Innovation in Theater
Groundbreaking Work Needs Responsive Funders
For theater companies that are creating new work, fund-raising in the community of institutional funders poses a unique set of challenges.
Funders, by design, have strict guidelines in place, strict markers by which they measure outcomes. But most of the experimental theater companies we report on in this article have models of making art that challenge traditionally held industry standards. How can a meaningful dialogue between innovators working in the field and institutional funders, with the goal of furthering the art form, be nurtured and sustained?
In preparing for this article, we spent time with artistic and managing directors of experimental theaters that are producing some of the most exciting work in America, each working outside the model of traditional theater, and each acclaimed by both audiences and critics. The New York Times hailed Elevator Repair Service’s newest work, Gatz, as “one of the most exciting and improbable accomplishments in theater in recent years”; The Civilians was declared by New York magazine as having “Big Ideas. Small Stages. Where the curtain goes up on eye-opening work”; the New York Times described Pig Iron Theatre Company in Philadelphia as “one of the few groups successfully taking theater in new directions”; the SITI Company, in addition to its groundbreaking productions, has made its method “Six Viewpoints” an important part of theater training for students and artists around the country; and two plays developed by the Tectonic Theater Project (The Laramie Project and I Am My Own Wife) continue to be among the top ten most performed plays in the country, as reported by the Wall Street Journal.
What these companies have in common is the following: each has chosen to devote its resources exclusively to creating work, rather than supporting a physical space, programming a regular season, or offering a subscription; each was incorporated ten to twenty years ago; each receives critical acclaim for its work; and each continues to struggle to raise funds to support its very existence.
The Three “Ss”
The three “Ss” (as many of us call them) — season, subscription, and space (preferably a theater) — are the markers that most foundations use when evaluating a company’s work and outcome. But more and more, many of the theater companies that have been creating some of the most highly innovative and influential work in contemporary theater over the past decade don’t have any of these three characteristics.
They do not have a theater space or a season or a subscription base. What they have is projects that they nurture for long periods of time and then present to the public in a variety of ways (either by partnering with existing theaters, touring, or finding alternative spaces).
According to John Collins from Elevator Repair Service (ERS), “For us it’s a conscious decision to not have a space. I don’t want to have my own theater. No more than a visual artist would like to have his own gallery and show only his own work at it. That would put a huge demand on us. We make work and we want it seen in lots of places.”
Megan Wanlass Szalla, executive director of SITI, adds: “We don’t want to own a theater. We don’t want to become a huge organization that has cubicles. We want to always put art first, put the artist first. Focus on that. We want to have a lean administrative staff and then partner with larger organizations to get our work performed or our education activities going. But it’s definitely very challenging.”
In choosing this approach, these theater companies are able to devote all their efforts, resources, and energy to their projects and to their artists, as opposed to maintaining buildings or putting on four plays a year. Instead they have chosen to be laboratories of new work. They are rigorously questioning theatrical forms and how plays are made.
And yet this dedication to innovation makes it hard when applying for funding from foundations and corporations, as many of the benchmarks that these organizations use to evaluate success (the three “Ss”) are not what these companies are geared to achieve. So funders in many cases end up funding specific projects, as opposed to granting general or operating support.
Anne Bogart, artistic director of SITI: “Like John [Collins] says, the idea might be that funders should think about funding the studio, and not funding a single painting. So they don’t fund on a per project basis.”
This is an interesting suggestion considering that SITI has been around for seventeen years. The company is already operating as long-term studios where the work is made, and its track record speaks for itself.
The Problem of Not Having a “Category” for Our Kind of Institution
One of the things many of these companies reported is the lack of a real category that correctly names us/defines us.
Steve Cosson, artistic director of The Civilians: “There’s a lack of category for us. The problem begins with the very core of who we are as companies. We have an artistic director and an executive director and we call ourselves theater companies. So we’re put in the same category as The Public Theater, or New York Theatre Workshop, or Manhattan Theatre Club. And other than the name, we have nothing in common with these organizations. Our structure and our mission [are] completely different from theirs.
