Please, Don't Start a Theater Company!

Next-Generation Arts Institutions and Alternative Career Paths

Published in: GIA Reader, Vol 22, No 1 (Spring 2011)

Rebecca Novick

I was twenty-three when I arrived in San Francisco, fresh from assistant-directing at the Royal Court in London and eager to start my theater career. I was brimming over with enthusiasm, and maybe just a little hubris. Shortly thereafter, I founded Crowded Fire Theater Company and was full of plans for it to quickly become the next major regional theater. My generation of theater artists grew up on the stories of how our current crop of institutions were founded — Sam Shepard and his collaborators starting the Magic Theatre in a Berkeley bar, Tony Kushner premiering Angels in America at the Eureka, Bill Ball asking cities to compete to house A.C.T. Why shouldn't my company be the next success story? I had no question about what that success would look like — it would look like a building with staff and a season, subscribers and youth programs, and a healthy mix of earned and contributed income.

It turns out I wasn't alone in my ambition. In the past fifteen years, the number of nonprofit theater companies in the United States has doubled while audiences and funding have shrunk. Neither the field nor the next generation of artists is served by this unexamined multiplication of companies based on the same old model. The NEA's statistics on nonprofit growth, set against its sobering reports on declining arts participation, illuminate a crucial nexus for the field, a location of both profound failure and potential transformation. The proliferation of small theater companies sits at the intersection between the necessity to imagine different structures for making theater and our field's failure to provide career paths for the next generation of artists. Since the Ford Foundation's investments kicked off the regional theater movement fifty years ago, there has been tremendous collective buy-in to what has become a fossilized model of a particular type of nonprofit theater. Within this structure, there is now a critical lack of opportunity for emerging artists and leaders, leaving the next generation of artists no alternative but to start companies of their own, companies that often replicate the problems of established theaters on a smaller scale.

Part One: What Could We Build Instead?

Conversations in the field, accelerated by the effects of the 2008 recession, have begun to move toward critical examination of the nonprofit regional theater model. But advice and support for younger artists and, even more crucially, the structure of funding opportunities and decisions continue to encourage replication of this very same model. What if new companies instead combined successful artmaking with visionary ideas about different organizational structures?

Artists at the center of the budget: Elevator Repair Service and The Neo-Futurists are two highly regarded experimental theater ensembles that have grown by putting artists at the center, adding administrative structures only after carefully examining whether the administrative model supports the artistic mission.

Understanding that its rigorous process of developing work over long periods of time has been key to its artistic success, Elevator Repair Service (ERS) has carefully directed its expanding budget toward employment structures that support this way of working. This has first meant a commitment to pay — and pay well — the performers who are developing and performing a piece. Then, in order to maintain relationships with artists who have other interests, ERS gives people the ability to step in and out, allowing for as much flexibility as possible. When the company needed more administrative support, explains Aaron Landsman, a playwright and longtime actor with ERS, “We looked around and saw that the artists in the work had [administrative] skills already. So we worked with people who already had committed to ERS artistically. That keeps us all more employed, and keeps the integrity of the work front and center.”

The Neo-Futurists' model is also based on providing substantial income for its core group of performer-writers, generated by performing in the company's popular late-night show (which runs fifty weeks a year) and by opportunities to tour and teach. In return for sharing many administrative duties (the company has just one paid administrator), company members get stable income for artistic work and opportunities to develop pieces for production in the “primetime” season. Sharon Greene, longtime ensemble member explains: “I believe a big component of our longevity is that we reward artistic success with more artistic resources. And we don't define success as money, we define it as artistic risk that interests us. This keeps the company artistically rewarding
for people year after year.”

Different communities demand different models: Bindlestiff Studio was a thriving community-based Filipino performing arts venue when it suddenly lost its space to redevelopment efforts. In order to receive city support for a new venue, Bindlestiff was forced to rapidly incorporate. Olivia Malabuyo was an artist with the group who took on the newly created role of managing director. She talks straightforwardly about the consequences of being forced into a structure that didn't suit the group's mission, community, or skills in order to meet arbitrary requirements for municipal funding: “We were an all-volunteer organization with a strong relationship to community and a built-in audience. Our unconventional model was working for us until the city forced us to become a nonprofit. That's when the art started to move from the center and become more peripheral to the definition of what Bindlestiff was.” Conflicts inevitably arose, planning for the new building stalled, and it took many years for the organization to recover.

Olivia next worked for Los Cenzontles Mexican Arts Center, where she discovered a different income model, one that sustains the organization via its deep roots in the ethnic community it serves. Dedicated to training young people in heritage forms of Mexican music, dance, and crafts, the organization has a wide array of education programs and a professional teen touring group. Classes, touring, and CD sales provide robust earned income streams, minimizing dependence on fund-raising. Olivia argues that organizations rooted in specific cultural communities have the opportunity to integrate audience building with youth development, and education with performance in ways that serve the work while strengthening the organization. Fund-raising can have its place in the mix, she says, “but I previously thought foundations should be the first to invest and now I believe that the ability to find community-driven earned income is key.”

Context matters as much as content: It's been seven years since Todd Brown and his partner began transforming a small house in San Francisco's Mission District into what is now the Red Poppy Art House: a gallery and presenting space, a training program for artists interested in self-producing, and a hub for neighborhood-based arts events. “As an artist myself,” says Todd, “I'm interested not only in content (my own work) but in context. I want to empower artists as space-holders, as creators of the artistic context. Instead of the old model of building a big cultural center, I imagine a thriving cultural neighborhood with diverse, scattered artistic hubs that each become an epicenter for different communities.”

Navigating between the for- and nonprofit models, Todd is passionate about supporting the organization through the most flexible income mix he can devise — selling paintings, applying only for particular grants, and depending on a host of committed volunteers. Recently, a funder requested that he submit a three-year fund-raising strategy, and Todd instead sent along a “three-year fund-lowering strategy” in which he elaborated his plans to gradually reduce administrative costs even more as he strengthens his structure of administrative volunteers.

