We rarely think of donors like philanthropist Danny Cameron when it comes to awards like this. Perhaps it's part of a persistent American fixation on finished products, as opposed to processes; not causes, but effects. Whatever the reason, it's time it changed. Why? Look at the numbers for Cameron's field of interest, theater.
Ticket sales cover only a fraction of a theater company's yearly budget. Consider the percentages for some of this region's most cherished independent companies: 75 percent for Deep Dish Theater Company; 40 percent for Manbites Dog Theater; 30 percent for Shakespeare & Originals. Then remember that young companies like Deep Dish and Shakespeare & Originals don't become eligible for state or federal funds until they've been around for a few years. And since the area's multinational corporations regularly snub even the region's most prestigious arts organizations, independent companies like these generally haven't got a prayer for their support.
"Because of our benefactors, we don't have to enter into the question of what we can get people to pay for," notes Deep Dish artistic director Paul Frellick. "We get to make choices based on what we want to do, and what our audiences would like to see. Otherwise we'd have to do our Christmas Carol at some point along the way to make ends meet. We would be a different theater without them."
The face of regional theater would be fundamentally changed without the support of local patrons like Danny Cameron. Jay O'Berski, artistic director for Shakespeare & Originals, puts it bluntly: "We rely on people like him." In recent years, Cameron has quietly supported a number of this region's most forward-thinking independent theaters, and he's done it with a lot more than a yearly check and a resigned air of noblesse oblige.
When Deep Dish Theater was looking for a space, Cameron introduced Frellick to University Mall manager Steve Brown, and the two negotiated a honey of a multi-year deal. When Manbites Dog Theatre was looking for a permanent home, Cameron was one of their underwriters. And when Shakespeare & Originals needed help building sets for Hurricane Salad, Cameron grabbed a sander and a paintbrush.
It may not be what most folks first think of when it comes to philanthropy. "He's a very hands-on guy," says O'Berski, "and he truly loves theater."
"It's probably inaccurate to say Cameron wants to stay behind the scenes," observes Manbites Dog managing director Ed Hunt, "because I think what he wants to do is stay in the audience. ... It's never been about putting his name on it, or leveraging his support to influence the artistic decisions. It's been more a matter of having faith in an artistic institution and wanting to encourage it to grow in the way it wants to grow."
Cameron recalls a childhood in which neighborhood kids would put on plays in the attic of his house when he says, "I've always been fascinated with live performance. I have no interest in being on stage, but really good acting is one of my favorite things."
His appreciation for regional theater is anything but naïve. For years, theatrical excursions have been a part of Cameron's seasonal New York buying pilgrimages in conjunction with the store that bears his name in Chapel Hill's University Mall. "Because I'm a theater junkie, I always go see lots of stuff while I'm in New York," he says. "Most of it's off-Broadway; that's where the most interesting stuff frequently is. But often the quality of the acting here moves me more than what I see up there. So many people in the Triangle don't understand the level of quality and competence of the actors and the companies in this area."
Cameron says that seeing the play How I Learned to Drive drove this home. "I saw that in New York. But when I saw the Manbites Dog production, for me it was so much more engaging, so much more moving," he says. "That's when I feel like I want to spring to the rooftops and say 'Here is live theater. If you haven't checked out these local companies, you've missed something important.'"
His benefactors consistently describe a committed and enthusiastic ally. "The best thing he does is that he asks real outsider questions," says O'Berski. "He's not blinded by any of the insider stuff." Frellick notes that Cameron "comes early and stays afterward. He's just one of those faces you really appreciate seeing after a show, grinning from ear to ear."
Cameron deflects most of the praise. "If I'm getting this award, I'm accepting it on behalf of all the people in the area who give so much to provide us with theater. I feel what I do is really small compared to what they do."
But benefactors are clearly vitally important. "It's kind of easy to just sort of sit back and say, 'Well, I've bought my ticket, I've done my part,'" Hunt notes. It takes more than that however, to keep a theater afloat.
It's been a rocky year for funding in the arts. Hunt says that grants sources are down, and they could go down further next year. "The artistic community in this area is quite amazing, especially the growth in it in the last few years," he says. "That's a resource that's easy to lose. We cannot just assume that they'll get by or that somebody else will take care of the problem.
"Just like it takes a leap sometimes for people to come to their first theater performance and discover it's something they can really enjoy and take something away with them, it's also a leap for some people to realize that they can support the arts they value through donations, and that that support makes a crucial difference," Hunt says.
Cameron echoes these concerns in what he calls his "selfish reasons" for supporting live theater. "I think a lot of the actors choose to be here. So many clearly have what it takes to do their work wherever they want. A lot of them could be in a bigger city. That's where the drive behind all this comes from: I want them to stay here and keep doing what they're doing."