“They are trying to present and produce work. We’re trying to be laboratories of new work. We create the work and then partner with theaters who produce to get the work performed and presented to audiences. We are laboratories of new work.”
John Collins (ERS) agrees: “Because my title is, officially, ‘artistic director,’ I often find myself on panels with, at roundtable discussions with, and otherwise categorized with artistic directors of presenting and producing theaters. None of my job involves curating other people’s work. I think that’s a pretty significant distinction. So it can lead to some awkwardness in those situations when we share a title but have very different job responsibilities. Just to be clear, I rely on that kind of artistic director. My work needs to be curated, presented, and produced by the likes of Jim Nicola [New York Theatre Workshop] and Oskar Eustis [Public Theater]; but it’s funny to me (and misleading to others) that we get called the same thing. And there are all sorts funders that don’t seem to make distinctions. You’re just a theater company. This is one of the reasons it’s very hard for us to find institutional funding.”
This lack of category makes it hard for funders to develop markers and funding paradigms to support these companies.
Collins continues: “It might be helpful if funders recognized these other categories. I wouldn’t mind being in another category with companies like SITI, like Tectonic, like The Civilians, that conduct experiments in ways of working. If funders can identify us as a category, there can be a reassurance for them that this kind of work produces results.”
Another similarity these companies share is an emphasis on “process.” As they continue to push the boundaries of theatrical conventions, these laboratories serve as spaces where new work is created but also where the art form as a whole is evaluated, reimagined, and subverted. In a way, these companies’ mission is as much about the art form as it is about any given production they’re developing. And this is a lengthy and costly proposition.
John Collins (ERS): “We started Gatz in 2003. We had a finished version by 2005. And we got a legitimate premiere in Brussels in 2006. That was three years to do all the work. In the meantime we made another smaller show. We always have works overlapping. We’re always making several things at the same time. But with funders there’s a kind of expectation that you can make a proposal and usually there’s about a year’s window where you need to be showing something.
“If you look at a presenting organization it’s reasonable to judge them by the amount of work they’re producing in any given year. But our responsibility is completely different. It’s about the kind of work we do.”
So it took ERS three years to make Gatz, but to date it’s been seen in more than twenty of the most important theaters around the world, and has garnered unanimous praise for its daring and pushing of theatrical boundaries. And this is another similarity we found among these companies: Once the work is completed, it’s performed extensively nationally (and in many cases internationally). So in this way these companies continue to engage in an inter/national dialogue about new forms of theater and new ways of creating the work.
“Funders have every right to expect results. But perhaps there is a way to still work within a twelve-month calendar, but acknowledge that it takes longer than twelve months to make a show,” adds Collins. The time it takes to develop the work also poses problems for major donors.
Pig Iron’s managing director, John Frisbee: “A consistent relationship with major donors is hard to develop when our programming is not continuous. By its own nature, the work is sporadic. A major donor thinks, ‘I can fund the Wilma Theater and get five rehearsals and five plays a year.’ There’s a consistent engagement with the artwork. We have a harder time providing that, so that to maintain an engagement with donors and funders becomes much harder, because we operate on this model that is not about doing a multitude of shows but rather about doing original work owned by the ensemble. This is a very hard problem to surmount. Instead, we tour. So while we are fostering a national conversation about the genre, about the formal possibilities of theater, it’s hard to engage a local major donor when you’re on tour for months at a time. It’s a hurdle in maintaining people’s interest in our work.”
Touring the Work
Indeed, touring is a major component of the ability of the companies we spoke with to survive. But while the earned income supports the performing of the work once it is created, presenters are not able fully to support the cost of creating the work to begin with; and touring comes with the cost of being removed from donors back in the theaters’ home communities.
