Using a Different Arsenal

by Hannah Wolf

in National Conference

Post image for Using a Different Arsenal

(This post is part of the 2014 TCG National Conference: Crossing Borders {Survive | Thrive} blog salon, curated by Caridad Svich.)

“Donors, development agencies and policymakers have, by and large, chosen to ignore the blatant alarm signals, and have continued to pursue the aid based model even when it has become apparent that aid, under whatever guise, is not working….despite the fact that there are very compelling reasons to show that it perpetuates the cycle of poverty and derails sustainable economic growth.” In her book Dead Aid: Why Aid is Not Working and How There is a Better Way for Africa, Dambisa Moyo states that aid and grants funding in Africa has crippled it.

Whether you choose to believe in these theories or not, transplanting these statements to my realm of the arts and funding rings starkly and depressingly true. Here’s another:

“By thwarting accountability mechanisms, encouraging rent-seeking behavior, siphoning off scarce talent from the employment pool, and removing pressures to reform inefficient policies and institutions, aid guarantees that in the most aid-dependent regimes social capital remains weak and the countries themselves poor… Thus aid erodes the essential fabric of trust that is needed between people in any functioning society.”

I’m not the first person to notice that grants and funding are disappearing. We live in a period of across the board funding cuts; this is our reality and the projection is that these cuts will get bigger as time passes. I continue to compete against my peers for smaller and smaller funding streams, all the while complaining, but not changing. This is a universal problem, but it’s time to start looking at lack of public funding as an advantage, because maybe that’s the only way change can happen. I’ve accepted that the economy isn’t going to change, I’ve stopped waiting for the internships to turn into a real job and I’m coming to terms with the fact that I will probably always have to have a day job. Instead of being angry, now is the time to create the theatre system that we want to live in, to reframe our challenges as advantages and accept that the reality of my generation is that the structure of the past theatre models may no longer work for me.

What sort of steps can I take to turn the “there’s no money” disadvantage into an advantage? How can I stop looking for answers from era of art making and funding that I learned about, but, as a 2009 graduate, was never actually a part of?

1. I can accept that grants aren’t working for me anymore. (Yes, I will be the first one to tell you that I’ve been living on a grant for the past year. It’s funded every single moment of my 9 months abroad and it’s also facing a 13% cut). I belong to the “emerging” artist category; I am not someone to whom an NEA grant will be awarded, it will be a while before I’m hired for directing jobs in institutions and I won’t quit my day job. But I also have donor fatigue, as many of us do, from endless Kickstarter campaigns and I don’t want to continue to ask my parents, peers and friends for money to fund my art.

2. I can accept that arts and culture sector lost the war for public funding. A quick look at the grants.gov website proves that fact, with 3 possible grants for arts; and 55 for law, justice and legal services, 48 for agriculture, 419 for science and technology and a whopping 1068 for health. I don’t have enough time or energy to beg this system for funding. This system has told me again and again that I’m not worth it’s money, and that’s a system I don’t want to be a part of.

3. I can experiment with new ways of funding my projects, without relying on aid, that might have in fact been crippling me. I question grants, and if they engender laziness on the part of our leaders, institutions and artistic directors, because reliance on grants equals a lack of urgency to change. One size fits all grants creates one size fits all mission statements, theatre and audiences.

4. I can accept the fact that the institutional model might not work for me anymore. I can’t start another institution, I don’t want to. I live a life that allows me to work in several, as jobs come up, but the idea of a long term career in an institution is not a reality that I can hope for in my future. The institutional model has taught me to focus on the year to year survival, where the carpet can be yanked out from underneath me with one rejection letter or one less supporter. I think we all dream of a world where we didn’t have to spend so much time, effort and money applying for grants, trying to keep ourselves and our institutions afloat.

Has the process of applying for public grants and self censoring for that funding in fact kept theatre poor and stuck in a cycle of begging for money? Are we in a moment of sinking or swimming? Not yet, but it’s coming. If I, as an artist, producer and audience member, get ahead of this change and start to dictate the new paradigm that I want to work under, then maybe I can break the artistic stereotype of needing to be taken care of. There is no time like the present to devise the new era.

What are my hopes for the new era?

1. Long term investment, from the theatres and the artists. Savings lead to investment lead to growth. What is currently in our artistic bank accounts? What can we invest in, for the future?

Investment has many meanings, but I hope that the theatre I make invests in  a specific need and mission, unique to the community it serves. I hope for  theatre that openly states what they believe their intrinsic value to their community is, and are willing to fight for a space for that value. I hope for institutions who focus on growing an audience, who commit to a community and artists for the long term. I hope for theatres that meet their audiences halfway, be it with content of shows, or even simply relaxing rules (like phone usage), and that is able to adapt to each changing audience.

2. I hope for theatre companies to partner, to band together, to create community between one another. I hope for theatre that stops competing and starts working together. As the underdog, the independent, freelancing artist, I can use a different arsenal. With my fellow emerging artists, we can break the structure that has been handed down to us from institutional theaters, a legacy that got us to where we are. It’s time for us to divorce the institutional model, to hold each other accountable for our actions and we can do this by becoming a unified force.

Using the model that Dead Aid presents for microfinancing, a group of theatre communities could band together and under joint liability, apply for a loan (or use Kiva.org). Each company is expected to make sure that their coalition partners fulfill their mission with the money given, and at the end of the project, the loaned money is then passed along to the next company, while all profits made are kept by the original company). Therefore, each company has a responsibility to make the initial investment back, to keep the coalition going. Each has a stake in the success of the others and each is liable for the others. Everyone makes work, in a strings attached way.

3. I hope for funding that comes from the artists. What if companies are loosely modeled after the EU financial structure, where a requirement to be a company member, is to contribute 1% of my annual gross income. It makes my stakes in the company higher, it forces me to be an active member and it creates a company responsibility to uphold the mission.

4. I hope for theatre and artists that reach across borders, using the tools that we are fluent with. I hope for more attempts at cultural exchange. The problems that we face as freelance artists are becoming universal. We need to start looking to our peers in other countries, to make a real change.

Now is the time to connect the dots between my accepted facts and my hopes for the future.

That’s always the best time though, when you’re free enough to try a new tactic, when you have nothing to lose. Innovation means breaking out of the mold, bringing in different disciplines and being honest about what is working and what isn’t. We are all creative people, we can do this, we can jump into the scary future and begin to change. We might not be forced to yet, but if we start to explore new ways of making and funding theatre now, then we can have more of a say in our future, a future that I have a lot of hope for.


Hannah Wolf is a theatre director, dramaturge, teacher and producer originally from Juneau, Alaska. She is passionate about developing new work with playwrights and devising ensembles. She believes in theatre that experiments with form, content and the role of the audience. She’s also been known to work in screenplay development, sometimes writes for Howlround.com and curates the blog Ask A Director.

Hannah’s work has been seen at Perseverance Theatre, The Vineyard Theatre, Theatre in the Rough, Conni’s Avant Garde Restaurant, Elephant in the Room, Writopia Lab, The Secret City and The Kennedy Center. She has a BA from Western Washington University, trained with the SITI Company and is a member of the Lincoln Center Directors Lab. She’s a company member of Superhero Clubhouse and just finished a year in Bucharest Romania on a Fulbright Research Grant, experimenting with cross borders play development and the new Romanian playwriting wave. Visit her online at hannahjwolf.com