Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Marching Orders

Over the Fourth of July, my wife and I had our extended family over for a meal. After the chicken and potato salad had been eaten, I got into a conversation with my father-in-law that was quite interesting. Bud is a retired Lutheran minister who gave up his career as an engineer at General Electric at the age of 40 to go to seminary and become a minister. So I asked him how it was that pretty much every small town you go through has at least one church of some sort, and many have several. It doesn't matter how small the community, there seems to be a church somewhere.

He was able to answer only as a Lutheran, although I have since heard that the Episcopalians follow a similar process.

When members of a com
munity decide they would like to start a congregation, they contact the synod and the national church organization (e.g., the Evangleical Church in America, or ELCA) to express their interest. The central administration then sends a Mission Director to visit with the community and to determine the level of interest. Prior to becoming a minister himself, Bud had been a member of such a group interested in forming a church, and he remembered being in a car with church representatives and the Mission Director writing on an envelope the expectations. According to a representative of the North Carolina Synod that I contacted (and this is how Bud remembered it as well): "The funding for new starts generally comes from three sources: The national church, the synod and the local community (area churches). Roughly a third is shared by each for the first few years and then as the mission grows more is picked up by the new church itself. Most of the funding in the first few years goes toward the pastor’s compensation. In fact the pastor is usually on the payroll of the national church for the first few years and the synod and local partners send resources to Chicago to help offset the costs." Once the church is independent, it is expected to make annual contributions back to the synod and national church. What about when, I asked, the new congregation gets on its feet, and decides it wants to build a church? "Most of the costs for a building is covered by the congregation, but our Lutheran Men’s organization provides loans at 2% interest which is a great help." I was also referred to the ELCA website, where I found PowerPoint presentations for some of the training sessions that the new congregation representatives are asked to attend as part of the startup process. The ELCA provides resources and training, as well as an experienced advisor assigned to the new congregation.

So to sum up, the process goes like this:
1. Costs for the first few years are evenly split between the new congregation, the regional organization (synod), and the national organization (ELCA).
2. Money is provided primarily to cover salaries.
3. After the first couple years, the new congregation takes on a greater share of the financial burden until it is financially independent.
4. At that point, the congregation begins to make annual contributions back to the regional and national church, which continues as long as the church continues in existence.
5. The congregation is responsible for raising enough money to build a church, if it so desires, but a service organization provides a source of low-interest loans to help with that process.

Now, let's compare this to the way we do things in theatre.

To apply for grants at most foundations, especially the governmental programs, the theatre usually has to have been in existence for a while -- to the best of my knowledge, three years seems to be the minimum. To qualify to receive such a grant, the theatre must have a history of quality work, and of community support. Once the theatre has become stable, foundations are more likely to give it money, and often the percentage of the theatre's annual budget made up of unearned income increases as the theatre becomes stronger and bigger. New buildings are paid for through capital campaigns.

In other words, except for the church and theatre both being largely responsible for raising the money for a new building, the two systems are opposite!

However, the more I thought about it, the more sense the church model began to make. It is during the first years that a theatre would benefit most from its founders being able to focus their attention on developing programming and building its relationship with the community. In our current system, this is precisely when the members of the theatre are most likely to be working a day job and using their evening hours to rehearse. Thus there is literally no time for the theatre's staff to forge relationships in the community, get the word out about what they are doing, design programming that will increase their profile, or do many of the myriad things that would put the theatre on its own two feet. Furthermore, this is when a young theatre could most use the assistance of an experienced consultant, who could provide advice on how to build their audience and publicize their work, design programming and outreach. They wouldn't be reinventing the wheel, or trying to figure out which of the many books has useful information. Once the theatre is on its feet, it would be more able to contribute to a centralized fund that would help other theatres get on their feet, and the more theatres there were contributing, the more money would be available to start new theatres. So the movement could build. Meanwhile, the central organization could field proposals for the creation of new theatres, and proactively encourage the geographical distribution of theatres throughout different parts of America, and different sized towns.

This organization could also provide education in the form of workshops, but also devise college curricula to educate young theatre founders in the skills needed for such theatre tribe work, and be a funnel of theatre proposals. A good senior thesis or MFA project might be to form a company and write a proposal to the national organization, who would then fund as many good proposals as possible. Thus instead of heading for New York or Chicago or LA, young people might graduate from college directly into a salaried job founding a regional theatre, and thus be more inclined to resist flooding the major markets with new artistic cannon fodder. The central organization, through its grant making process, could focus funds in different ways: one year, there might be special funds available for anyone proposing a theatre in a town of 50,000 or less, another year the funds might go to theatres to be founded in Montana and Wyoming, another year to theatres being founded in Hispanic communities.