SITI Company is continuously on tour throughout the country, as are The Civilians. The Laramie Project parts 1 and 2 are about to go on tour to six cities. According to John Collins (ERS), “This touring also makes it difficult for the funders to see consistency as we’re not performing in our cities with regularity.” Megan Wanlass Szalla (SITI) adds: “When we’re all over the world performing, the places where we go are always protective of their donors (as they should be). So it’s hard for us to grow our donor base when we’re not in the same city at the same time — and related to that, it’s also been difficult to grow the kind of board of directors that a company like SITI needs.” Anne Bogart (SITI) says, “Because we tour so much, people don’t know what we are as an entity. We’re trying to solve that by having more of a New York presence, but we don’t really fit in the categories they have for us. I think that’s frustrating for us and for funders.”
This challenge, of the work being presented outside of our home cities, has encouraged some of us to try our hand at following the more traditional season at home model. SITI is trying this in New York for the first time, according to Megan Wanlass Szalla: “So this is the first year we’re doing an entire season in New York, partnering with Dance Theater Workshop. By doing this season in New York we will be able to gradually grow our board of directors as well as our donors and audience base.” Pig Iron attempted this, and according to Frisbee, “It almost killed us! We did a subscription season for all the reasons which people would tell you to do — to increase your donor base, to have a lot of measurable outcome in terms of increased audience — and all of that succeeded on some level. But the amount of space that structure allows for the creation of new artistic products is too little. It also did not serve our model very well — we had three administrative staff and two of them quit after the season, and probably justifiably.”
After their failed experiment at mounting a traditional season, Pig Iron is trying a new model, outlined by John Frisbee: “We’re trying to do some smaller-scale programming that gets us over that obstacle. We’ve had surprising success in doing public lecture demonstrations in clown work and mask work. We rehearsed a band for a week and did a show of music from Pig Iron’s band. We had guests coming from out of town to demonstrate physical approaches to character. And that was successful. It seems like we have a section of our audience that is interested in process. So we’re creating an audience for that kind of thing. I don’t know how much it will translate to funding.”
There are other creative models that some companies are using to get around not having a traditional season; at Tectonic Theater Project we do about four presentations a year of works in progress. And people seem to be delighted to be part of that process — to watch a piece of theater be born. They get to see us sketching, trying things out. One day we show thirty minutes, the next time it’s an hour. They learn more and more about the story and the characters in it over the course of the development of the work, and they get to see the process behind creating the work.
Attracting New Audiences to the Theater
The case can be made that these companies are in fact attracting new audiences to the theater, because they are making different kinds of works. John Frisbee (Pig Iron): “To put it rather bluntly, all of the social-media staffers and youth-marketing specialists in the world aren’t going to sell the same tasteful, middlebrow art to new audiences.” In other words, what’s required is innovation in the work.
Some foundation program officers are aware of this. Diane Ragsdale, program associate for the Mellon Foundation, says, “No Podcast, YouTube video, Tweet, or other new media strategy is going to make twenty-five-year-olds want to go to a performance that doesn’t seem relevant to their lives in a venue in which they do not see other people their age…. Intellectual relevance cannot be relegated to the PR department.”
Funders Want to Fund Innovation
Even though many funders say they want to fund innovation, often they end up funding administrative innovation — the kind of thing that is concrete and measurable. But that doesn’t always benefit the creation of daring new work.
John Frisbee: “What we find over and over is that you can have a very stable administrative staff and not be producing work that’s taking the field in any innovative directions. Sometimes the markers of best practices in arts administration can be a way of concretizing the way things are done currently. Essentially they can be a measure of a lack of innovation rather than maintaining a certain level of flexibility that allows you innovate and grow in fruitful ways. And a lot of that stuff tends to build the company away from the art, rather than maintaining the company focused on their work. The most challenging thing about working as an administrator for Pig Iron is that it’s hard to keep running after the work. But that’s where the best stuff comes from. The more checks and balances you build on top of that, [the more] it creates obstacles in having room to innovate and do different types of work and grow artistically. It’s easy to see why this kind of process is less than appealing to funders that need to have measurable paradigms to evaluate ‘success.’”
