At tonight’s premiere of “The Realistic Joneses” at the Yale Repertory Theatre, the Yale School of Drama will announce that it has received its largest donation ever, an $18 million gift from the Minneapolis-based Robina Foundation.
The gift will go toward supporting the Yale Center for New Theatre, which was established in 2008 with a $2.85 million grant from the foundation and was originally scheduled to be funded only until June 2012, said School of Drama Dean James Bundy. The Center for New Theatre, which has funded and staged new works by over 30 commissioned artists at the Yale Repertory Theatre since its inception, aims to make an enduring commitment to advancing the frontiers of the American theater, Bundy added.
“There have been large grants before for artistic programming in the history of the American theater, but, to my knowledge, there has never been a grant this large or [one so] focused on endowing a program’s capacity into perpetuity,” Bundy said.
Prior to this gift, the largest donation ever made to the School of Drama was a sum of $3.2 million donated by the Jerome L. Greene Foundation in 2007, Bundy said, adding that the Greene Foundation grant was earmarked for scholarship endowment.
The Center for New Theatre will now be renamed the Binger Center for New Theatre, after Robina Foundation founder James H. Binger ’38, said Steven Padla, senior associate director for communications for the School of Drama and the Rep.
After the foundation initially funded the Center for New Theatre in 2008, other funding sources like the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and individual donors contributed to its continuation, Padla added. The Robina Foundation’s latest gift provides $3 million towards operating costs and $15 million for a permanent endowment for the Binger Center.
“The Robina board chose to support … the Yale School of Drama because of Mr. Binger’s great love and knowledge of theater,” said H. Peter Koffman, a member of the foundation’s board. He added that Binger, who died in 2004, once owned the Jucamcyn Theaters company in New York, now the third-largest theater owner on Broadway.
The foundation has been regularly evaluating the Center it funded at the School, Bundy said, and approved a gift of $950,000 in 2010, to continue the Center for New Theatre’s operations up to June 30, 2012. Last year, he added, the Foundation invited the School to submit “a transformative proposal,” the document from which the $18 million gift evolved.
The Center establishes relationships with playwrights, agents and colleagues in the field to ensure that it considers a range of new work when planning its programming, said Jennifer Kiger, the director of New Play Programs for the Center for New Theatre and associate artistic director at the Rep.
“The big thing when selecting the work that will be commissioned is that we’re reading to get a sense of the artist’s voice, a sense of the body of an artist’s work over time,” Kiger added. “When we start having a conversation with them, we’re responding to them as artists, not just based on an idea or a pitch. It’s really about a long-term conversation and relationship.”
She said the Center for New Theatre promotes the work it produces at the Rep even after a play has moved beyond New Haven through a production enhancement fund that supports later stagings by companies across the world.
The Robina Foundation chose to invest in the development of new theater, Karoff said, because it is “the hardest aspect of the arts to fund.”
He added that the foundation took note of Bundy’s leadership in identifying and promoting emerging playwrights.
Last November, the Acting Company, a New York-based classical theater organization, awarded Bundy its John Houseman Award. At the time, Gerry Cornez, an Acting Company spokesman, said Bundy has earned a reputation for promoting regional and national premieres of plays during his time at Yale.
Kiger said Amy Herzog ’00 DRA ’07 — the author of “Belleville,” which premiered at the Yale Rep last October and is now set to go up in New York in a production by the New York Theatre Workshop — is a good example of the new talent the Binger Center hopes to identify.
Finding funding for new works is a persistent challenge for young playwrights, she added.
“There’s no shortage of incredibly talented artists out there right now, but it’s honestly difficult just to make a living,” Kiger said. “One thing that the Center enables [the Rep] to do is to identify artists whose voices we believe should be on the stage and encourage them to keep making theater, which has a big impact on the field, I think, because more and more artists write for the theater and more and more plays come to fruition.”
Karoff said the Robina Foundation sees the role of private philanthropy as “critical in maintaining and deepening the tradition” of American theater. He added that the foundation’s board hopes its gift will inspire other donors.
Bundy said shows sponsored by the Center for New Theatre, which are staged at the Yale Rep as part of the theater’s season, supplement the education of students at the School of Drama.
“Fundamentally, in the profession, there are only two things you can do: make something old new again or create new work,” Bundy said. “We actually need to be able to train people to do both things, because the questions you ask from collaborators when a play has never been in front of audience are different from the questions you ask collaborators when the play has been done thousands of times.”
Kiger said the Center for New Theatre aims to help artists with their long-term paths, not just individual projects.
“We keep in touch with artists obviously because we’re invested in them as people, but we also are invested in the continued life of their work,” she added.
Using funds from the Center for New Theatre, “The Realistic Joneses,” by Pulitzer Prize-nominated playwright Will Eno, will premiere tonight at the Yale Rep and run until May 12.