Tuesday, October 05, 2010

EARNING A NAME (part two)

[NOTE: The following is part-two of a write-up I presented to the other administrators of Theatre Unleashed back in July. Part one may be found here.  I have edited it to make it a more general observation on the Under-99 World in Los Angeles, and to add in a few things I've since discovered. This is my "The Things We Think and Do Not Say," and it had about the same effect for me that it had for Jerry Maguire. Enjoy.]


I am going to clearly define two categories of shows, and what it means to be CORE or CHAOS.

“Core” productions are productions that have a more-or-less traditional run in a theatrical performance venue. Call them “Fringe Productions,” “Main Stage,” “Second Stage,” “Late Night,” or whatever, these are shows that could only exist in a theatrical environment. Core production is typically the main business of Under-99s.

We do a great disservice to ourselves by pretending that a Core production is anything other than a Core production. “It’s a ‘Fringe’ show – we don’t have to worry about a budget” is stupid, backwards thinking. I’m sorry to be so blunt, but it is. The audience doesn’t know the difference between an evening of scrappy one-acts and a full-blown production of Shakespeare when they are both performed in the same house. When you sacrifice production values because “it’s not a Main Stage production,” you only succeed in shooting yourself in the foot with the audience (and reviewers, for that matter.)

“Chaos” productions are special projects with irregular runs or irregular performance venues. Sketch comedy, performance art shows, and specialty would fit in this category. These are shows that could conceivably exist outside of a traditional theatrical environment.

In truth, Chaos productions should be performed outside of traditional theatrical environments, if only to avoid the rental fee. You can stage a 24-Hour Play Festival in a bar that has a stage for live music. In such an environment the bar till effectively offsets the cost of the stage.

By defining our activities in this way, a theatre company may more intelligently elect a cap on what we do. For instance, each season we do no more than three Core Productions and two Chaos productions. It’s too easy to lard a season with a bunch of “Fringe” or “Late Night” shows – shows that require the same amount of manpower and resources as a so-called “Main Stage” production.

Under the model I envision, fundraising activities are focused on specific productions; encapsulated with individual shows. For example, the lead up to a Core production that requires a production budget of $5,000 will include fundraising plans to raise that money. The company members involved in that Core production are compelled, as a condition of their continued membership in the company, to assist in fundraising activities.

(It is important to draw a distinction here: Under the 99-Seat Plan, you cannot require a 4-A to participate in fundraising activities. However, participation in fundraising activities can and should be a condition of membership in a company.)

Likewise, any budget money needed for a Chaos production is raised by the members involved in that Chaos Production. (Please note that Chaos productions are the type of shows that require little in the way of production budget.)

"You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete."
-- Buckminster Fuller
By now we should all have at least passing familiarity with Kickstarter. Theatre artists all over the country are taking advantage of it, and it is something about which I have written at some length on this blog.

Theatre is relevant only so long as it serves the audience. Integrating a service such as Kickstarter – or at least the philosophy that informs such a venture – into an end-user-based funding model places the ensemble before that audience at the very beginning of the process. "Fans 'are not buying music,” says Kickstarter co-founder Yancey Strickler, “they’re buying a personalized experience.”i

The term "Suspension of Disbelief" never sat right with me. It feels like a passive action, a disconnection of some sort. "Audience investment," on the other hand, expresses an active role for the audience; a connection between audience and performer that allows for tension (e.g., dramatic tension, comedic tension, emotional tension, etc.) to be applied.

To quote marketing guru Seth Godin, "the act of paying fundamentally changes the dynamics of the relationship." One of the most frustrating things for me in the past has been the attempt to involve the audience in the process of making theatre. "Read the blogs! Watch the videos! Tell us what YOU think!" Involving the audience in direct funding of the project would actually invest them in the project, in fact and in spirit.

Further, I believe it would revitalize any ensemble to be made accountable to the People in the Dark well in advance of "Ladies and gentlemen, the house is now open." Can you imagine determining a season with Kickstarter? If the selections not funded by the deadline, they don't get produced. We would have to engage the audience before they so much as pick up a postcard for the production at their local coffee shop.

Let's say a theatre company has a raft of shows they’d like to do in 2011. The Artistic Directors post six productions online, with “seed” budgets, enough to get pre-production off the ground. Whatever gets funded, that's the season. There is an immediate feedback loop from the community-at-large as to what they want to see on stage.