The virtues of temporary: 13P is a group of thirteen playwrights who came together with the commitment to produce one play by each playwright and then disband. A key element of their model is giving playwrights a degree of control they rarely enjoy by making each playwright the “artistic director” during the period in which his or her play is produced. As a group of mostly midcareer artists who already support their playwriting with teaching and other day jobs, these playwrights were not interested in committing to administrative tasks, and they have been able to secure enough funds to pay for precisely the producing support that each project requires. “We weren't just out of college wanting to put up our plays because no one else would,” explains Sheila Callaghan, one of the playwrights. “The point wasn't simply to self-produce. The main point was to get to choose your own team. The success of the organization is built around the strength, contacts, and community of each individual, not around the reputation or aesthetic of a theater company.”

Seven years into their successful experiment, the members of 13P are still uninterested in building a permanent institution. “Why implode?” asks their website. “Our mission is very simple, and we want to complete it and call it a day. 13P isn't really a theater company; it's a 13-play test of a new producing model.” This test has been radically successful, both for the career of each playwright and for the model it offers the field.

Funders speak out: The idea that individuals can pick and choose which elements of different models work for their organizations and their communities, that one can build fluid, flexible employment structures and have projects last as long as it makes sense for them to, doesn't really seem like rocket science. How did the nonprofit theater model become so ossified? I spoke to a number of funders who were forthright about foundations' complicity in perpetuating the problem. “Why build a building and such heavyweight infrastructure for this thing [theater] that is both underfunded and ephemeral? This just doesn't make much sense,” says Moira Brennan at the MAP Fund. Diane Ragsdale (still at the Mellon Foundation when I interviewed her) agrees: “Funders and others have had such a limited idea of what a theater should look like, we've institutionalized the process to such a degree that we've constrained these organizations in terms of how they're structured, how they make work, who they make it for. We've lost track of what we really need to put on a good show. Do we need 150 administrators?”

The Hewlett Foundation's Marc Vogl concurs: “Funders have been in service of perpetuating the structure we know. But focus on the work has to come first.” The Hewlett Foundation, Marc reports, has begun to aim for more nuance in its funding decisions, beginning, for example, to support fiscally sponsored organizations and “understanding that ‑because organizations do different work, they may need different structures to support their work.”

Part Two: Next-Generation Career Paths —Apprenticeship and Beyond

I titled this article with the tongue-in-cheek advice “Please, don't start a theater company!” Of course, it's a bit more complicated than that. When artists at the beginning of their careers start companies, it's often because they can't find any other way to put on plays. That's certainly why I started Crowded Fire. Doing so offered me opportunities I would never have had otherwise and brought me a degree of visibility I could not have attained without the backing of an institu-tion. But if starting a company like I did is no longer a smart way to begin, then we need other ways for emerging artists to develop skills and find their voices.

The rock band model: We should encourage apprentice artists to self-produce work, or band together and produce each other's work. We should not demand that they cloak that straightforward practice in the trappings of a made-up company simply to attract funding or press notice. Moreover, we should encourage artists to operate like bands do — coming together to play a few gigs, then dissolving as people's interests diverge, perhaps performing regularly with a few different groups and experimenting with different styles and genres. Forming a permanent company at this stage is a bit like getting married too young, before you've had the chance to discover your own identity or what you're really looking for in a collaborator. Donating time, securing free space for performance, throwing parties to raise money, asking for donations from family and friends, and selling T-shirts or cookies are all time-honored methods to secure the resources to produce at this level — these are methods that don't depend on engaging with the complex structures of nonprofit fund-raising. Established theaters can invest in the development of young artists by sharing their resources. They can give space, lend out equipment, provide production management support, advertise shows, have a late-night series specifically for beginners, or consider redesigning internships to include practice producing.

Flexible funding possibilities: Funders need to stop advising young artists to replicate the standard nonprofit model. This advice gets passed along both explicitly in training programs and workshops and implicitly through questions on grant applications and review criteria used to make funding decisions. For example, requiring a minimum budget size prioritizes growth over caliber of the work, and asking about diversified income streams forces artists to add extra work in areas of fund-raising that may be fruitless for them. Funders should give money directly to artists, or if legal restrictions preclude this, they should permit applications from fiscally sponsored projects and participate in regranting programs that provide funding for artists and start-up groups.

Challenges at mid-career: In 2008, I organized a conference at Theatre Bay Area (where I was then on the staff) for “emerging leaders.” Over 100 artists and administrators with between five and fifteen years of experience converged from around the country, full of passion for this work and frustration at the lack of opportunities for advancement. The dearth of positions that offer both a living wage and some artistic satisfaction makes this stage a juncture at which many talented people leave the field. What can theaters do to welcome these accomplished artists, give them real work to do, and promote them into positions of power? Or if these artists are to stay with the companies they founded and grow them into institutions that can sustain artists and staff as they mature, then funders must be persuaded to stop insisting on a one-size-fits-all nonprofit structure and offer support to companies that are exploring truly new models. “What's killing the field,” says Diane Ragsdale at the Mellon Foundation, “is that people are beginning to leave it. People make it into large institutions and get stuck in middle-management jobs with no access to power and no opportunity to try new things.” Many established theaters are still being run by their baby boomer founders, and both the Gen Xers who've been in the trenches for a while and the Millennials coming up behind them find themselves shut out of the leadership positions these founders assumed at a much younger age.

