahl’s work was the basis for generation-spanning hit books and blockbuster movies like Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, Fantastic Mr. Fox and others. He wrote a Bond movie screenplay and the screenplay for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and several episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

In other words, not exactly some long shot unknown.

So I was surprised to read the comments by Dennis Kelly, the writer of the show, suggesting that only a “subsidized institution” would take a risk like Matilda. (The Royal Shakespeare Company contributed to the development of the show.)

Does that seem right? An extremely bankable author on a book that had already been turned into a Hollywood movie, with a somewhat well-known (if not yet famous) comic as some kind of extreme risk that no for-profit organization would take?

No, it does not. I’m not suggesting for a second there wasn’t risk. Theater, as Terry Teachout said at TEDxBroadway last year, is more or less a losing game. You assume, or you should, that you’re going to lose, financially. Most shows aren’t born with anything like those advantages, but non-subsidized organizations take them all the time.

Matilda is a fantastic show that deserves its success, but there’s no way to say that risks this big (and really, far bigger) aren’t taken by for-profit or non-subsidized, nonprofit organizations all the time. Because they are.

It may just be that you feel the risk you take personally more keenly than those taken by others and, of course, it feels great when those risks pan out!

Once you do succeed, though, remember that most shows don’t. They all involved risks, even the ones crass enough to be funded with their own money.

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