And that's just one side of the coin. The other side: Competing with other artists. Sure, it's a gentle, friendly competition wherein everyone can get funded. I encourage you to go to Kickstarter and browse through the projects up for funding. Not just the theatre projects; all of them. To have your project listed in that incredible marketplace demands you bring your best.

The funders must be engaged from the very beginning, and that means bringing your “A” game. When placing projects on their site, the Kickstarter people look for three things:
  • Creative Ideas
  • Ambitious Endeavors
  • Specific Goals
Successful projects post blog entries, videos, podcasts – “project updates” that keep the backers who have contributed and potential backers informed on the progress of the project.ii It can’t just be, “We’re putting on a show.” It has to be one HELLUVA show. No laurel-resting is allowed.

Funders become “brand evangelists” who repost the link to our Kickstarter project through their social networks, thus expanding our potential funding base well beyond who we may reach through traditional fundraising. We may just find new fans, new supporters.iii


A French word that evolved from the idea of architect students finishing their work on the cart ride to school:

The word charrette may refer to any collaborative session in which a group of designers drafts a solution to a design problem. While the structure of a charrette varies, depending on the design problem and the individuals in the group, charrettes often take place in multiple sessions in which the group divides into sub-groups. Each sub-group then presents its work to the full group as material for future dialogue. Such charrettes serve as a way of quickly generating a design solution while integrating the aptitudes and interests of a diverse group of people. Compare this term with workshop.iv
The folks at Kickstarter are “looking for projects that offer rewards rather than begging for help. Projects with a history of effort or a path to completion. Projects that fit our focus on creativity.”v Projects presented on Kickstarter have to hit the ground running. This approach to producing will require advance planning: Production and marketing meetings way earlier than we usually schedule.

Back when we first started Theatre Unleashed, I submitted a few documents for consideration regarding the Collaborative Process, including a flowchart of the process adapted from The Scenographic Imagination by Darwin Reid Payne. I have appended that flowchart to this document, as it is germaine to the requirements of this producing model. The steps “Preliminary Discussions: Exchange of ideas, Appropriateness and Practicality,” and “More Detailed Discussions Leading to a Single, Unified Approach” are the activities that will take place during our Charrette. The products of our Charrette—in addition to allowing us to realistically budget for what is needed, coordinate our promotional efforts and produce the best possible show—those products will be the building blocks of our initial fundraising pitch (whether facilitated by Kickstarter or not.)

[I'm not going to post the derivative work referenced above. Instead, here is the original on which the derivative is based, to give you an idea.

["Preliminary Discussions: Exchange of ideas, Appropriateness and Practicality," is roughly equivalent to "Scenographer and Director Confer: They Explore Possibilities ..." on the chart below, and "More Detailed Discussions Leading to a Single, Unified Approach" is roughly equivalent to "Scenographer and Director Confer Again ..."]


It sounds like a lot of work. In reality, it’s not much more than what Under-99 companies already do, just more focused and driven by end-results. What I propose will move a struggling or fledgling Under-99 company to a new level of professionalism. Attendant to this approach is something Under-99 types (in my experience) feel uncomfortable discussing: The Administrative Staff deserves remuneration.

They won’t be making Pasadena Playhouse money. Company operating expenses—web hosting, phone, insurance, etc.—will come out of box office receipts. (Recall, each show is funded directly by fundraising activities and contributions from individuals.) After the operating expenses are deducted from the box, the remainder will be paid out to the administrators according to a point system. Work has value, and ought to be compensated, even if by a meager amount that doesn’t quite measure up to what 4A’s get paid. However small an amount, it elevates what Under-99s do from “volunteer” and “amateur” to “professional.”

In addition, and recognizing that all the people who bring a production to the public have value and deserve remuneration for their work, I propose an “All or Nothing” policy. If a show is produced under the Under-99 Seat Plan and the 4A’s are guaranteed a per performance stipend, it is only right to extend that same dollar amount to the other principle people involved in the production: non-union actors, stage managers, designers, directors and playwrights. The payroll for each production will be factored into the budget during the Charrette.



i Randall Stross, “You, Too, Can Bankroll a Rock Band,” The New York Times, 4/2/10, Web.
ii Kickstarter FAQ, www.kickstarter.com/help/faq, 2010, Web
iii Christine Lagorio, “How to Use Kickstarter to Launch a Business,” Inc., 5/19/20, Web.
iv “Charrette,” Wikipedia, accessed 7/09/10, Web.
v Yancey Strickler, “Where Projects Come From,” The Kickstarter Blog, 6/1/10, Web.

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