Big theaters making change: Who's making this process work better now? At the Center Theatre Group, there are four senior producer positions; each of the producers takes responsibility for particular projects, working closely with casting, marketing, and production to guide the project to the stage. The Arena Stage offers one-year producing fellowships aimed at people interested in learning specifically how to produce and direct new plays and has recently announced residencies for playwrights that will provide salaries and health benefits for resident playwrights for several years. At Marin Theatre Company, the artistic director brought in a colleague with both artistic and managerial skills to be managing director and offered him a guaranteed directing slot each season. And when the Intiman Theatre's board of directors hired thirty-something Kate Whoriskey as artistic director, they eased fears that she was too inexperienced for the role by creating a yearlong transition of power with the outgoing artistic director. Another possible solution is to support whole companies or projects within larger theaters. “I think if there are new ideas for programs,” says Deborah Cullinan of Intersection for the Arts, “then doesn't it make sense to bring them into existing institutions?” From the Wooster Group's simple practice of inviting companies they admire to use their space rent-free, to Steppenwolf's Garage Rep program, which presents a repertory season of premieres by small Chicago companies, there are many ways for the energy and innovation of small companies to combine with the infrastructure of larger ones.

Part Three: Sustain the People not the Structure

When funders talk about sustainability, they have generally meant that an institution looks stable enough to continue forever. Diane Ragsdale is no longer sure this is the point: “Why should funders wonder whether this is a twenty-five- or fifty-year plan? Why not just support the two-year plan without worrying that everything must exist in perpetuity?” If the project is, as Marc Vogl at Hewlett describes, “to sustain not structure but people,” then we need a new way of measuring how well we're reaching for the ultimate aim of more extraordinary art. As usual, the artists understood this sometime ago. The Neo-Futurists are stewarding their artists like the limited but renewable resource they are. Todd Brown's Red Poppy Art House is seeding the neighborhood with small “epicenters” of cultural activity, believing that “if you enrich the soil, new things will spring out of it.” This shared metaphor of an “artistic ecosystem” expresses a deep comprehension that the health of each part is necessary for the health of the whole, suggesting that ecological rather than commercial thinking is the way to understand how art functions.

Talk to individual artists about “sustaining a career,” however, and they want to know how they're going to pay their rent and afford health insurance. They want to figure out how to find the resources to try new ideas again and again, reaching for the fully realized creations that will come only after years of sustained effort. It's discouraging that the holy grail of a living wage from satisfying artistic work, attainable for only a few in the current system, doesn't look too much more likely in these newer models. Creative Capital, a foundation devoted to supporting artists' development, insists that artists have to become the “architects of their own future,” just as throughout the work world people now craft a path for themselves that doesn't depend on one lifelong employer. The training Creative Capital provides to grantees emphasizes the development of a strategic plan for one's artistic career, a plan that lays out all the ways to generate more time and resources for creating the work that is most meaningful to an individual artist. Starting a company can be one way to get one's work out into the world, but it's easy to become trapped by the demands of running a business. Some of the most successful and productive artists I know enjoy flexible long-term arrangements with a few different companies, experiment with a variety of producing models for each project, and depend on a number of skill sets to make a living.

Every artist I spoke to told me that it doesn't take much to sustain a life in the theater. No one got into this trying to be rich. But you don't stay twenty forever, and after that you do occasionally need to buy shoes, or go to the doctor, or send your children to preschool. And one day you might like to send them to college, or buy a house, or even retire. The middle-class dream shouldn't be out of reach for theater artists, especially when every city now includes several hundred theater administrators who receive the benefits
of permanent employment while the artists by and large are still camping outside the gates.
With increased competition for audiences and many easier ways for people to tell and share stories, theater is facing threats from many directions. The future of the field depends on making the work on our stages as visionary, creative, compelling, and diverse as it can be. We can't reach this goal unless a wide range of the most creative artists and the most ingenious producers are allowed to develop their skills and are then supported over the long haul so their art can mature. The field must refocus resources on the challenge of sustaining artists rather than sustaining particular institutions. Brilliant early work is a wonderful thing, but where would we be without Shakespeare's last plays or the end of August Wilson's great cycle? Artists need support not just in starting out but in carrying on, not just as apprentices but as journeymen and master craftsmen as well.

Author's note
Interviewees and resources included:

  • Arena Stage, Washington, D.C.
  • Moira Brennan, MAP Fund, New York City
  • Todd Brown, Red Poppy Art House, San Francisco
  • Isaac Butler,
  • Sheila Callaghan, 13P, Brooklyn
  • Josh Costello, Marin Theatre Company, Mill Valley, California
  • Center Theatre Group, Los Angeles
  • Creative Capital, New York City
  • Deborah Cullinan, Intersection for the Arts, San Francisco
  • Dianne Debicella, Fractured Atlas, New York City
  • Rachel Fink, Berkeley Repertory Theatre, California
  • Sharon Greene, Neo-Futurists, Chicago
  • Melissa Hillman, Impact Theatre, Berkeley
  • Aaron Landsman, Elevator Repair Service, New York City
  • Olivia Malabuyo, Bindlestiff Studio (San Francisco) and Los Cenzontles (San Pablo)
  • Diane Ragsdale, Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, New York City
  • Alisha Tonsic, Sojourn Theatre, Portland, Oregon
  • Marc Vogl, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Menlo Park, California
  • Wooster Group, New York City

great stuff

I am non union actor and I have been a member of many companies on and off my 30 years doing small professional theatre. I found you article dead on. Many on the companies I worked for overlooked the talent they had when organizing their seasons. They tried to pick plays that would bring the most money from prospective donors or audience, not that fit the actors who were working hard for the theatre, doing box office, and lights, and load in, and strike, and all the other dirty jobs that theatres need doing. It felt disrespectful and the companies never lasted very long. The few that did work well built seasons and shows around the company members. These companies usually folded due pressures outside of theatre, money, kids, bills, etc. etc. One company scaled back productions because, although quite successful, the artistic director could see that going "forward" meant schmoozing with the donors and that was not what he wanted to do. I wish there was some kind of national theatre in this country. Thanks for your lovely article.

American's Public Theater

There are something on the order of 660 member theaters of TCG.

There are over 4000 theater companies housed in colleges and universities that bring vital theater to all corners of America and serve communities that would otherwise not be able to support and enjoy live theater.

