Friday, February 08, 2008

And Then

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Yesterday, I talked a lot about "and then" -- the talents a member of a theatre tribe brings to the table that extends the economic capabilities of the group. As I mentioned, I am drawing from Daniel Quinn's idea of the "occupational tribe," which he describes in Beyond Civilization. He writes, "a tribe is nothing more than a coalition of people working together as equals to make a living." So it is a collective.

Additionally, it is a self-sustaining, ongoing group of people who, "among them, have all the competencies needed to start and run a given business." So groups started by, say, actors and directors without designers are not a tribe -- they don't have all the competencies necessary to run the business. If one of them acquired those skills, then you're set.

Finally, tribe members are people who are "content with a modest standard of living," and who are "willing to think 'tribally -- that is, to take away what they need out of the business rather than to expect set wages." Think back to your theatre history, in which Shakespeare and his Globe partners would gather after each performance, count the money from ticket sales, subtract expenses, and then divide the remainder between them evenly. So your own individual health is dependent on the health of the theatre as a whole. If you put up a production that ain't selling tickets, it has an immediate effect on your pocket book, and you all have to make a decision: tighten your belts because you think the play is worth it, or get something else on the boards as quickly as possible. Ticket sales are no longerr somebody else's problem, it's your problem.

One key word above is "self-sustaining," and that is where "and then" comes in. We all know that it is difficult for a theatre to keep ticket prices reasonable and still make enough to balance the books from box office alone. One way to help is to cut costs, which is where having members of the tribe contribute multiple talents and share the grunt work comes in -- the fewer people splitting the box office income at the end of the day, the bigger share each gets.

But that will probably still not be enough. Traditionally, this is where the work gets subsidized by the members through their day jobs: they contribute their labor to the theatre gratis, and they pay their rent and put food in their stomach by selling their services in the marketplace. I think it is helpful to think of this as subsidy: the theatre's members are subsidizing the theatre by not taking anything from the coffers. Its the way things usually happen, and its fine. I just happen to think there might be a better way.

One way that theatre companies often turn to is grantwriting, and that certainly is an option. If one or more of the tribe can get trained in writing quality grant proposals, after a while there will be additional income -- they will be "extending the economic capabilities of the tribe." It will probably take several years before you are eligible for most grants or government funding, since most agencies want to see some sort of track record. In the meantime, you have to find a way to survive.

But there is a part of me that is squeamish about grants and government funding. This is a personal thing, really, and a feeling that might not be shared by other members of the tribe I would belong to (if there were one). I'd like to figure out a way to create additional income some other way, some way in which I and the other tribe members have more control. For me, this involves entrepreneurship.

Let's go back to the traditional model. You're an actor in a young company that isn't in a position to pay you anything, so you get a job with a temp agency doing office work. It affords you the flexibility that you need while also providing reaosnably consistent income for you. But here's the deal: the temp agency pays you an hourly wage, and then charges the business that you work for a much higher amount than you are being paid. The difference is their profit margin. My goal is to figure out a way to "and then" that will eliminate that middle man, so that the theatre will receive ALL the money, not just the reduced amount being paid to you.

So am I suggesting a theatre tribe temp agency? Not really. But I am suggesting that the tribe create some sort of business that is staffed by the tribe members. Ideally, this would utilize the specific talents, theatrical or otherwise, of the group. Let me illustrate this with an example. A couple years ago, I served as a consultant for a business that contracted to provide team-building workshops for companies like Mecedes-Benz. They came to me to develop an arts-base curriculum, where their clients would develop team skills through various arts experiences. Here's the thing: once the curriculum was developed, they would then hire various artists to teach the workshops, pay them a reasonable amount (for an artist, it would sound like a lot), but charge the client a helluva lot more than they would be paying the artists. As is almost always the case, the middle man is the one who makes all the money. And so I asked myself: why couldn't a theatre tribe bypass the middleman and do the workshops themselves? These could be team-building workshops, public speaking courses, mediation workshops using Boal techniques. There are SO MANY things that theatre people can teach that are valuable to the corporate world.

But wait a minute. Do I really want to contribute to Corporate America? Hell yes I do. I consider the money I make to be the redistribution of income that our paltry income tax system doesn't take care of. I consider this a contribution being made to the theatre, but instead of having to go hat in hand, we have them come to us wanting our product. What a great reversal!

There are other things we could to to "and then." After-school programs, theatre related or otherwise, in the theatre's space. A coffee and baked goods business that delivers stuff to businesses. Acting classes for home schooled children or retirees. Yoga or Alexander taught by a company member that is trained in that area. Word processing, medical or legal transcription. The list is limited only by the imagination and skills of the tribe.

So instead of having to beg for additional income through grants and subsidy, you're in control of income; instead of working a day job, the theatre provides the day job. And if you're not losing a cut to the middle man, then the amount of time necessary to make the same amount of money is reduced substantially.

And the best part is that the theatre can manage the schedule to fit what's happening onstage. Let's say you're rehearsing a play in which Buffy is playing a HUGE role, but Skipper is only in one scene. Well, for a while Skipper can carry a larger load of "and then." Then later, when Buffy is freed up and Skipper is swamped directing, Buffy can step up and do more "and then."

All money earned by these activities goes to the theatre, not to the individuals. And just like Shakespeare, at the end of the day you divvy up the profits equally.

OK, that's enough for today. I know that at first this will probably sound crazy, but I urge you to think about it a bit more. Is there a way that this might work? Are there adjustments that need to be made to the model to make it function more smoothly? Remember, I'm relying on you readers to help me fine tune -- this is only a first draft!


Shawn C. Harris said...


You probably won't believe this, but I always thought that was self-evident. I assumed that pooling resources was simply how things are done when there isn't a lot to go around. Then again, my background might have something to do with it.

Anonymous said...

The team-building workshops are a good idea. I have some friends who do just that. They're sort of a mini-tribe as there are just two of them in the business. Check out their site to get an idea of what they do:

danielle wilson