Tuesday, October 12, 2010

EARNING A NAME (part three)

[NOTE: The following is part-three of a write-up I presented to the other administrators of Theatre Unleashed back in July. Part one may be found herePart two may be found here.  I have edited it to make it a more general observation, but this last part is necessarily more personal than the previous two parts. I don’t apologize for talking out of school. There are lessons I have learned that I feel I must share with others, lest they make the same mistakes.]
"There is no map. No map to be a leader, no map to be an artist. I've read hundreds of books about art (in all its forms) and how to do it, and not one has a clue about the map, because there isn't one."

-- Seth Godin, Linchpin

My company went into a more permanent rental arrangement last year, and it almost killed us. It certainly sacrificed our production values (something our landlady warned us would happen, as she attempted to dissuade us from renting from her. We should have listened.) In looking at the financials, it was clear as day: The average amount we spent on our production budgets from month to month in 2008 and the greater part of 2009 equaled the amount we paid in rent each month from late 2009-on.

In December of 2009, we had to run just to keep up. We produced a holiday show—not because we wanted to, but because we HAD to—and still came up short on rent. We threw a last minute “rent party” fundraiser, a humiliating affair that made us less than 10% of what we needed. Bad times. Once 2010 started, and we had shows in the hopper once more, we were able to catch-up the back rent and extricate ourselves from the rental. Whew. That was a close one.

One thing that the rental experience revealed to me is just how dependant my company is on membership dues. Missing even a fraction of the dues owed each month is a huge issue! But the dues situation is only half of the problem.

Recently, our attention has been focused on member involvement. We have approached the problem with the old "carrot and stick" approach, which in all honesty has been more stick than carrot.    We've made emotional appeals to our members to be more actively involved in the company, and yet something as simple as a front of house sign-up sheet goes mostly empty.  Work calls are sparsely attended.  Committees rarely meet.

I argue that being a dues-paying company creates the exact sort of situation that we are faced with: A lack of enthusiastic member involvement, compromised production standards, and membership attrition.

Let's take a look at the fundamental illogic of a dues-paying company:

It troubles me that a non-member will often make out far better than a dues-paying member. For instance, if we cast a 4-A non-member in a production, that cast member will make approximately $84 in stipends. He or she will not be required to attend work calls, work FOH on any other productions, fundraise, etc (in accordance with the Under-99 Seat Plan.)  And of course, that cast member will not be required to pay $40 a month.

A member pays $40 a month, has to be a member of a committee, has to attend work calls, etc. If they hit a financial hardship or are otherwise unable to devote an appropriate amount of time to the company, they go on LOA and pay “pulse payments” to keep their membership active. While on LOA, they are not allowed to participate. If cast in a show, unless they are in one of the 4-A unions, they work for free.

Consider the psychology of the situation: I’m an actor paying $40 a month. In this economy—for an actor especially—that’s not a casual investment. That’s close to $500 a year for the privilege of mandatory work. How likely is it that your average company member will find some scheduling conflict with a work call? How likely is it that they’ll make up an audition or a gig that must tear them away after a couple of hours? How likely is it they just won’t show up at all, trusting that the administrative staff is too busy keeping the show on the road to notice?

And why is the administrative staff running around madly? To provide a continuity of opportunities for our members to practice their craft. We are all too aware of the dues commitment; we pay them ourselves.  The balm for the mandatory work is opportunity to perform.  In 2009, my company produced eleven Core productions and ten Chaos productions (as defined in part two of this series.) Twenty-one unique and separate productions over a fifty-two week period. Believe me when I say we became slaves to the process.

My research into the way similar sized companies produce theatre in New York took me to the Off-Off Broadway Community Dish, “A Community of Independent Theatre Companies.” I conducted an informal survey of the companies linked to The Dish website, and was hard-pressed to locate any Off-Off-Broadway companies that are dues-paying.

I emailed the President of The Dish, who also happens to be the Artistic Director of Boomerang Theatre Company, a small OOB company that produces new works and Shakespeare (not too unlike my own company.) I asked Tim, “Are you aware of any OOB companies that are dues-paying?” His response:
Here in NYC, most companies that I know of are NOT dues based. Most have initial grassroots fundraising (bar nights, single evening One Act nights) to make enough to get things going, then attempt to roll over ticket sales from one show (however meager) into capital for the next production. Along with ticket sales, any number of fundraising ideas get thrown in to cover costs (bowling nights, karaoke nights, scavenger hunts, silent auctions, etc).