1800 of those theater companies are housed in public institutions, the facilities are owned by the people, the professional artists in residence (faculty who by and large must have professional credentials to obtain and hold their positions) are civil servants.

The true subsidized theater in this country is housed in the public universities and forms the bed rock of the American national theater.

Some of these theater companies have affiliated TCG theaters in house, such as the Clarence Brown Theater at UT Knoxville and many of the URTA schools. These are the corner stones of a national, publicly held theater; theater of, by and for the people.

This network of publicly held theaters would be well served to take a look at the public broadcasting model, organized and advocate accordingly, particularly those at smaller public institutions in rural underserved communities.

America's Public Theater= College/University Theaters

I agree 100%. All College and University Theater Departments are America's Public Theater and would do well to join together at least regionally, like the Five Colleges in Western Massachusetts do already. I love the way the Dance Departments put on a Five College Faculty Dance Program each semester. It really is an amazing consortium. Artists in residence also participate with their compositions.

Theater Departments could do the same through showcasing theater students (and faculty) in theatrical new works, or in storytelling, story theater, and one act plays. I would also love to see works from many different cultures on contemporary topics as well. When a major full length play production becomes a regional show, the students chosen from each college could travel to one college for rehearsals and receive extra credits for this rich opportunity to be directed by an artist in residence or one of the College directors.

Let's start a movement and begin referring to College Theater Departments as members of "America's National Theater."

Thank you. I've been feeling

Thank you. I've been feeling a lot of these sentiments burbling in me lately. You've brought them into focus for me and inspired me to find a new way to go forward for myself and my students. I'll have them read this in class. I hope a great discussion follows.

Where my mind is at for a while

This article is where my mind has been stewing for a while. I've been talking with other Black theatre artists who also notice how the current institutional model serves neither Black artists nor Black audiences and are looking for new models of doing theatre in a way that reflects and enriches our communities.

I would love to see a trend toward more stripped down theatre, with fewer bells and whistles and more emphasis on the community, the artist, and the work (in that order). I'm trying to do that with the $1 Play Project (see, but what else can we do?

Nevertheless, I consistently run into the problem of simply doing it. How do we break that mold? What does it take to get people out of the 501(c)3 mindset?

Thank you

This was exactly what I needed to read, thank you so much!

I started a theatre company in London two years ago and even then, I had an inkling that the system, flawed as it is, didn't really need yet another small theatre company, no matter my intentions, the strength & talents of my team etc. I am so grateful that, in the space of these two years, I have learnt a huge amount, my company has been inundated with opportunities, and I have had my ideas about art, the system, and, most importantly, people, change drastically and for the better.

This journey has taken me to conclusions pretty much akin to those in your article. I feel driven to DO something, but I know the old system need breaking away from. I need to be braver in moving away from the norm and into the less known. Not least, it is hard for my ego to not strive for conventional recognition.

This article has utterly invigorated me to keep investigating new ground, always with a clear grounding of the work - my work - in place.

Much in agreement

I agree strongly with so much said here. While we operate on a smaller-than-small, non-professional basis, our foundational concept is putting all the money into our productions and not into physical spaces or an organization. We use existing venues and share the gate - we do all our own admin, including fundraising - we typically pay other artists but not ourselves. We functioned as a for-(tiny)-profit business for our first three years, built our reputation, and became a DIY non-profit this year (let's hear it for Legal Zoom) and the community has been very supportive of our new growth. Innovate, collaborate - don't duplicate.

Barry Martin
Lucky Penny Productions
Napa CA

five years ago POW! festival began

POW! action art festival started 5 years ago as a response to institutional art and art organizations.
Appealing to a primal desire of free expression without limits, POW!POW! POW! is,
today, one of the few remaining uncensored performance festivals in the US.

As major art institutions continue to play it safe and impose their political agendas on the
artists, POW! POW! POW! declares, once and for all, total freedom of expression with
no limits and no strings attached.

Now an internationally renowned festival run by and for artists, POW! brings together an array of local and international multigenerational action artists more
willing to ask for forgiveness than for permission.

So many of these thoughts

So many of these thoughts have been running around in my head for years, and occasionally they emerge, half-formed, while drunk at parties or writing rambling e-mails to equally helpless friends; but it was a wonderful relief to hear them shared, and articulated in such a coherent way (and without the indignation that can hamper an otherwise logical and constructive point). Many thanks for this article.

I'm a playwright and director, just turned thirty (and of course, still struggling). During a meeting with an older established director (and former regional theatre Artistic Director) in New York a year ago, he said something to the effect of, "look, I'd tell you how I achieved what I did, and how I got to where I did, but, it's not relevant. The avenues that were open to me thirty-five years ago, aren't open to you now." You've said exactly what needs to be said--that it couldn't be more important for those of us who are still young, still struggling, to start looking for a new blueprint, instead of trying to work our way into a system that was never built for our inclusion in the first place (I'm not placing a value judgment on that; it just, as this director said, seems to be the way it is). I know that actually creating this blueprint is a whole other challenge in itself; but the call to do just that, to be heard by as many of us as possible, is a worthy endeavor, and the first step in that process. Let's hope we can heed your advice.

It's academic.

I can see how live theatre should be declared dead. The art form blossomed with the advent of community and regional theatres just as television exploded. White elephant theatre edifices, season tickets, public money and corporate sponsers top loaded the organizations.

Now theatre companies with knock-out shows and great buzz have a hard time filling 100 seat houses for twelve perfomance runs in cities with a million people. Even those baby boomer artists and adminstrators as well as their elders must make marriage with a university to keep playing. In many cases great art is created but in many cases we get what I see as the equivalent of the children's companies of Shakespeare's London.

I love theatre and became a generalist so I could act in the city I lived in, a development my state university degree fostered. After apprenticing in a regional theatre, I came home and directed, choreographed, designed and built small, played many excellent roles, became a teacher against all my intentions, all the while wrangling the theatre I worked for towards paying its artists. Now it seems to be in the hands of competent faculty, who, for the institution, cast millenials in roles the gen-xers should play and drop the one well-paid role of the season into the hands of a peer. Maybe what I see is not that live theatre is dead, it's academic. I sound bitter but I'm not. I love theatre and will never retire.

