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.