Theatre Bay Area Chatterbox

Monday, August 10, 2009

Growing Versus Thriving

A few years after I started Crowded Fire, I remember the mother of a company member coming up after a show and saying enthusiastically, “You guys are going to be the next Berkeley Rep. I remember when they were just a small group starting out and look where they are now!” That sounded exciting to me--I thought it would be great to have our story look like the classic '70s/'80s story of the group of actors who got together to put on a show, attracted an audience and funding, built a building, and grew their company into one of the leading regional theatres in the country.

So we started to work on it. In between finding cheap lumber, tracking down rehearsal space and meeting playwrights, we started trying to look like a mini regional theatre. We put together an advisory board, we created an employee manual (I laugh when I think about that--I mean, we didn’t really have any employees), and we tried to seem as much like an institution as we could. This started to pay off fast: artists took us seriously, I got invited to speak on panels, and most importantly, it was easier to answer all those questions on grants that are oriented towards larger companies. Did we have a strategic plan? Of course! Did we know the ratio of earned to contributed income? You bet! Did we have a plan to become a nonprofit within three years? In progress.

But then I started to question this approach. Was growing into a multi-million dollar theatre really what we were aiming to do? For one thing, it didn’t look likely. The landscape has changed a lot since the early days of the regional theatre movement and there isn’t necessarily room for too many more institutions on that scale. For another thing, the kind of artist-driven, experimental work we were attracted to didn’t match well with the kind of revenue you need to grow exponentially like that. And honestly, all that time spent on the business of creating and maintaining a nonprofit structure was time not spent making art, or improving the art we were creating.

Fast forward some years, and here at Theatre Bay Area I often talk to small companies who want to know how to grow into midsize ones, or to other members of the community who want to know what TBA is doing to “help companies grow.” What I think now is that we’re not asking the right question. What can we all do to help companies thrive? Not everyone needs to grow, or especially to keep on growing year after year. Sure, it’s great to get big enough to have a paid staff member, to pay artists a semi-respectable wage, and to get the Chronicle to come review your plays. But maybe the question should be about achieving a sustainable size and then deepening the creative achievement, not just the size of your audience or the size of your budget. Especially in the midst of this recession, we need to find other ways to measure success. Year-over-year growth is not always possible, and perhaps not even desirable.

The thing is, though, this kind of thinking has to come from funders and other key players as well. If the art’s not real unless you own your space, if you can’t call it a “professional” production without an Equity contract, if you can’t get in the door of a major funder without a minimum budget size, then there are real reasons that we keep focusing on growth. This feels like such an American preoccupation to me. The stock market needs to keep rising and rising, we need to keep settling more and more land, we have to build bigger and bigger houses. Let’s not make that mistake in the arts.

What could we all do to change the conversation so that we have others ways to measure importance, achievement and value to the community? What if we asked how significant the work you’re making is instead of what budget category your company fits in or how many audience members attended last year? There’s no question that the institutional model is a problematic one for new companies to emulate. Let’s start thinking about new structures to help emerging artists attract the resources they need to make extraordinary work, and let’s work with our funders to figure out how to evaluate that work without always asking everyone to demonstrate growth.

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At August 7, 2009 at 4:53 PM , Blogger PianoFight said...

While I agree with the sentiment, I don't think it's a very useful practice. Theaters, collectively, are losing their audience. This is a well documented stat from the NEA (double digit percentage loss since the 1980's). Theater has to grow, otherwise, as the audiences continue to decline year after year, there will eventually be no audience left.

At August 8, 2009 at 10:25 AM , Blogger An Honest Critic said...

Rebecca, I think you bring up a critically important point in the ongoing debate about the value of art, and it's corollary debate, how we prove it's value, how we measure it's success. I think part of the problem is the prevalence of the capitalist paradigm (you're institution is only healthy when it's growing in capital), but it's also the lack of encouragement to experiment with anything other than what happens onstage. And I think a systematic reliance on funding from foundations invested materially and psychologically in capitalist paradigms also inhibits experimentation in institutional structures.

