What If…Collectives of Theatre Artists Joined Forces?

by Joanna Harmon

in What If

Learn more about the What If…? Project

What if small companies and loose collectives of theatre artists were enabled by a single group of administrators, rather than each company reinventing its administrative wheel?

Many of us small theater companies and individual theater artists do a remarka­­ble job of getting things done with the little we have available. We spin our wheels like the Little Engine That Could, believing that no matter how small our size or limited our resources,  with enough hard work we can achieve sustainability. The online blog of The Collective Arts Think Tank, a group composed of the leaders and administrators of several of New York City’s best-known independent theater and performance companies, proposes to theaters, “Do less with more.” They suggest that we should concentrate our resources on one show in a season, for example, instead of thinning our focused attention and devaluing the price tag of our efforts by producing multiple shows in a season. I think we would all agree that theaters should emphasize quality over quantity. But, I also observe many theaters already “doing less with more,” and that if they did any less than they are now, they wouldn’t exist at all.

Commitment to just one show in a year is hurting a vital community of small theaters and theater artists. These art-makers, by and large, have at least a decade of experience and are at the forefront of artistic innovation. Even these relatively established artists, however, struggle to garner sufficient support to produce their work when a) their work is so fleetingly and intermittently in the public consciousness, and b) their companies are considered insufficiently developed to merit serious institutional or donor-based support. Considered on an individual basis, they are not reaching the critical mass—in terms of audience size, staff or annual budget—necessary to be deemed eligible for a level of support that would lead to longevity. Many also remain dependent on grants as their primary source of funding. As they look ahead, a gap emerges between where they are and where they want to be– between “small” and “large” (also dubbed “emerging” and “established”). Where is the middle ground? The stepping stones to achieve stability are not evenly spaced. The means by which an artist might make the leap are unclear and seemingly more reliant on blind luck than careful planning. The result? The scene is stagnant. So what should be our response? We imagine new models that adapt to the fact that the tracks beneath our “little engines” are rusted out and covered over and we must now walk on foot.

I propose that self-selected small companies/loose collectives/individuals form a coalition, housed under one roof. Not sheltered, housed. I’m not talking about supplying a “back office” service company that acts as fiscal sponsor and provides bookkeeping services. I’m talking about a group of administrators and artists who together are one entity. Under the roof of this coalition, the resources, infrastructure, and skills of the constituent companies/artists are pooled, facilitating a focus on the art, the development of a greater presence in communities, and the financial structuring that pays artists a living wage. The mission of this entity: artistic and administrative sustainability and integrity.

Here’s how it could take shape:

  • Begin with 2-5 companies and/or individuals who currently
  1. have small budgets (of about $50,000)
  2. have few personnel (1-5)
  3. have a small database of a “fans” (around 2,000, 20% of whom open the company’s emails)
  4. have 5-10 years of artistic experience
  5. produce 1-3 shows per year
  6. present 1-20 performances per show
  7. play to 10-100 people per performance
  • Determine the number of shows to be produced based on the number of those merging and the financial resources available.
  • Combine their productions into one, integrated season and publicize the season through shared advertising and marketing material.
  • The companies/artists keep their names and become permanent “series” of the coalition. A series is
  1. led by one artistic director (or co-artistic directors)
  2. governed by its mission statement
  • Establish an entity with one administrative structure made up of
  1. skilled labor, which may include the companies’ current personnel
  2. one governing board, which includes the companies’ artistic directors
  3. one development team
  4. one marketing team
  5. one fundraising team
  6. one bookkeeper
  7. one business manager
  8. one leader as “artistic facilitator”
  9. one name

What stays the same?

  • Artistic directors upholds their artistic mission and their individual voice with domain over their artistic programming of their “series.”
  • A company ( now “series”) retains its name, its mission, its advisors, its process of creating art, its aesthetic.
  • Audiences support their favorite artists.

What changes?