When I finished speaking with my father-in-law, and finished emailing with the North Carolina synod rep, I came away with the clear feeling that this was the direction my efforts needed to be headed: to the founding and funding of a central organization devoted to the achieving of geographical diversity within the American theatre. And for all those donors who would like to have a theatre named after them, this organization could create a fund to build Del-Tec-based theatres that would bear their name at a fraction of the cost of traditional theatre edifices. This would be like the Carnegie Library system that brought libraries to small communities around the country.

If such an organization could get off the ground -- and as with any such undertakings, it is a big if -- we might see theatre tribes springing up all around this country.

Thanks to my father-in-law, I think I have my marching orders.

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Don Hall said...

Best post of the month.

NOW we're talking solutions and pragmatic ones at that.

Freeman said...

Hey Scott -

Quick thoughts...

As someone who works for an Episcopal organization, I can tell you that there are, as you can imagine, pros and cons to mission building at from the Diocese level, and that the system of building churches isn't, shall we say, a model of growth. It does, though, have a system that puts a collective body in charge of growth and that can be attractive.

I'd say that what I observe in the Episcopal church does have some similarities to what I see in theater (aging populations becoming a challenge being the number one issue) and old institutions thriving while middle aged-to-young organizations are struggling.

One of the good things about how theaters do it is that there is, essentially, an artist core that believes firmly in the work and does not need community consensus to bring itself into existence. The tyranny of the majority, and of community standards, is inherent in a system that queries for community interest before it sets down roots.

Churches also share the same mission at their core. There may be large or small differences between denominations, but if someone creates a mission church with the support of an Episcopal Diocese, it can be relatively certain that the Diocese has resources that directly pertain to its functions.

Theater companies don't work this way, entirely. I'd guess that there are some basic similarities, but the missions and methods and needs can be starkly different, and that means the drain on resources to a central hub might not be on an even level.

On the flip side... it would be wonderful if a young company had somewhere to go in their region that was dedicated, specifically, to not only its growth, but the growth of related organizations. It would be a wonderful way to share resources and help new companies at the start - the more precarious time for most.

Scott Walters said...

I don't think my heart can take this, Don! At least call me an asshat or something!

Director said...

Brilliant, asshat. (I'm playing Don an upcoming musical titled "One Angry Man", so I'm getting into character)

Scott Walters said...

Matt -- Thank you for your thoughtful observations. In the case of a theatre, I think the "call" would come not from the community itself, but from a community of artists. So that would be different than the church model, which is originated by the congregants. That said, there would likely be an application process which would require a proposed theatre to discuss why they have chosen that particular community, what cultural institutions already exist and how they will interact with them, and so on.

While I don't see a situation where the central theatre organization dictated artistic policy, a general orientation of "embeddedness" (for wont of a better word at the moment) might tie together some of the information available from the consultant. And truth be told, the basics of management probably apply no matter what the venue.

Nevertheless, your caution is well-founded. Whenever you create a centralized organization, you run certain risks that go with institutionalism. All that can be done, I suppose, is to try to avoid those pitfalls while creating something that can support the thing you value most. Historically in America, theatre has been a loner's game with little institutional support available, especially for the young. I am hoping this approach will try out something new to see whether it can make a positive contribution.

Scott Walters said...

Thanks, Director. I feel a little better now.

Devilvet said...

Thumbs Up!

R. Winsome said...

Scott, sounds excellent.

But you do know that this is another 60 hour a week job (well, more than that) which very few people will want to help you share. It'll be thankless as well. Many of the young people who your idea is designed to serve are arrogant little shits (i know i've been one) with a permanent chip on their shoulder who will immediately assume that any centralized institution just doesn't understand them.

It also requires solving the collective action problem. I'm not saying you shouldn't go for it, i'm just giving the reasons i wouldn't want to.

Scott Walters said...

Rex -- I know: I work with 18 - 22 year olds every day, of course. They can be a challenge sometimes. But I love them nevertheless, and that's just me.

As far as the 60 hour weeks, no matter what I do, it will end up being 60 hr weeks, I guess, until I retire. If I can make it so that others can do even 50 hour weeks, I will have done something worthwhile, and I'll retire tired but content.

Director said...

I've been thinking about this all day, talking it over with friends and stuff.

Count me in. If you ever get this off the ground, I'd love to come work for you.

Scott Walters said...

Cool! What did your friends think about the idea?

Patrick Gabridge said...