The New Models

This is one of the best researched and most soundly reasoned articles I've ever read on this vast range of issues. In 1980, I met McNeil Lowry at the 1980 TCG conference at Princeton. Through the Ford Foundation, he was one of the architects of non profit arts funding. The Ford and Rockefeller Foundations wanted to get a tax deduction on their donations, so the non-profit model was grabbed and used. Very little thought went into it. It worked well for 10 years or so, but by 1980, he was beginning to think that, in America, the non-profit model might not be the right model, and clearly, not the only model for the arts. Up to that time, non profits were used for charity and educational services for children and the sick. His argument seemed to suggest that the non-profit model actually infantilized artists and threw them into the same basket as children, the elderly, the sick and the mentally ill, with boards and staffs to protect the public health of the community while also making them feel they're doing their duty to artists.

Historically, American theater has always been a commercial theater, going all the way back to colonial days. In America, we long for a state supported art theater, but it's not easy to make that work here. In the 1990s, the layers of bureaucracy increased exponentially to protect politicians and leaders from both artistic and Republican hits on the NEA. From that point on, institutions were funded and not individual artists, unless they were attached to an institution. Unfortunately, while business people worked hard to bring more creativity into the business world, artists and arts organizations have been working hard to recreate The Organization Man of the 1950s. Right now, funding for the NEA is a joke.

Presently, in Los Angeles, I'm taking courses from the Small Business Administration (SBA) to try to find the new models. In the next few years, the big funnel for future funding will be through the SBA. The NEA has been effectively neutralized, minimized and marginalized. On the other hand, Creative Capital (Warhol Foundation) works to teach artists business principles and how to use them to achieve their highest artistic ends. Ruby Lerner, CC Executive Director, is at the forefront of these innovations. If anyone is interested in these new models, check out the new B Corporation model, just recently approved in California and many other states. It's designed to created a business corporation with a social mission embedded in its articles of incorporation. The social motive is meant to have at least equal standing with the profit motive.

This article sums up the same

This article sums up the same problems I have been experiencing in Canadian theatre circles over the past 5-10 years. I am a costume designer, and I have tried unsuccessfully to get paid apprenticeship positions with established theatre companies, knowing that in the future they will require skilled artists to replace the people currently working there. These companies have very little interest in training the middle section of the arts: they will exploit the younger students coming out of school with unpaid/volunteer positions and take advantage of non-union actors to fill most of their roles. They often bring in talent from 'away' instead of building a solid core of local actors and technicians who could be continuously employed within the theatre.

Additionally, the bureaucratic structure is clogged with administrators who care very little about the art the companies are producing, and only look at the audience reactions and the budget's bottom line.

And it happens: younger artists break away and form their own companies so they can subsist on grant applications and day jobs, and it works for actors, but the costume designers and other technical artists are lost in the shuffle. There isn't enough money to hire us to do our jobs, so we go jobless, and the little theatre companies get along without us.

I have recently attempted to stop this vicious cycle by leaving what I called my "job" as a costumer, and am currently going into teacher's college in the fall. I have always been a theatre artist but I have no intention of letting it starve me to death.

Thank you for the eye-opening and the sharing.

"funders should fund artists"

Thank you for this excellent article! You're spot on in so many ways, and I think that finally, as a field, we're ready to start embracing some of the solutions you recommend. Small companies and individual artists are finding new ways of working -- but without grant makers following their lead, we'll continue to be not only encouraged but essentially forced to follow models that have failed artists and the field. Meanwhile, we're kickstarting and throwing fundraisers and embracing alternate sources of funding like Theatre Bay Area's CASH grant program, which funds artists directly. And articles like yours will hopefully continue the forward march of new ideas.

Took the words-

You took the words right out of the mouths of so many of my friends and collaborators. We've been starting to work this way and I think it is crucially important to continue to have this conversation. I am going to forward this article not only to my peers, but to my friends who are Baby Boomer board members, and administrators. I think everyone needs to realize that these systemic changes are crucial.

Thank you Thank you Thank you for this article.

Check out Pentacle, and

Check out Pentacle, and organization that has been offering fluid and flexible support to small and mid-sized performing arts companies and independent artists since 1974.

Great article!

Love this article and enjoyed reading it from an arts management perspective. The small company I run in Madison, WI uses a fiscal receiver. We are not our own 501(c)(3)...the plan was to do that but it hasn't happened yet and I am in no big hurry. Using the receiver makes us eligible for grants and donations that are tax deductible. The fiscal receiver, a state wide advocacy organization, takes a percentage and in return does all the paperwork. This allows me time to devote to my art and the ten million things that go into running a theatre company.

But it's discouraging how many funders don't understand what fiscal receivership is or don't support it. If you don't have that 501(c)(3) you're not eligible for their support. My company has been in business for six years. We are not a flash in the pan and never intended to be. Many funders are essentially saying that they want to see commitment, but rather than look at an organization's body of work, they want that letter from the IRS. Yes, it takes money and time to incorporate, but doing paperwork does not prove an organization's dedication. But essentially many foundations and corporations will at least look at a brand new company with that nonprofit status but limited history but won't even consider an organization with a proven track record. This is a big part of the problem that eventually trickles down and prevents job creation, innovation and productivity.

Funders, take note! Just because someone does the paperwork it doesn't mean they're in it for the long haul. If that were the case, there would be no divorces.