In terms of the “pay to play” model, it almost doesn’t exist. If it does, it often tells the actor that they are not dealing with a professional organization, but something slightly below that. Many people who start companies in NYC either come directly from school, or also work in other non-profit orgs at first to cut their teeth (mine was working for Lincoln Center Theater), so often people see how professional orgs are run and try to mirror those models. As such, the dues model is not widely used here.
I turned my focus back to Los Angeles.  Is this a unique situation to our coast?  Are our actors so used to paying out the nose for headshots, casting director workshops and acting classes that pay-for-play theatre actually makes sense to them?  I was a bit surprised.  Yes, dues-paying is common, just not among the companies who consistently do critically-acclaimed and popular work.  The Founder and Artistic Director of Son of Semele, Matthew McCray:
“We have always relied heavily on the participation of our members and worked to created systems that encourage equal participation. It is never perfectly equal, but we never list people as members unless they have earned the title. We have always encouraged quality over quantity where artists are concerned.

“Though we began as a dues-paying ensemble, we cut dues out of our budget entirely. We could have kept requiring our artists to pay monthly fees, but we felt it was philosophically wrong.i
From the Managing Director of City Garage in Santa Monica, Charles A. Duncombe:
“We began to face the fact that while we were a dues-paying company, we would be constantly limited to actors who were willing to pay to belong,” explains Duncombe. “We had to force a change.”ii
If a theatre company cannot fund itself with fundraising and box office receipts alone, perhaps it doesn’t deserve to exist. If a theatre company cannot bring in donations and audience members, something is very wrong. The I.V. drip of monthly dues will serve to keep the body alive, but the soul is fleeting. It is bad for the members, it is bad for the administrators, it is ultimately bad for the audience (how burned-out do you suppose our audience got after we promoted twenty-one events to them over the course of a year?)

I understand why my company started out as dues-paying. We needed some scratch. We had nothing, not so much as two cents to rub together when we started. It was a quick fix that became a permanent feature. Further, we were operating out of a playbook we knew: The founding members broke off from a dues-paying company. For that matter, we're all college educated and used to paying much more than $40 a month for the opportunity to make theatre.  There was an understanding that it was a temporary fix, but any discussion of when to eliminate the dues requirement is pushed off, always swept from the agenda, tabled for another day. Meanwhile, the drudgery continues, members wise-up and leave at a steady pace, and we are no closer to some imagined financial security that will enable us to someday drop the dues requirement.

One argument is “Once we start receiving grants …” but this is nonsense. Success attracts success. If a company is not doing the kind of work that allows them to support themselves on fundraising and box office receipts, they are not doing the kind of work that attracts grant money.  There are more theatre companies than there is grant money, and the grantors need some basis for evaluation.  

A “Pay What You Can” model for dues would help in the transition away from being a dues-paying company and into the production model outlined in part two of this write-up. New companies would be smart to avoid the pitfall altogether, and commit to raising money on a show-by-show basis, and committing themselves to bringing to the public the best possible work they can. Administrators would be wise to focus on the process of bringing theatre to the public, rather than perpetually trying to keep as many plates spinning as possible. They are heading for a crash.


Blame it on the ephemeral nature of theatre, but it often feels as if we are trying to scale the eroding walls of a hole we dug ourselves into. Perhaps not in the moment. Perhaps not when we are in the act of creating. If the experience of making a theatre company work were only those moments … well. I wouldn’t have felt compelled to write this. 

I don't have all the answers.  No one does.  That affords us an amazing amount of freedom.  Just as we approach the blank stage afresh at the beginning of each production, so too can we approach the organization and administration of a struggling Under-99 company.  There is no reason to prop up and perpetuate the activities and attitudes that we have inherited from companies we left.  We're small.  We're spry.  We have the option of opening our hearts and minds, and proceding full-bore in a bold direction.  We are theatre artists, after all.  Go big or go home.

Put our company members through a crucible: Do they really want to be an active part of the company? Make it necessary for our artistic teams to forge their vision for a play well in advance of the execution. Invest our audience in the season well before the first postcards are printed.

We can assume a greater purpose for what we do, a bigger game to play.

No one is going to give us permission to be awesome.  We must be willing to trust ourselves.

i Ashley Steed, “Son of Semele,” LA Theatre Review, 3/6/10, Web.
ii Stephen Leigh Morris, “Company Town: How a big city became America’s small-theater mecca,” LA Weekly, 4/22/04, Web.

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