Regionally, some success has been achieved in this regard. For example, in Philadelphia, John Frisbee of Pig Iron reports, “As far as foundation funding goes, we’re unusually privileged with Philadelphia-based foundations. We have a funding system that not only supports the subscription theaters, but that also places a great deal of emphasis on artistic excellence. For example, we get funded by William Penn, which is a regional foundation. They have a director of arts and culture, Olive Mosier, who’s tremendously supportive and out every night of the week in Philadelphia. She sees the quality of what we’re doing and the role it plays in the cultural ecosystem in the city.”
We asked Ms. Mosier how she was able to achieve that. “Because we are a regional foundation we have the luxury of working with organizations on a one-on-one basis, where we get to spend time with each organization. We don’t compare theaters. We’re looking at that individual organization and its own criteria for what it’s trying to accomplish. We are able to see the quality of the work on a regular basis, and we are able to meet with board and staff leadership and get a full understanding of an organization both artistically and administratively. The fact that Pig Iron does not have a permanent space is part of what informs their creative process. Works are shaped in part by the space they’re using. And the audiences follow. The company consistently produces highly innovative, intelligent, often provocative, work and has built a business model that is appropriate to its mission.”
It is perhaps the ability to gauge each company’s mission, and to evaluate how it’s achieved that mission, that separates William Penn from other national foundations. Measuring theater companies’ successes against their own goals seems a simple enough idea, but it goes against bureaucratic requirements that allow larger foundations to do their work.
Partnering and Its Difficulties
To keep their resources focused on developing the work, most of these companies have been also innovative in how they produce and present the finished pieces. When the time comes to present the work to audiences, they partner with presenting and producing theaters that “produce” the work.
Thus SITI has partnered with the Humana Festival, Tectonic has partnered with Arena Stage and La Jolla Playhouse, and Elevator Repair Service has partnered with New York Theatre Workshop. As a model, this works for both parties: Each company does what it’s best at. The smaller company develops the work, and the larger institutions produce it.
This model also presents a problem, however, as Steve Cosson (The Civilians), reports: “When we coproduce with a large institution like the Taper, the production is accounted for in the larger institution’s budget. So our budget does not reflect the scope or sophistication of the work or the business abilities required to make these coproductions with these large institutions. And because there is no way for funders to account for what we do artistically except as it is represented in our budget, we’re defined by our budget size, which at this point is around 500K. So in New York essentially, we’re in the same category as a small theater that produces two plays off-off-Broadway per year. But if you look at our artistic output, what we’re doing in the nation as a whole, the scope and influence of the work, we are vastly different: We tour nationally and we reach a much wider audience.” If budgets are not a way to read or understand these companies’ size and influence, what is?
Revolutions in Small Rooms
These companies are doing the very innovating that the field urgently needs. Not being bound by a subscription audience, or by having to support a building or needing to create a season, these companies (and companies like them) are able to create the kind of innovation in form and process that will revolutionize the field and reach the very new audiences the traditional bricks-and-mortar theaters are looking to engage.
Anne Bogart reflects: “I always think A Chorus Line would not have happened without Joe Chaikin. It’s always in these revolutions in small rooms where the best work happens. And there are these small rooms and they have to be identified. I think all these companies you’re talking to are small rooms in which things are happening and they actually have an effect, a chartable effect, a graphable effect. And if one can look at that, then all of a sudden you are not thinking about things in terms of seasons or space or subscription. But instead you’re thinking about substance. You can look at many productions that have won great success, and their success can be traced to these revolutions in small rooms. Things happen in small rooms that influence the art form. And if funders can think about that, perhaps that would be a paradigm with which to evaluate our companies.”