Alternative models

Great article. Not much different in Canada. One thing that I encourage is to get people to think outside the major city model. The traditional non-profit model can only work (and in a limited manner as the article indicated)with a giant population base. What if you get out of the city? What if you tried to do work that was relevant to a smaller community. What if you became an unofficial resident performer type person? It might mean changing your work somewhat but you might also find it rewarding on a different level. Oh sure, the big city dream of massive fame won't be there but the ability to walk down the street and have have people; arts people, and non-arts people know you, know your work and thank you for bringing the community alive in a way they never imagined is an amazing experience. Suddenly you aren't just doing theatre because your work has a different resonance. You are a community builder, celebrator and educator. You are what the arts should be to communities (at least that is what I tell myself). Good luck out there everyone.

Flexible Thinking

Thank you for writing this piece. It's refreshing to hear there are others continuing to create vital and risky work without forming a company. I work in both education and theater, and the most fulfilling experiences I've had in both are with groups or organizations that have no or very little administrative staff so the work stays focused on either the students or the artists. It's often harder and more challenging work, but the rewards are immense.

In fact, the most rewarding (and will probably turn out to be the most sustainable) effort in recent years was with a group of theater artists who came together to create a piece that we worked on and performed in a few places over a three year period. One collaborator suggested we apply for a workshop grant and then located an artist's grant which we supplemented with a smaller city arts grant and revenue from ticket sales. We'll probably get together again at some point in the future when we have another crazy perspective on a story we're dying to tell.

It's possible to do this work without draining the well and leaving everyone thirsty. Thanks for reminding us all of that!


Nothing new here. Artists have always self-produced, shared resources, denigrated the role of arts administrators, cursed funders and sought alternative models. That's what artists do.

Everyone in our field loves to think they're the next hot thing but we're really just constantly re-inventing the wheel.

Somewhat outdated, but makes some valid points

What a . . . quaint . . . article. I don't know anyone who wants to start the next Guthrie, Steppenwolf, or ACT. I do know a lot of people who want to start a company that will produce 2-3 shows a year, do outstanding work, and not lose money. A few might even hope to be able to make a living only through the theatre they found. In the Twin Cities (Minneapolis-St. Paul), this means aspiring to be the next 10,000 Things or Frank Theatre. It's interesting to note that both of these companies pay at least decent money to performers --- in fact, the great majority of the performers with 10,000 Things are Equity. NEITHER of them are top-heavy with administrators.

This may be our particular model because a fair amount of state money is available for small arts organizations in amounts of either $5,000 or $10,000. So a small, bare-bones production can get a significant boost. Or it may be that a many theatre artists are content to work a day job and don't care whether theatre can support them. They just want the opportunity to create theatre.

Virtually all small theatres in the Twin Cities have unpaid administrators and unpaid performers --- yet somehow, directors and designers manage to collect at least a stipend. If I could change things, I would say to these companies: 1) Pay nobody or pay everybody. 2) Raise that extra bit of cash so that wages/stipends can do more than pay for a tank of gas. 3) Produce a new play every now and then, so playwrights can make some money, too.


You hit the nail head on in this article! I myself was a company member of a theater company in NYC, and many of the members disbanded after 2 years because (upon reflection) I believe we were trying to act like a traditional theater company. If the focus would have been on supporting us as artists - rather than constantly fund-raising for space and production costs then it might have been more successful. We created original work, and our last play took 9 months to develop. We all worked day jobs, and were not allowed to work on other projects. It caused much stress with the ensemble. In addition - the artistic director wanted all the ensemble members to be committed to all the shows and rehearsals for an indefinite amount of time. She did not want the members to pursue other projects. If we would have followed a funding structure similar to the Neo-Futurists, I think everyone would have been a lot more happy. Or if we would have placed the focus first on creating great work, and supporting us as individual artists, it might have been a more flexible sustainable model. Thanks again for this article, it really opened my eyes to new ways to think about myself as an artist.

Some Truth

I found this article well written and considered, but I agree that there is some truth to "Yawn's" comment. Artists have always resented the shackles of necessary patronage. Read Bach's letters, for example, or Mozart's, which are completely irreverent toward authority.

The great experimental theatre groups (The Performance Group, The Open Theatre, Squat Theatre, The Living Theatre, and The Bread and Puppet Theatre) have probably come closest to eliminating any need for patronage or public funding while also modeling what a closely knit group of collaborators can accomplish in making ground breaking theatre. Grotowski's Polish Lab Theatre was funded by the state during an especially fruitful period in Eastern Europe for artistic groups, which successfully supported their intention, but the artists were not rich by any means. However, when he established his center in Italy, Grotowski's new vision and the people attached to it encountered a period of intense financial struggle for a time. The center seems to be stable now, but with the European economy coming apart, who knows what their future will be.

The life span of such groups seems to be about 10 years before they disband or morph into another form and perhaps that is the way of things. The artists involved in those groups certainly seem to have a philosophical attitude toward beginnings, mid points and endings in artistic collaboration (read the farewell letter from Grotowski's group). While I agree that it is good for artists to make an adequate living from their art, I feel the division between "professional/paid" artists and "amateur/non-paid" artists restricts possibilities for great artistic creativity by its economic denominations, which we value too highly in the United States. It's an ego game, in my opinion.

The actors in Chaikin's Open Theatre were not paid much of the time. They had day jobs and came to lengthy rehearsals at night. Likewise for the original actors in Schechner's Performance Group, who included Spalding Gray and Willem Dafoe. In fact, Schechner never paid his actors nor did he receive payment for directing. Squat Theatre housed themselves in New York in a brownstone on 23rd St that has since been torn down to make a movie theatre. They were always behind on rent and sold drugs to make money. They gave their performances out of the bottom level of the brownstone and lived in the upper levels. When they were still in Hungary, before they were expelled in 1974, they called themselves the Kassak Theatre, or the Apartment Theatre, because they gave performances out of one of their member's apartments. They never charged for performances. Peter Brook said that the greatest performance he ever saw was a non-professional performance of Crime and Punishment performed in a single room in a house in the former Czechoslovakia.

My point is - great theatre has nothing to do with getting paid. It has to do with passion. If we are able to earn a living at our craft, wonderful, but, if that doesn't happen, that shouldn't stop us from making high quality theatre, which has nothing to do with expensive props or costumes or a large staff.

