Please, Don't Start a Theater Company!

Next-Generation Arts Institutions and Alternative Career Paths

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