Theatre Bay Area Chatterbox

Friday, February 4, 2011

Envisioning Alternatives

Earlier this week, we generated a heated discussion about Rocco Landesman's comments at the New Play Institute on our blog and Facebook page. I walked away from that discussion with the sense that yes, our theatrical ecosystem (from a business standpoint) is unsustainable. Many (sadly, most) theatre artists work for nothing or next to nothing. In spite of this, we are indeed witnessing a rapid increase in the amount of theatre companies springing up around the country, and that increase is concurrent with an alarming decrease in funding sources for these theatre companies. However, as the reaction around the blogosphere is indicating, simply suggesting that we have too many theatre companies without proposing meaningful alternatives to the current system is overly simplistic and frustrating to artists whose life's work is in question.

That's where this post comes in. I would like to set aside this space to envision alternatives to the traditional models that many artists follow as criticized by Landesman: to produce a play or two with friends, to identify a niche in the theatre community, or at least a solid group of artists with whom one wants to continue to work, and then to form a theatre company with said artists. I have noticed a tendency in the theatre community to view creating a new theatre company as a necessary step in legitimizing one's work and building an audience. In our current theatrical environment, this is absolutely true. But can we imagine other systems in which this might not be as much of an issue?

Should established theatre companies, for example, create more opportunities for less established artists to create? What if large companies dedicated a certain amount of resources to smaller-scale "theatre laboratories" in which fringe artists could experiment with the form without having to create an entire theatre infrastructure of their own? How would the large companies benefit from such arrangements?

Could a group of smaller companies pool their resources to establish one umbrella nonprofit coop of sorts that serves all of them (run by a centralized managing director), much as arts organizations will pool their resources to share an office or performance space? Would such a thing even be legally and/or logistically feasible? Would this eliminate enough overhead costs to justify the added logistical headaches?

What sort of infrastructure would need to be in place, do you think, so that artists would no longer need to create organizations to satisfy their artistic impulses?

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At February 4, 2011 at 12:12 PM , Blogger trevor said...

Hello Elana,

Thank you for posting this. Yes, I’ve been following the #newplay discussion and the multiple Twitter stream conversations that the New Play convening at Arena Stage last week has spawned. I also watched the New Play TV feed from the conference and saw the feathers fly. While it was entertaining, I do feel that next steps and action items are now called for. I hope that Theatre Bay Area can help lead the way locally.

I propose that Theatre Bay Area act as an aggregator site to gather information on these thorny issues and as you suggest, post possible alternative models. There are some very good suggestions already floating out there on the web, as well as some interesting programs already in existence in other parts of the country that are working along the incubator model (I’m thinking of Steppenwolf and their “Garage”). Perhaps TBA could work with TCG to move the conversation forward at the annual TCG meeting this summer?

Many years ago, when I worked for TBA, there was much talk of convening a New Play Summit to gather together the Bay Area’s new play development programs with the theatre companies both large and small that are committed to doing new work in order to see if there were ways in which we, as a community, might be able to pool our resources to strengthen the field. The idea of a Bay Area New Play Network (along the lines of the NPN) was proposed. The idea of incubator programs was also brought up where “nomadic” theatres (that was the term we used then) might be able to partner with larger institutions to present work on their second stages or during their dark times. There were some wonderful meetings and much talk and many long lasting relationships were formed… but I believe that we might be able to do better now.

All this talk of scarcity and abundance at the national level has sparked new energy in an old discussion here in the Bay Area and it makes me smile. I appreciate the enthusiasm, it is contagious. I respectfully submit that perhaps the time has come to actually meet in person once again? Might I suggest one of the meeting rooms at the War Memorial Performing arts center, where the UN charter was signed and where TBA’s annual meeting takes place? I believe that we as a theatre community could move one step closer to sustainability if we all work together. Perhaps I’m a dreamer… but then again, that’s why I make plays.

Thank you for your time and consideration.


Trevor Allen
Artistic Director and Playwright at large
Black Box Theatre Company, San Francisco

At February 4, 2011 at 1:02 PM , Blogger David J. Loehr said...

This kind of community building--working together, deputizing/adopting smaller companies and sharing performance spaces with them--is exactly what we've been talking about at 2amt, both on the #2amt twitter hashtag on and off for the last year and on the website, most recently in Travis Bedard's "never be dark" post, explaining the #neverbedark tag and elaborating on comments from the New Play Convening, specifically ideas brought up in the roundtable discussions by Shishir Kurup and in the breakout sessions by several of us.

Part of what came out of the convening was a renewed sense of purpose, new connections between people & organizations, and a commitment to stay connected, working together so that we don't come back five years from now to ask the same questions and have the same discussions.

It's great to see conversations like this starting around the country.

David J. Loehr
Artist in Residence, Riverrun Theatre Company
Editor, 2amt

At February 4, 2011 at 1:41 PM , Blogger Elana said...

Trevor, thanks so much for your thoughtful comment! I agree that this is a conversation that needs to be revisited, and that TBA is a natural vehicle to move this conversation forward for the local community.

David, it is indeed great to see these conversations popping up! It's especially wonderful to have a resource like 2amt that can provide the level of connection that you describe. I must admit that I hadn't yet seen the Never Be Dark post ( and was not familiar with the #neverbedark hashtag prior to reading the post. Thanks for the reminder not only of all the inspiring things that the theatre community is already doing to address these issues, but also of the importance of trying to build off them (rather than spending our time reinventing the wheel).

At February 4, 2011 at 3:49 PM , Blogger Alex GH said...

I think we should raise the top tax rate to 40% and radically downsize our military. This will provide ample funding for arts across the country.

At February 4, 2011 at 6:56 PM , OpenID foolatbest said...


I recall being involved with the Nomad Project as a rep for Bindlestiff. We did accomplish a few useful things but we never seemed to be able to take any major steps toward real change.
At Bindlestiff I learned quite a few good lessons and at Bindlestiff we gave small companies an opportunity to do their work with little financial risk as far as rent goes. I have always felt that was an approach larger established spaces should investigate. We were a co-operative, a consortium of about 8 core artists who pitched in enough money each month to pay the rent which was very low and the utilities. Our individual productions were financed individually - excepting rental - but the costs of building sets, props, publicity etc were covered by the work of the co-op. All money taken in from a production went back into the production costs which were minimal due to the group effort.
When we rented we usually offered the same deal. No rent, we would help as an organization, all our props and set pieces, lighting etc were free, the first money that came in went to defray those costs. If not enough came in, so be it. If there were an excess, the actors got it.
We used this method to great success for productions by Killing My Lobster, Teatro ng T'nan, Tongue in a Mood, Teatro Sabor and several individual producers.
TiaM and TnT were the most successful and that is where I learned my biggest lesson. Of the original 8 artist's shows, none turned a profit and only two paid for costs. We had no community, no audience. The two Philippino American troupes filled the houses to the brim and over. That is why today Bindlestiff is the epicenter of Pilippino American Performing Arts.
I would like to see the Magic offer a space to one small Nomadic theatre company each season The same with all the larger, permanent houses. Just a thought.

At February 6, 2011 at 8:31 AM , Blogger Dennis Baker said...

Thanks for talking about action items, as that was a thrust of our conversation for the #NewPlay Los Angeles Theater (#LAThtr) meetup.

Trevor hit on something simple, and our main action item we came up with, the idea of meeting on a regular basis. As theater artists we don't talk/see each other enough. By meeting and talking, we begin to become familiar with each others works/visions and hopefully be able to help each other cultivate work.

We are also using these meetings to dialogue with TCG, to bring ideas for the national conference this summer. Keep me posted on what action items come out of the bay area conversation.

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