At August 8, 2009 at 6:21 PM , Blogger Carl Benson said...

Not entirely sure what all that means, AnHonestCritic, but from what I gather, you're saying that there's lots of room for lots of types of companies and even more types of "growth."

Namely, some companies should be experimenting with their business in a not-for-profit model while others should continue trying things with a for-profit model. And that the experimentation should extend beyond a specific show and into the business of running the theater company. Is that about right?

At August 10, 2009 at 10:30 AM , Blogger Rebecca Novick said...

Interesting, Honest Critic. That reminds me of a time I was at a funders' panel and someone in the audience asked what major foundations were doing about the concentration of wealth in the hands of just a few and someone, I think from the Irvine Foundation, responded that foundations are the RESULT of the concentration of wealth. :) A complicated situation, for sure.

To the other points here, I think it's interesting to think about applying the same kind of creativity to organizational structure that we're accustomed to applying to our art. But I was also trying to say that for artists who don't have the bizarre yen for organizational development that I do, there should be a mechanism to help them find ways to support their art without building a company.

At August 10, 2009 at 9:33 PM , Blogger Clay Lord said...

Carl/PianoFight - you of course have an interesting perspective since you are a for-profit model, and I think you're right that, as with any effort to succeed (however that's defined), different groups pursuing all possible tracks to success is an important phenomenon. But I don't think (and I can't honestly figure out if this is what you're saying or not, so if no, forgive me) that we should simply say that theatre companies need to thrive or fail based on their ability to crowd-please and make money. Art is a public good (I know, I can see your eyes rolling, but it's true) -- it is an expression of cultural experience in a variety of ways, some of which are popular in the moment, and some of which reveal themselves to be gems over time (think Van Gogh, or, more recently, think early Pinter). Financially nurturing experiences that don't necessarily pull money in the door allows artists to make the work that ultimately lives on -- Angels in America, for example, is a huge work, long, somewhat inaccessible, with a large cast and tough technical stipulations. The original production essentially dessimated the company that commissioned it, and was supported by donated money. While it's true that Angels went on to be almost immediately and profoundly successful, for every Angels (or August: Osage County) there's a Kentucky Cycle in the wings.

In some of your other posts, you have argued that theatre just has to get better in order to survive, and while I think that's very objective, I like that goal better than saying "theatre has to grow." Theatre, to my mind, has to change, adapt, adjust itself to the reality we as field find ourselves in now rather than the burgeoning, open landscape of the late 70's. I think it's totally possible that a large number of smaller theatres producing very different work, possibly for shorter periods of time before coming to a natural end (or not), is potentially the solution for the time we're in. Or maybe not. We'll see.

At August 11, 2009 at 8:49 AM , Blogger An Honest Critic said...

Carl: Yes and No. I'm saying that we should be aware of the constraints placed on our thinking when we define 'growth' or 'institutional health' in capitalist terms. The two kinds of theatre in the U.S. are so inculcated in the capitalist paradigm that they are given legal status by their relationship to the ultimate capitalist goal: for-profit and non-profit. So yes, I think we should experiment with the organizational structures, but I don't want to call them 'business' models. (I'm fully aware that I sound like a radical--no offense to radicals--but words are powerful agents for channeling thoughts, and we should be careful which words we use).

Rebecca: A very complicated situation indeed, I didn't mean to indicate otherwise, but not inscrutable. I hazard to say that I don't think foundations are the results of concentrated wealth, but rather of the psychological dispositions of those trafficking wealth.

I agree that mechanisms should be in place to help develop and present the work of non-organization-zen artists, but don't they already exist? Aren't development organizations like the Playwrights Foundation, Crowded Fire, Berkeley Repertory, and Z Space supposed to mine the masses for undiscovered talent? I don't mean these to be rhetorical questions. I honestly think we should examine what organizations, which already exist, are successfully sparking artistic careers. Of course, then we come back to our previous dilemma, how do we define success?

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