I studied with Richard Schechner when I was getting my M.A. at NYU and he made an observation to a small group of us late one night that there is a way to make theatre other than "the hustle", i.e. trying to make a living directly from the work. The non-profit theatre model discussed in this article exists to make professional theatre possible, so of course it comes with many strings attached, many of which have to do with our class system in the U.S. America worships the bureaucrat and the entrepreneur, not the artist. The people who make money from theatre in this country are investors and producers, not actors, playwrights, directors, dancers, etc. Remember, Moliere died on stage, he created a new French theatre, but he was still denied a Christian burial because he was an actor. That bias against stage artists still runs very deep in many cultures, including ours.

If you want to be recognized professionally in theatre, probably you have to play the game. If we can stop caring about our professional status and think outside the box, there may be other options. Personally, I think it is more important at this juncture to provide high quality theatre to our immediate communities without involving money. Let people donate if they want. But we might want to stop expecting the coin to be the reward.

Brilliant response...

This response is absolutely brilliant. I am so thankful I came across this artice AND your response. Both are incredibly insightful. Stay well!

The Arts Mall

The Arts Mall

I have been thinking that it is time for a new type of community theatre/art institution.
I see it as a cross between a fringe festival, an arts centre, a mall and business incubator.

The idea is to take over an old mall and provide performance spaces to artists for a percentage of the gate. The cost is set on some sort of sliding scale. 10 percent of the gate for the first thousand dollars in ticket sales, 15 percent for the second thousand and so on until a company has reached a large enough audience to charge them a full facility rental . Any performing art can use the space. Use is not restricted in any way. Except that you have to earn your time beyond the first limited performance run. Any artist or group amateur or professional can utilize the facility. A Broadway company can ask to put on tryout for a new show or A high school kid can come in and ask for space to perform with their newly formed band. People can put on theatricals, teach classes, give lectures or poetry recitals. They can do dance shows, multimedia shows or puppet shows. They can perform rock music, classical music, jazz music, all will be accommodated. The cost for unsuccessful shows will be 10 percent of the gate. More successful shows will be charged accordingly.

There should also be a few display locations for the visual arts, Maybe a speakers corner and a screening room for independent film makers. If there is enough space it might make sense to have rehearsal spaces for rent.

For the rest of the facility there should be a food court, a large bar that works like a fringe festival beer tent, a common box office, banquet rooms for rent, restaurants perhaps, a music store, an art supply store, a gallery that sells the art work of the local artists, along with independent music cd's and dvd’s and chap books and collects a commission on sales.

The problem with being an independent artist, a young actor, singer, musician, dancer or fledgling theatre company is mostly a problem with connecting with your audience. You can have a great show and not get enough people to know or care enough about it to generate a gate. Part of the reason is because people have to find your performance venue. The companies have to find them first and then they have to figure out a way tell the audience how to get to whatever dark corner they have arranged for themselves. This is expensive. Right now there are also a series of self interested gate keepers that get in the way of starting your career. You really need someone to give you a break, a grant, a free space or free publicity.

This institution might solve those problems. The Centre would be a focal point for all interested in the arts, both practitioner and patrons alike. Once a person enters the facility for any one event they will discover that there are so many things going on that they can come back again and again. Things would be advertised all over the mall with posters and video screens and spoken about at the bar and food court in much the same way things happen a fringe festival. Only it goes on year round. Event after Event. Add to that a website that covers everything that is happening and newspaper adds like the ones for multiplex cinemas and the community will soon come to realize that there is always something happening at the Arts Mall. A patron would be able to show up on any given evening and find an arts event that interests them. A young artist could enter this institution as a student and develop their art and their audience in an informal structure that could take them from beginner to master all in one place. Successful shows and acts could tour to other arts malls in other communities so that successful arts works could generate their true income potential. The best artists could make connections that will get them involved with the more financially stable types of arts institutions and that could help them to reach the point were they could make a living as an artist.

I see this institution as having the most potential in mid size cities of half a million to 1.5 million. Because these towns would be large enough to generate the required amount of artistic activity but small enough for the facility to become the local centre for the arts. (I would be interested in hearing opinions from people in smaller and larger cities as to how this basic format might be amended to accommodate those situations.)

I think that properly done this institution could be financially viable. So that the organization at the top would be able to sustain it with a minimal amount of charitable support. It has the potential to create a community of artists that works as bridge from one level of experience to the next (both for individual artists and performing arts organizations) instead of the current system with endless gate keepers and obstacles in reaching an audience. This institution would have room for amateur and professional alike and be the place to go when you are between gigs and looking for the next thing to do.

I’d love to see something like this become a feature of every community. I think that getting the first one started will require a group with a lot of pull and resources. But if we can prove its value. It might offer something that no city can do without. Every city builds Churches and Community Halls and Hockey Rinks and Baseball Stadiums and there is a huge demand for banquet halls. But performance venues tend to be exclusive to a particular group of artists and for that reason they find it harder to win community support and difficult for the greater community to utilize. This institution would be so open that anyone could walk through the doors and find a place for themselves almost immediately.
It would be the place to begin any arts career and it might have the potential to sustain an artist's career for a life time.

I’d love to hear some feed back. Do folks think that this concept address the concerns brought up by this
this forum.

Kenneth Kelbrook.

Mabou Mines has been doing this for their whole career

I am not sure why Mabou Mines never gets mentioned as one of the oldest experimental theater companies in the country that has been self producing and paying its artistic directors since 1970.

The company incorporated as a non-profit in 1970 in both New York and San Francisco where many of the original company members first worked together. All members worked at FOOD in Soho to pay the bills. JoAnne Akalaitis and Ruth Maleczech were the cooks and Philip Glass and Lee Breuer and David Warrilow cleaned and did the dishes. JoAnne, Ruth, Lee and Philip all lived together on Avenue B to pool their resources. In 1971, the company decided as a whole that they would always pay themselves (the artists). They also declared that no one artistic director should be named. Each member of the company was considered an Artistic Director. Keeping the company forever Artist-Centered and honoring the diversity of artistic expression within the company. They decided that they would rotate who gets to do a piece of work and everyone rallied behind that artist to help with the art, the producing and the touring.

