As I prepare to assemble my thoughts for the session I’m leading on the Commonweal Theatre Company, I’m led to think about the whole genesis of our model that we call “the artist/administrator”. Serendipitously, Thomas Cott recently reposted Todd London’s “one for all and all for one and every man for himself”, which summarized nicely the historical antecedents for the model: “Shakespeare and the King’s Men, the Troupe de Molière, Sheridan’s Drury Lane, Chekhov and the Moscow Art Theatre, Brecht, Churchill, Walcott, Fugard” – and on and on. Marry these to a few key axioms, and you have the basis for the Commonweal’s model.
First and foremost was the notion that artists (initially, just actors) would be paid first; a simple notion, but it is one that is frequently pushed to the background with the insistence that there be at least one full-time (read, administrator) employee for an organization to be eligible for funding. Next came the notion of a resident company. This was almost essential in a small, rural town more than two hours from a major metropolitan area. Then came the question of how to assure that these brave souls could earn a living wage – hence asking the artists to assume the administrative burden as well.
Thus the “artist/administrator” was born, yielding not only the anticipated direct economic benefits but some unexpected, indirect benefits as well. First among these was a deepened connection to the art and our immediate community. Theater artists working both artistically and administratively have greater buy-in and ownership over the success and sustainability of the company and its impact on the greater community in which they live.
More importantly, our wider community began to know us as people – as the box office person or the usher or the host – as well as actors, somehow making the theater experience that much more personal and ultimately resonant. No longer were actors, or any artists for that matter, viewed as “strange, different, or other”; generations of children passed these artists on the street and grew up recognizing that acting was a profession on a par with auto mechanic, shopkeeper, farmer, or sales barn staffer.
All this has, in turn, led to astounding success – in this town of 754 (that’s right, less than 1,000) we are celebrating our 25th season and last year saw over 22,000 at public performances and an added 2,000 high school and middle school students at special student matinees, while providing a life in the theater for over 15 artists – 10 of whom have settled down, bought homes in the area, and are career-long members of the Resident Ensemble.
Harold N. Cropp (Resident Company Member) is now in his twenty-second season with the Commonweal, where he has been in a leadership position since 1994. He’s been active with the company as a director, actor, playwright, and educator with the company. He received his B.A. from Brown, his M.B.A. from Santa Clara University, and his M.F.A. in acting from the National Theatre Conservatory in Denver. Hal currently serves as Executive Director of the Commonweal. firstname.lastname@example.org