Thursday, August 27, 2009

When it comes to what shows you'll produce, it can all start and stop with a chair.

"I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage...whilst someone else is watching."

But what sort of space is that watcher inhabiting? It all starts with an empty space, but then you usually have to get someone a chair.

Imagine you have an empty space, small, cozy, intimate... that can hold an audience of 40 comfortably. You are now preparing to turn this empty space into a bare stage where you will tell stories. But, the are no chairs.

Theatre X has a little money in the bank. They decide to go to Lowe's and buy 40 folding chairs. The chairs are functional, simple, and it cost just over a thousand dollars to purchase and have them delivered. They are basic black, sturdy, not particularly pleasing to the eye, but they get the job done.

Theatre Y has a little money too. They talk to their board, form a committee meant to raise funds to get chairs. They set a fundraising goal of nearly 5 figures, not quite. They use that same little bit of money they already have to organize a campaign. They get small yet significant contributions from dozens of philanthropists. They shop for the most comfort chairs they can get. They want the folks who contributed the money to feel like part of the process. They set up a online survey to query those folks what color the seats should be, and announce the color at a small party in honor of those who were generous. They get the names of people engraved onto the back of the chairs.

How these two theatre companies acquired their chairs will have a huge impact upon what sort of shows either company thinks it can successfully do.

The kind of chair you are sitting in and how it got there has an expectation. That expectation impacts who is willing to sit in those chairs because the type of chair speaks to what you think is appropriate or necessary when it comes to telling stories.

Theatre X will have much more freedom of choice about what sort of show they will do. The DIY approach enables them. It makes them more autonomous. There is no one too worry about whether or not these chairs were a good investment. They haven't established as wide a network of philanthropists as the other theatre company. But, if they live within their means, if they are committed to thrift and spend only when they have to and spent wisely, they are beholden to no one but themselves. The audiences they get are probably going to be like minded DIY folks. It may take a longer period of time for them to capture the attention of donors. But, if they have a dream project, what is to stop them from trying it and sometimes succeeding sometimes failing at the art.

Theatre Y has established a relationship with some moneyed folks now. Nothing wrong with that. But there is an expectation that the work should reflect the worldview of those sitting in the chairs. Challenging those expectations especially for a new company is now a risky enterprise. They can say expectations be damned, but probably would rather not. They enjoy the relationship that has thus far been created, they appreciate the community they have. But, there are certain boundaries to what that community finds acceptable to inhabit that empty space. When picking a season, theatre Y has to concern themselves with the desire of who bought those chairs.

It isn't that the choice of one path or the other is preferable. There are trade offs either way. But, the personalty, temperament, the focus, the priority of a company manifests in even the simplest decisions, like how to obtain chairs.

There are success stories that follow either path. But there is something about the actual art, the actual message, the ability each company has that has now been determined even if they both perform to the same number of patrons. Even if they perform to the same exact people.

Before you pick your path, know thyself. Then act with purpose, and damn any naysayer.


The Director said...

And then there are those in the middle, who buy chairs from Lowes and then pander to the audience anyway.

Devilvet said...

Well, I have to assume you are referring to theatre Y as pandering (just becuase I know you and I know you know me and my values).

I think it is important to state that I think theatre Y isnt pandering. They are attempting to figure out what resonates with their community, what matters.

Pander implies a judgement that I'm not assigning. Whereas some theatre companies will pander... pandering and considering the wants of your for lack of a better word subscription base... are not synonymus.

The Director said...

Well, I wouldn't say Theatre Y is necessarily pandering, but they're willing to stifle their creative spirit for the sake of selling tickets. At least within the context of your post.

I feel like if you're a low-budget theatre and you have the freedom to do whatever you want without too many repercussions, like Theatre X, and you choose to do what you think the audience wants rather than following your creative spirit, then you're pandering. Theatre Y has to focus on its audience because they're established. Theatre X doesn't. Theatre Z, which I'm positing as somewhere in between, can go either way.

Devilvet said...

But Theatre Y could argue that they arent stifling their creative spirit at all. Or they could argue that it isnt about their creative spirit, that they are serving the needs of those in the chairs.

Furthermore they might also argue that it to their mind, theatre X is completely self centered. That theatre X isnt interested in the needs of anyone other than theatre X or they would take steps to insure they give there audience as comfort a seat as possible.