  • Theater companies consolidate their competition for attracting personnel. What 1 person can do produce each company part-time, he can do for all 5 of them, full-time.
  • Theater companies consolidate fundraising efforts, and therefore the donating is made simpler for patrons. Instead of 5 ask letters, they receive 1 letter. (Much like the United Way, a donor can contribute to multiple theater companies at one time.)
  • Theater companies gain presence and consistent visibility within the community through one, singularly-marketed, year-round season, and, therefore, the sought after critical mass is more easily obtained.
  • Audiences and artists cross-pollinate with more ease within a cohesive proximity.
  • The size of the entity’s budget grows, thus making the companies collectively eligible for larger grants (as well as TCG membership).
  • Artistic directors are able to focus more solely on their art because they no longer have to produce a complete season while maintaining a presence within the community and administering a company on their own.
  • A theater company or individual without non-profit status gains 501(c)3 status as a division of the entity. Those with non-profit status forfeit their individual status to become a division of the of the entity.
  • The companies and individuals gain a full-time advocate, an “Artistic Facilitator.” This person is the leader of the entity and functions as a facilitator, to moderate and streamline communication between the multiple artistic directors, the business manager, and the board. This person’s predominant qualities include good communication skills, equal capacity to understand both artistic and administrative areas, and an equitable interest in each series’ mission and aesthetic.
  • One governing board supports each artistic group with equally considered attention. Artistic directors also serve on the board, which permits a system of checks-and-balances between them and the artistic facilitator.

What stands in our way?

  • Ego. I understand why we may have it– we have confidence in our own imagination, our own ideas, our own abilities, an individual voice that compelled us to start our theater company in the first place. I understand the fear of losing that identity. (“My name!” Joe cries in A View From the Bridge. What else do we have but our names?) I also understand how the current call-to-arms of “Collaborate!” and “Partner!” may evoke a fear of losing individual identity, but I believe in these words. I think that it is possible to preserve and develop the individual identities of each company and simultaneously pool resources. As soon as we are able to believe that no one is trying to usurp power, that collectively we will have a better means to an outcome (of producing better work, having more support, reaching bigger audiences, and achieving vitality and sustainability), we will succeed.

Is developing a theater company of artistic and financial stability realistic? I think it must be. How else are we going to assert theater as a profession and not simply a hobby? If we don’t take a chance, we don’t stand a chance.

Joanna Harmon is the Executive Director of Live Action Set, one of Minneapolis’s premier “physical theater” companies. She is currently in discussions with a group of companies and individuals to create an entity that pools resources as described above. At the same time, she performs with a myriad of companies in the Twin Cities. She is a 2009 graduate University of Minnesota/Guthrie Theater B.F.A. Actor Training program.

  • http://www.peculiarworks.org Catherine Porter

    As someone who is both an artist and an administrator, the main issue I see with this approach is that, in my experience, most administrators and boards function best if they have a specific mission they are passionate about, too…

  • http://www.americanrecordstheater.org KJ Sanchez

    I think a lot of us are thinking the same thing and I like a lot of what you’re saying here. For our company, we too long for shared resources. Especially when you’re “emerging” and get those first big grants – suddenly you leap from producing out of your home office to needing a full staff to maintain your level of growth. I’ve been wonder what if one producer can serve the needs of four small companies – over-seeing budgeting, payroll, union contracts, production management, along those lines – and as you put it so well, beyond the services already in existence. I love your idea, but I would suggest that there’s more than just ego keeping us from doing so (though I see how ego plays a part of course). Where it gets really tricky is when it comes to development – there will regularly be grants by which companies’ projects are competing with each other. And grantmakers should in fact support a wide diversity of projects – competition is healthy for the artistic ecosystem. So I see the bumpy patch being negotiating the balance of which project is served by which grant ask, etc.
    KJ Sanchez CEO, American Records

  • Lisa Nabieszko

    There is exactly such an organization (with some minor variations) that’s been running in Toronto for 20 years (I was its founder and Executive Director for 13 years).

    Check out The Small Theatre Administrative Facility (STAF).


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  • http://www.sct.org Tim Jennings

    I was (as a former Canuck /Torontonian) going to say the same about STAF as Lisa did. Its a great idea and having used their services and directed others to do the same, I can heartily recommned it.

    At one point about a decade ago I acted as GM for several small theatres (on a part-time consulting basis) which served some of these functions rather handily – and I would recommend that to smaller theatres (finding a more senior arts admin person to mentor or shepherd the process of growth or to help figure out the needs of the company).

    In Quebec (Montreal), Maison Theatre houses a large number (25 I believe) of small companies who are overseen by an artistic adminstrator and share rehearsal spaces, a theatre, etc very well. Its a terrific model, especially as some of the companies also have a touring arm which lets them get out of the building as well http://www.maisontheatre.com (french)

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  • TracyMartin

    I think your idea has merit. The very best in all your efforts.