Art Services originally did much of the administrative work for the company, as they did not have an office or a space. Ellen Stewart gave the company space to rehearse and Paula Cooper invited them to perform in her gallery. Then Joe Papp invited the company to make their work at the Public Theater. They remained as one of the resident theater companies at the Public until the late 1980s. JoAnne succeeded Joe as Producing Artistic Director of the Public.

Mabou Mines has never employed more than two administrative staff. Company members have always picked up the slack administratively. They have followed this model since the company began in 1970. They also have a thriving Artist-in-Residence Program where artists are truly mentored by original members of the company and given FREE SPACE to rehearse and perform and a stipend to create the work.

It is amazing how invisible this company is given its longevity, its generous contributions to young up-and-coming artists in the field and its model which has been successfully adopted by ERS and other young theater companies. The members of Mabou Mines are still making new work every year with the same passion and integrity that they had when they started as 30 year olds in NYC. They should be honored and acknowledged as they all reach the age of 75 and are still making work.

The Distribution Deal

This article is great. I’m so glad somebody is finally speaking out about foundations funding “organizations with operating budgets over $200,000” etc. This has been a truly frightening development. But I’m less inclined to discourage people from creating their own companies and producing their work. The argument that larger institutions can “re-grant” or “lend equipment” may seem on the surface to be workable but it always ends up with Gatekeepers. Gatekeepers! Gatekeepers everywhere. I’ve also encountered active, institutional aggression against “self-producing”. The Durfee Foundation for example demands that only works being produced by another entity can apply for their finishing funds. Get thee to a Gatekeeper.

In 1985 Joseph Chaikin turned to me and said, “You can’t do anything without the critics.” Many people responding to this article seem unaware of the importance of there being successes in the field. All boats rise with the tide. Talk about Mabou Mines. Some will remember the huge success and (by the way) expensive production values of “The Gospel at Colonus” in 1985. It was amazing and a world success. What I have seen over the past 35 years is a systematic turning-off of media attention to (I prefer to use the term) “non-mass culture performing arts”. Successes like “Gospel..” are no longer possible and the whole field is drifting into obscurity (Mabou Mines along with it) and the media, as well as the structure of funding, are very much to blame. But we the artists are also to blame. Yes, doing theater for cheap is so important. Paying people comes and goes and is the basis of nothing. But the public doesn’t want cheap forever. We have to band together, drive out the gatekeepers and make sure there are successes now and then.

I love Kenneth Kelbrook’s piece on “The Arts Mall”. He’s also realized that when there are successes they need to be collectively supported and furthered and written about. But also that they will arise naturally given the right structure. Nobody has to contort their vision to create a success. I have been thinking that this would be the best way to fund the field for a long time. The thought of all those administrators getting $80,000 a year each to pour over thousands of applications and choose the next great artist is alarming and wrong. Mabou Mines and Richard Foreman and Meredith Monk and all those old stars arose at a time when there was funding and space was dirt cheap. Now, space is prohibitive and there is no funding.

So we, as a community, need to ponder the enemy more exactly. We have to face the “Distribution Deal” the movies, television and mass culture outlets have carved out for themselves. This is the place to look for the justification of funding for the arts. Never has there been such a draconian structure. My own experience as an new opera maker has been that shows I’ve made could have run longer but the space was booked by somebody else coming in tomorrow. The possibility of distributing my work to a larger audience was rendered impossible at every step.


What I find incredible from "artists" so-called is the total lack of comment or even awareness of the "rule change" in British Equity (actor's union in the UK) which recently deprived all it's members of their right to hold their own political and personal beliefs. All because the Leftists on the council did not like the politics of one particular ballerina.

From the Equity Journal - Sping 2011
"The rules currently guarantee the right for every
member to hold and express their personal political
and other beliefs in both their private and
professional capacities. The proposed rule change
would remove that guarantee .."

They removed it. About 3000 members voted and the rule change won by about 800 votes. That's 800 votes out of 35,000 members. A mandate? Hardly. Also such a measure would probably be illegal in the USA because of the Bill of Rights (although the First and Second amendments are currently under attack by the Left). Young theatre artists need to mature to where they cease being tools of these ideologues and start standing up for and defending freedom. Enough with the 'Che' and Lenin' silly flirtations. Take a look at Jefferson and Washington.

There is no way a real artist would support the loss of freedom to his personal and political beliefs as the members of Britain's largest performer's union now must endure. That union (among many others of course) has gone this bizarre route because political activists infiltrate unions to use the resources and power of the organization for their demented notion of "social change" learned in the classroom at the foot of another ideologue who infiltrated the educational establishment. Students often sound more indoctrinated by Leftists Orthodoxy than they as educated free thinkers.

Freedom, personal and political should be defended wherever it is under attack in the West. The West brought these concepts into existence and in the space of few moronic generations it is being rapidly lost

The whole field is corrupt

By providing grants and tax exempt status to every rattle brained group of self-proclaimed artists the culture aided by the government has spawned a mountain of sewage known as non-profit theatre. This is nothing but a scam of course so you scammers are really pretty ridiculous to complain about your plight. Here in San Francisco there are a ton of crappy plays cast with shallow, talentless actors being put on every week and all of them using money that comes (one way or another) out of the pockets of people who actually do productive work for a living. Self-delusional deadbeats who fancy themselves artists are making things impossible for real artists who are actually seeking to produce something original and relevant and which can make a profit without handouts and subsidies. 501cs are a sleazy scam and those of you who participate in them deserve and even crummier existence than you already have. And that's saying something because I know how most of you live and it's pathetic.

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