Which one X,Y or Z do think best describes the last 5 theater companies you worked for (you Brian or anyone out there).

Personally I dont think the models I've set up insist upon one pandering to the other. At least that wasnt my intent.

However, if one picks a path... it sure seems easier to demonize or delegitimze or disvalue the other.

Honestly, I dont see alot of theatre Zs out there at least not as I'm understanding your definitions i.e. theatre companies that consistently take the most frugal route while consistently 'pandering' to an audience. If they successfully pandered enough wouldnt they eventually have enough resource from ticket sales to not have to worry about the folding chairs? Wouldn't there emphasis on profit eventually reward them financially, given that they showed enough savvy and had their finger on the pulse of a public enough to successfully pander?

Tony Adams said...

I think a lot for theatre Y depends on how the relationship was built with the philanthropists. You don't have to be beholden to philanthropists because they gave you nice chairs.

(And given the option, who in the audience wouldn't want a nice chair--my ass was sore for a day after watching Handcuffs at RBP.)

If the relationship is: give us money and we'll cater to you that is fine. A lot of successful restaurants do just that. (and anyone who says it's different because food isn't art has never hung out with a chef.)

There are a lot of ways to be subversive under the surface, but it takes a lot of backbone to not give in to whims of a couple of vocal critics. It can be done, but there's not a lot of folks with the spine to keep it up.

If the relationship is "fuck you I won't do what you tell me." Fine too. But, there's not a lot of reason for anyone to pitch in and help.

Ultimately, I think any really successful theatre is somewhere in the middle. Enough support to have nice chairs, but also having the courage to provoke and challenge their audiences, and continue pushing past their comfort zone.

Devilvet said...


"You don't have to be beholden to philanthropists because they gave you nice chairs."

I must say, I disagree. Perhaps the word 'beholden' is tricky, but to not consider the persepective of those who invest in your company, wouldn't some (or most) consider that a betrayal of trust?

Imagine you didnt make theatre, but had say 500 dollars and wanted to help a local group. Would you really consider giving that money to a company whose work and whose artistic perspective was uninteresting or distasteful too you? Especially if you were able to find a company whose vision of the theatrical experience was more in line with want you desired as a spectator?

See I think ultimately philanphropy follows the pattern of the market (in the main). If it didnt, there'd be significantly less todo over things like the NEA four.

Can you give me any historical examples of theatrical organizations that did maintain that balance? That got significant donation or sponsorship and then subverted the expectation of those who gave? For more than say 2 years? Without tipping one way or the other eventually?

Is fair for me to ask for these examples?

Also, I think it is interesting and telling of how hard it is to have these sort of analysis when one of you immediately jumped to 'pandering' and the other immediately jumped to telling the audience 'fuck you'.

That statement isnt meant to be damning. But, the more I think about this post, the more it starts it feel to me more like a sort of roschach.

No one needs to censor themselves. And maybe this conversation can evolve into specifics about each of us and our companies and our decisions.

And Handcuffs is an even different example. I respect Nathan a bunch, but in that one they decided to just go without chairs. Entirely. And by doing so... choose a path more aligned with that of theatre X. To blunt that is all I'd want to assume about Nathan's choices unless he wanted to join in the discussion.

Tony Adams said...

Was thinking more in line with Rage Against the Machine song than literally telling the audience to fuck themselves, but totally get your point.

It depends on how the relationship with donors was built. If it was built over time and they are already invested in your work, they should already know what you do and want to help continue that work.

One huge reason why individual donors are so much better for co.s than corp or gov't funding. Corp and Gov't funding is fickle and they change their minds all the time. It's nice to get a big check, but relying on that is problematic.

Building a relationship with your fans takes longer, but is much better in long run.

If you're trying to peel donors away from the Goodman, you're gonna run into problems. But 50 people giving $20 each is the same as one giving $1000.

If I had $500 I wouldn't give it to a company whose work I didn't like. That's not the same thing as X company doesn't have fans who'd like to give $500.

I guess it's a lot like dating. If you're main/sole criteria is that the other person is really hot, good luck with that. If you're only trying to court donors because they are really well off, good luck with that, ya know?

As far as examples, that's tricker. What counts as significant? Trap door probably gets 40-50 grand a year in donations. But longevity isn't really that common, so time is trickier. Historical examples would include most of the heavyweights in the Cannon.