I think you've really found something here. However, I'd also say that a young theatre doesn't necessarily have to be started by young people. There are plenty of people out there who have been making theatre for a while who would jump at a chance to have access to resources to start a theatre company in a sensible manner. To me, this model and level of funding would have incredible appeal to the folks who get to their late 20s and 30s and end up dropping out of theatre because there's no viable way to survive while having a family. Your father-in-law again becomes a model--he went did all this after he turned 40. This is an idea that has appeal to grown-up theatre artists.

Scott Walters said...

Patrick -- I agree entirely! The method of dissemination is a little less obvious when it comes to professionals, but I definitely see this as something that anyone could apply for.

Anonymous said...

here is the problem with the basic premise of your comparison

the Lutheran Church is a 400yr old established "brand" with an enormous history and organization behind it.

"Theater" is a noun, not an established brand or institution. right there the whole comparison falls apart.

no one wants to give money to brand new theater because THEY HAVE NO TRACK RECORD - unlike the Lutheran church.

the other problem with your comparison. in the Lutheran model you have a community demanding a church, of which they are already MEMBERS - i don't see that many communities begging for theaters. Because in most communities the people are not already "members" of the professional theater going public.

that isn't to say they have no theater at all - they have their community theater or high school plays or summer theater at the park district or whatever.

but just as every two bit town is not going to be able to sustain a Major League baseball team, so it is true that those places might not be able to sustain a large equity theater.

that doesn't mean there isn't a triple A team nearby, or little league or local week-end warrior leagues - there are. there is plenty of community activity in that sport.

But the chance that one of those little leaguers will ever play pro ball is slim. One in a thousand might make it to the show. And so it is with pro theater. Actually, for the actor the odds are better!

Also, the paradigm has changed - whereas you used to have to go to the theater or the baseball park to see the action - now - the action comes to you! Yes, I know, movies and TV are not theater - but they are a huge part of what theater has morphed into. And they are just as if not MORE important and vital and ARTISTIC as most of the theater being done in America today.

So - if you want to start your own theater - DO IT. put up or shut up. it IS business and if you find the right place and the right time and you have the right business model - show em what you got. and if they like it, they will give you money.

Chicago Shakespeare started out behind a BAR and 15 yrs later they have an enormous theater on Navy Pier. Why? Cirque du Soliel is now a huge corporation, but started out as a small company in Canada - how did they do it?

Listen - if you want money to start a company so you can do the 75th friggin production of True West - go f&*k yourself, get your own money and pay for your vanity projects yourself. but if you have something new and different to offer - go do it. and if it really is good - then people will come. Have a REAL point of view and a REAL mission statement and something more to offer than just "I wanna start a company".
Sweet are the uses of adversity - right?

Even Shakespeare didn't get a free ride. Yes there was some patronage - but only some- it was a business, with investors and shares and risks and competitors. and since there were not state theaters in every little hamlet in England, they had to take that shit on the road!

plus ca change! my friends


Scott Walters said...

ilannoyed -- Indeed, Lutheranism is a 400-year-old brand -- but not in this country, and there are other younger "brands" using the same methodology. As far as having an "organization behind it," that is what I am talking about. The organization is the one that I hope to create -- an organziation, like the ELCA and its synods, that raises money based on the value of the idea of geographical diversity for the arts (which many foundations support, not to mention the NEA who has made it a criteria on each of its grant programs, especially the Challenge America grants which are specifically about such diversity), and then vets proposals from theatre artists who want to start an ensemble theatre in a non-metropolitan area following certain criteria set by the central organization. So while you are right that foundations don't want to give money directly to new theatres without a track record, they will give money to an established regranting organization that has a series of requirements set up that make the likelihood of success for new theatres greater.

Your issue about theatre requesting a church, and no communities are requesting theatres is a reasonable assumption given my lack of clarity. In my model, it is not the community who requests a theatre, but a group of artists who request to create a theatre in a community. I wasn't very clear about that. In this case, the artists make the request. They are then asked to do a study concerning the community where they want to locate, gathering valuable information and meeting with specific people in the community, as a prerequisite to receiving funding.

As far as the idea of "little leaguers" and "pro ball" is concerned, it is a distinction that is based on a geographical hierarchy that I reject. Theatre is theatre, regardless of where it is performed, and the idea that there is a professional league somewhere that one aspires to, while part of the Nylachi myth, is fallacious.

The rest of your rant is irrelevant to this discussion, but I would largely agree with the idea that you should try to be unique. That said, while "True West" may have been seen 75 times in Chicago, it may not have been seen 75 times in Wichita. But you are right, there needs to be a clear mission statement, which would be part of the application process for funding through this organization. And if you've read any of my other writing, you would have realized that the theatre tribe model is set up to, as much as possible, be self-supporting, and artist owned and operated -- just like Shakespeare's Globe.