Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Marching Order Part 2

About two weeks ago, I posted about a conversation I had with my in-laws about how new churches are supported and developed in the Lutheran Church, which by analogy provided a conceptual breakthrough for me and new "marching orders" for my efforts on behalf of theatrical decentralization. Yesterday, in a comment on Don Hall's post entitled "Exploring Money Assumptions in Theatre" (between my post about daddyland below and this one, I feel like carrion feasting on Don Hall's roadkill these days), RVCBard made my head explode in millions of stars when she wrote about the relevance to theatre of the concept of "radical welcome" being promoted in some churches across America. (Be sure to click on "marching orders" and "radical welcome" and read before continuing, or else this discussion will seem incomplete.) RVCBard writes: "I know people are funny about religion, but you gotta admit those church folks know how to get butts in seats and people involved, often for free, with less angst. I think this is in no small part due to a policy of radical welcoming." I agree.

I read the definition of "radical welcome" right after I read a post at Butts In Seats entitled "Ninety Five Processes," in which my ideas were carefully considered, and several questions raised. In many respects, "radical welcome" might serve as a partial response to that post.

I hope you will all be patient while I think through some new ideas aloud...

First is the issue of "conservative" versus "innovative" approaches. "You have a choice between different formats and genres to focus on or ignore," Butts in Seats writes. "It would be disappointing to have groups nudged toward some form of what their advisers know or think would be appropriate. It is still their word that releases the money." Indeed, this is true. As with all grants, in order to receive money an organization or individual must be doing something that falls within the values espoused and promoted by the granting organization. Believe me, as someone who is in the midst of writing a grant for the NEA and is looking around for other granting organizations, I am very aware of what must be done to have even a hope of receiving support! Unless you are independently wealthy yourself, that is the nature of grantsmanship, and you simply don't apply for support from organizations whose values you reject.

In the case of the organization I am conceptualizing -- let's call it the ">100K Project," since it's focus will be on small and rural communities and regions with populations under 100,000 -- the focus of the organization will be less on the choice of programming (i.e., what plays are being done) than on the theatre's relationship to the community, a relationship that is suggested by the idea of radical welcome. A church following these principles has a relationship with its congregation that is active, engaged, open to conversation, welcoming, and intentional; likewise, a >100K Project theatre would be expected to foster such a relationship as well.

To that end, it is better to think not in terms of a traditional 5-play season-type theatre, but rather a community arts center where there are a variety of arts activities occurring. Some of these would, of course, be full-scale productions involving only the paid artistic staff, others might be productions that combine community members with the paid artistic staff, and others might involve the paid artistic staff facilitating the creativity of unpaid artistic community members. Similarly, events might run the gamut from full productions to low-tech events such as poetry slams, short story readings, storytelling and story circles, and other such events. The goal would be to make the theatre a place of continual activity and creative exploration. Theatre artists applying for a 3-year salary grant would have to demonstrate an interest in founding such a place, and develop a preliminary plan tied to the community where they propose to create the theatre.

In addition to salary support, the >100K Project would supply resources and instruction to help develop such a place -- the founders would not simply be thrown in the deep end with the expectation that they learn to swim quickly. There would be some on-line courses available to introduce the basic ideas and techniques, and then at least one live consultant assigned to their theatre to serve as a mentor and advisor.

Every six months or so, the paid artistic staff would provide a report to the >100K Project administration that would outline what had been done and assess its impact on the theatre and the community. The artistic staff would receive feedback, and dialogue and creative brainstorming would follow. Failure would be expected, but through a process of assessment something must be learned from the failure. The primary commitment of the >100K Project's administrative staff would be to the success of the theatre.

Butts in Seats 15-20 year timeline for self-support would be unacceptable (the salary subsidy runs out after 3 years), but perhaps the issue is in the definition of self-support. Like any theatre, it is likely that this type of theatre would require additional income beyond earned revenue. This might come in the form of grants, local or regional governmental support, individual contributions or other sources (and the central organization would help with this). Because the theatre would have a 3-year track record of activity, it would be more attractive to outside funders. While the central organization would no longer be paying salaries, this transition would have been planned for, and the central organization would still be available for other resources and consultation. However, after three years, the theatre would be expected to include in its budget a small percentage for the >100K Project central organization. I guess this would be the equivalent of tithing, and would symbolize a commitment to supporting others who wish to set up theatres like this.

There are many theatre people who will read this description and think, "this is not for me." That's fine. I don't expect it will, and like any granting organization, there is no requirement that anyone apply for support, and there's not unlimited money anyway (hell, at the moment there isn't a dime). It does require an artist who defines their contribution more inclusively than our Romantic-era artist-centered definition, and that might involve a different approach to educating artists. But I do believe that, in order to attract funding, the >100K Project needs to have a clear purpose and set of values. It can't simply be an institutional version of Daddy and Mommy providing a three-year allowance to anyone who happens to want one. The goal is to make the map below a darker shade of yellow by the creation of theatres that thrive and that, through their presence, strengthen their communities through dialogue, creativity, leadership, and active citizenship.


Tony Adams said...


might be a good resource to check out.

Anonymous said...

All of this assumes that there are no preexisting theaters in these "under-served" markets. These markets may be lacking in TCG member theaters but they are full of community theaters, many of which are well established with significant budgets and a major corporate donors. Would they take kindly to "professionals" coming in and claiming their audiences and donors? Would the community are large be amenable to this?