Outside the US, Peter Brook (who got millions from Ford Foundation to start in Paris) and Theatre du Soleil, are two long term examples. Cornerstone in LA, Ten Thousand Things in MN are two more.

I'd agree that trust is a key point with audiences and donors. What would be shocking/infuriating for Trap Door's audiences? I dunno. What would be shocking/infuriating for your audiences? I dunno. But it's probably different than what would infuriate our audiences. Maybe THE ODD COUPLE would really piss off all three of our audiences?

Devilvet said...


I feel pretty confident that Trap Door's success has mostly to do with their specifically ethnic expectation. Most the work is about or related to Eastern European situations and people. They are significant expectations becuase Trap Door gets its money from people invested in Eastern Europe.

So, they dont contradict this paradigm.

"t depends on how the relationship with donors was built. If it was built over time and they are already invested in your work, they should already know what you do and want to help continue that work." ... and a duck goes quack...

Dude, we arent talking about pre-existing relationships based upon lets say a decade or more of production history.. This model is based on two new companies. So for you to rebute it by saying that after establishing a relationship over a period of time... your actually referring to Theater Y. The realtionship, the trust, etc... Theatre Y example. You're making my point for me.

"If I had $500 I wouldn't give it to a company whose work I didn't like. That's not the same thing as X company doesn't have fans who'd like to give $500."

I am not talking about what our fans would like to do. I'm talking about what they actually can do. And, I garantee you that 95% of the fans who see theatre X are able to afford a ticket to see a show, but not so much a 3 or 4 figure donation.

I think it is a fantasy you're talking about.

I dont know a bunch about Cornerstone or Ten Thousand Things... so you'll have to expand on why/how they ar examples of being able to receive donations from citizens and then consistent perform work that doesn't appeal to those same citizens.

And, as we proceed... they keep it inside the US. Since that is the landscape we inhabit.

Tony Adams said...

If you're talking about a company who has never done a show getting a bunch of philanthropy, that is a pretty good fantasy. If you're talking about some unknown donor who doesn't know your work, that is a fantasy as well.

So I'm not really sure what you're getting at. Relationships can be built in far shorter time spans than a decade.

I think anyone without deep pockets who's been around 2 years and hasn't started that is in serious trouble if they don't want to pay for it themselves forever.

Is there a place for fans in theatre x? If so, you'd be surprised what fans of theatre X can do, if they wanted to.

Are the chairs a question of ownership?

Devilvet said...

The point I'm getting at is how we conduct our admin, how we hope to locate money, when we dream of finding resource, and maintaining resource, who we choose to align ourselves with... has an impact on what stories we end up telling.

Money is money, but where you decide to get your money impacts what sort of stories you can tell.

I understand that the temptation is too view the above statement as somehow damning to those who decide to form boards, fundraise among moneyed folks, etc...

But it is not damning. It is telling, but not damning.

It is a very real difference between what sort of goals a company sets up for itself, how a company perceives itself in relation to its audience. And how it gets and holds onto Trust.

Trust impacts artistic direction as well as artistic opportunity. Who you trust, who you get to trust in you, and how that trust arrives.

Paul Rekk said...

And the elephant in the room? Knowing people with deep pockets before your start a theatre company. If you're a start-up and not paying for it yourselves, what you're getting is not random patrons of the arts throwing bills your way, it's people you already know. Maybe it's because they like your art, but more than likely it's because if one's way of contributing to the arts is financially, one tends to contribute to friends and relatives first.

This isn't about who you solicit, it's about who you know.

Devilvet said...


So would you say that theatre generally is a rich person's game?

Not exclusively, but generally, if it sustains?

Paul Rekk said...

I'm saying Startup Theatre Y and their engraved chairs are playing a rich person's game. Like you said, choose your path.

silent nic@knight said...

Hi Bob,

You forgot about Theatre Z.

Theatre Z builds its own chairs, Shaker style.

Highly perfected, free of vain ornamentation, and utterly utilitarian, the chairs reflect the Shaker’s absolute faith in the physical form. The religious sect built chairs in such rigorous simple beauty because their belief had it that, from time to time, angels would come to seat themselves.

Devilvet said...

@silent nic@knight...

And was their faith rewarded?


But you know there is also theatre P that believes that chairs are so bourgeois and makes th audience recline before the show begins. I also forgot theatre D that advocates anarchy and goes out and steals someone elses chairs...

Who else have I forgotten?