Monday, June 14, 2010

Towards a New Model

Photo by Alan Cleaver
"You never change things by fighting the existing reality.  To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete."
-- Buckminster Fuller
An article posted last Thursday on Reason.com has me thinking.  Contributing editor Katherine Mangu-Ward penned a piece about microfinancing and a new model for journalism, Spot.us:

Spot.Us calls what they do "community powered reporting." The goal is to allow the public to "commission and participate with journalists to do reporting on important and perhaps overlooked topics." And here's the good news for reporters: "On some occasions we can even pay back the original contributors." Right now, a pitch for a story on a failed redevelopment project in Los Angeles has picked up $450 in donations and is looking for $1,050 more. A pitch about space-based solar panels has snagged $205 worth of interest, with $145 to go. A ongoing investigation into the question of whether regents in the University of California system were making private profits by investing public funds garnered $6,117 in cash, with $3,883 to go. One installment of that story, which was republished by the San Francisco Public Press and North Bay Bohemian, tied Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to the scandal and inspired a California state senator to call for an audit of the system—just the kind of awareness raising, watchdogging, and dogged digging that doomsayers were afraid would fall by the wayside as traditional local papers faded away.
According to the New York Innovative Theatre Foundation's 2008 report, "Statisical Analysis of Off-Off-Broadway Budgets," the average budget for an Off-Off Broadway show is $18,000.  41% of those shows have budgets of $10,000 or less.  Speaking from experience, that budget figure is often less, at least in L.A.'s Under-99 scene.  The projects Mangu-Ward cite range from $350 to $10,000.

Why not do what Spot.us is doing, but for theatre?

Let's say Theatre Unleashed has a raft of shows we'd like to do in 2011.  We post six productions online, with budgets ranging from $2,000 to $10,000.  Whatever gets funded, that's our season.  Like Spot.us, no one individual can fund more than 20% of the project (to prevent, say, me from tipping the scales in the direction of a play I'm writing.)  All who donate to the project receive a golden ticket to the show: They can come as often as they want for free.

There is an immediate feedback loop from the community-at-large as to what they want to see on stage.  Perhaps, as in the Spot.us model, the community can offer tips as to what they'd like to see, but the projects offered are offered from the ensemble itself.  So although the community may want to see Nunsense, The Odd Couple and Our Town, the ensemble may offer Twelfth Night, Pin-Up Girls, and Landscaping the Den of Saints.  Perhaps this model would enable us to find a middle ground between what we as artists want to do and what the audience actually wants to see?  Or at least make informed decisions about what we do.  If the public keeps saying they want heavy, politically-charged theatre, we'd know to not do You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown.  Maybe we'd do Dog Sees God instead.

And hey, if the TU community doesn't care to see Pin-Up Girls, that doesn't mean I don't write it.  Oh, I write it.  Perhaps if this idea were done on a national level, I could find an audience for my play.  Maybe the theatre-going community in Cincinnati or Cambridge would really like to see my play about backstage high-jinks in a 1940s San Francisco burlesque club.

There is a really good idea here, one that I cannot develop on my own.  Collaborators wanted!

(Now comes the part where someone points out that this sort of thing already exists.)

UPDATED:

Of course it already exists.  Sort of.  Not a 1:1 comparison with Spot.Us (I think an equivalant to the "Tip" option would be a huge boon) but close enough for horseshoes and the internet.

It's called Kickstarter, and a friend of a friend is raising money to start a new theatre company and produce (ironically) Dog Sees God with the service:  3Monkeys

Currently there are 264 returns for "theater" and 39 returns for "theatre."  No telling how much overlap there is between the two.  That's a research project for another day--possibly this weekend.

Life is a game of Minesweeper. When I clear a chunk of the board, I'm humbled to discover how much territory exists that I knew absolutely nothing about. And the board is HUGE.

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