Scott Walters said...

Actually, anonymous, part of the pre-funding process would involve examining pre-existing theatres in the proposed area, and if there are any either forging a relationship/partnership with them, or determining that this community actually doesn't need this organization and funding a project someplace else. There are thousands of vibrant community theatres across the country, and this organization doesn't seek to put any of them out of business. It is either enhancement, or moving on.

la foi said...

I could not agree with you more re: community arts centers. There are some organizations doing things like this already -- my theatre group just performed at the Myrna Loy Center in Helena, Montana and I was impressed & moved by the center's mission and role in the community. Here it is: "The Myrna Loy Center presents contemporary media and performing arts; supports the creation of new works by Montana, regional and national artists; and nurtures a lifelong involvement in the arts through arts education and residencies." Sounds similar to what you envision.

There are other arts centers like this in larger cities -- where I live, the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art has grown in leaps and bounds, they have a kick ass festival in September that pairs exciting performances from all over the world with offerings from local artists. On the Boards in Seattle is even more committed to northwest artists, presenting theatre & dance groups from the northwest in their season alongside international and U.S. art stars. They have a huge following -- whenever I go to a show there, I leave inspired and hopeful for the future of theatre/performance in the US.

These are all organizations that focus on the excitement of art in various forms, not just theatre. They are centers in which people can get involved in different ways, whether it's seeing a performance, taking a workshop, volunteering or going to a lecture. They are consciously setting themselves up as places for new work, as hotbeds for ideas and experimentation, which is key for getting young people involved. And they are linking themselves to the identity of the city, to the community itself.

Scott Walters said...

la foi -- Thanks for the description! While bringing in outside touring groups could be part of the mix -- a way to bring new inspirations into the community -- the focus is on creating work within the community, both by paid professional artists and by unpaid amateur artists. As you describe, the goal is a rich and vibrant mix of activities.

silent nic@knight said...

"the focus is on creating work within the community, both by paid professional artists and by unpaid amateur artists."

That's one of the biggest can of worms that all of your proposals have side-stepped. You would need to invent some qualifying authority that determines "professionalism." unless you believe somehow Actors Equity is going radically change its contracts and relationships to individual cities and country as a whole simply through their belief in the>100K Project.

When and how does your amateur actor become a professional actor? Good luck in inventing a mythos of accreditation to compete with Equity’s.

Scott Walters said...

I have no intention of working with Actors Equity. A "professional" is one who makes his or her living doing theatre; an amateur is one who does not. This project stands outside the Equity system, which to my mind uses an industrial employer/employee model. This project is about a collective of artistic entrepreneurs.

silent nic@knight said...

Few artists I know who work in theatre make their living in theatre. Most all have "day jobs" that support their theatre. Day jobs include full-time professorships, TV and film work as actor, director writer, and full-time administrative/fundraising work at their own theatre.

All unions, teachers unions included, use the "industrial employer/employee model." This is the dominant model within the dominant capitalistic system we all work under in our day jobs. Of course your own employment is part of that system. It allows you the luxury to blog your ideas about how to change system while being afforded a comfortable lifestyle within that system.

Most of my peers already practice their theatre in conspiracy to the "industrial employer/employee model", which means they are often in compromising positions with their day jobs, unions, or other “real world” affiliations. At the end of day, they compromise and do their theatre under whatever financial or other restrictions are presented.

Ideas are fine as ideas, but unless one can practice what one preaches, they have little credence. The student/teacher model is in many ways more detrimental to theatre practice than the employer/employee model is. Both of these models went toward creating the traditional director/actor relationship we have today. When we invent new models for working with one another in theatre, we often find ourselves in a stalemate with these preexisting models and their prejudices and must find the compromise within the ensemble in order to stay together.

Scott Walters said...

Now you're trolling.

silent nic@knight said...

Trolling? Do I also beat my dog?

I see that false characterization of my motive as a convenient way not to address my ideas about your ideas.

Scott Walters said...

Very convenient! Over the years, I have learned that comments like "Ideas are fine as ideas, but unless one can practice what one preaches, they have little credence" aren't worth responding to because it just goes round and round. And you spend a lot of time trying to get me to go round and round, but I'm too busy right now.

silent nic@knight said...

I believed that you once appreciated comments that kept you and your ideas honest. But recently you have been calling Don a flame-baiter. Now you are calling me a troll.

To reduce all the points I made to that one comment is being deceptive. Practice what you preach is an adage. An adage is a commonly accepted general truth. From time to time we all practice counter to what we preach. My practice and that of my peers’ practice is full of compromise, and that’s context in which I used the adage. Interpreting my use of it as trolling has more to do with your psychology than mine. But no matter. I can take a hint. Your ideas will be safe from my scrutiny from now on.

Joe said...


Thanks for the reference to my entry. I just wanted to clarify that my 15-20 to self-support comment was in relation to the central support body, not the constituent theatres. I was projecting that it might take that long before the central entity had cultivated enough theatres that their contributions back to the pot allowed the process to support itself.

I would hope after all the expert help rendered that a client organization would be self-supporting earlier than 15-20 years. If an organization can't achieve the investment of a community of <100,000 in 15 years, then I would suggest they need to examine if they truly serving their community.