Aaron Zilbermann and Tiana Kaye Johnson

Living Theatre, Part 7

In this edition of his column about starting a theater company, Aaron Zilbermann writes about the non-profit model for arts organizations. Are there other business models?

published Friday, October 13, 2017

Editor's Note: This is the seventh edition of this monthly column on TheaterJones, in which Aaron Zilbermann and Tiana Kaye Johnson will chronicle their journey in starting a new theater company, Metamorphosis: a new living theatre, which has a mission of theater for social justice. They will write about administrative and artistic issues as they plan their next move.



Dallas — On July 25, I finally submitted IRS form 1023 and the enormous amount of tedious paperwork necessary to qualify as a 501(c)(3), tax-exempt organization. The IRS claims that it takes roughly 15.5 hours to complete the entire form with all of its necessary paperwork. This must be the estimate for a highly skilled and knowledgeable attorney or accountant to rush through the job. I had very little help and it took me more than six months to complete all of the required documents. Printing out the paperwork, sealing it in an envelope and mailing it to the IRS was one of the most satisfying endeavors I have ever encountered. Getting that paperwork done and sending it off set us on the solid path toward non-profit status. Quite honestly, I’m impressed with myself that I was able to get everything done without paying for help.

However, with that feeling of liberation came a new IRS game: waiting. It’s now more than two months later and I have come to learn that this part of the process is actually much more tedious than the 89 pages of documents I meticulously put together for over half a year. The reason that I find waiting to be the more laborious task is that I have absolutely no control over the situation. Whereas, previously, If I wanted to gather momentum and move forward in the process, all I had to do was sit down at my desk and work on the intricate specifics of form 1023. I could work for a few hours and feel like I have done something concrete to move us in the right direction. Now I feel stuck. There is nothing more I can do to speed things up. All I can do is wait. I imagine this even grander feeling of liberation when our determination finally arrives. Daily, I check my mail, desperately flipping through all of the envelopes looking for something from the IRS. But I’m still waiting.

Photo: Michael Warner
Tiana Kaye Johnson and Aaron Zilbermann

My fellow board member, Selena Anguiano, gave me some advice: “Aaron, put it out of your mind. You can’t think about it anymore. Continue on with everything else and forget about the IRS. Then when it come, it will surprise you.” I tried, but as it is with so much sound advice, it’s easier said than done. It has helped some but the paperwork, and the potential that I might have to make changes to the application and that the entire process might take much, much longer than expected, creeps back into my mind quite often.

In the meantime, Morph can’t fundraise effectively or apply for most grants and therefore our activities are highly limited. How can we maintain forward energy as an organization if we have very little money? We do, fortunately, have a generous donor who is trusting us to gain tax-exempt status by the end of the year so that his contribution will be retroactively tax deductible. He gave us a decent amount to get us started and to run limited programming until we are approved by the IRS. His donation covered production costs for Dutchman and now the costs associated with hosting Dallas Playwrights’ Collective.

This gets me thinking about an enormous concern of mine in the art world, in the world of theater specifically. Artists rely entirely too much on the kindness of wealthy donors. Is it because our work is inherently undervalued in society? How do we change this? How can theater companies be successful without having to rely upon handouts to keep us afloat? How can we make theater a sustainable industry? I’m torn regarding the earned income ratio. You know, the argument over the best ratio for earned (ticket sales, concessions, advertising, etc.) vs unearned (grants, donations, etc.). I hear reasonable arguments on both sides, but the primary problem I have with the theory stating that an arts organization that has more unearned income and less earned income is a healthier organization is that a system that relies heavily on contributions, grants and other sources of money that are exclusive for 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations limits who can produce theater in Dallas. This effectively makes the world of theater seriously less competitive than it should be. The Dallas’ theater scene could and should be booming but we limit the playing field to only those lucky organizations who have enough money and the time to put together the long, and tiresome IRS application.

As for now, we essentially have two options: think small or think like a business. And since theater rarely returns a profit, a lot of energy is currently being placed in cultivating and growing our community of playwrights, the Dallas Playwrights’ Collective. Community plays a vital role to artists and we want Morph to be a space (metaphorically of course, since we don’t have a space yet) where artists develop and encourage each other. We want Morph to be a community of artists working together, and gathering a group of artists (specifically writers in this instance) to work together was much easier than I expected. Not only did people show up to our groups first meeting ready to work together, they also planned to show up again and as a group, collectively asked to meet more often. If we build it and shape it the right way, the community will feed off of each other, generating more and better work for each individual artist. Since we come across it so rarely, we need to offer reason and insight into an otherwise daunting industry. At Morph, I hope that we influence each other, hold each other accountable, get vulnerable with each other, support each other through intense vulnerability, and develop a passionate momentum together. If we can accomplish that, we can produce incredible things.

Regarding other endeavors, Tiana and I have arrived at a title for our second production, which will likely take place in early 2018. We are going to produce A Day of Absence by Douglas Turner Ward, a reverse minstrel show set in a southern town. The play was first produced in 1965 and in 1969 a Day of Absence was declared in New York City, a day in which all black people were to stay home from work. I wonder what that would look like today in Dallas. Would people participate? Could they participate without fear of losing their jobs? There are some complications but it seems like it could be quite a valuable action. I’m extremely excited to direct this play, and it’s a satire, a comedy, so it will be rather different than our experience with Dutchman.


» Aaron Zilbermann, executive artistic director of Metamorphosis: a new living theatre, has worked with Big Thought and other local teaching institutions. Tiana Kaye Johnson, the theater's director of education, is a Dallas native and Southern Methodist University graduate, and a member of the Dallas Theater Center’s Diane and Hal Brierley Resident Acting Company who is currently in DTC's production of Hair.

» Visit the Metamorphosis website here; and its Facebook page here.

» Living Theatre runs on the second Friday of the month on



  • Februrary 2017: Introductory column
  • March 2017: Going non-profit, boards of directors, and creating original work
  • April 2017: Finding space
  • May 2017: Zilbermann and Johnson discuss Amiri Baraka's Dutchman, their June production
  • June 2017: No column
  • July 2017: On starting a theater for social justice
  • August 2017: No column
  • September 2017: On starting a playwriting collective
 Thanks For Reading

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Living Theatre, Part 7
In this edition of his column about starting a theater company, Aaron Zilbermann writes about the non-profit model for arts organizations. Are there other business models?
by Aaron Zilbermann

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