Thursday, February 28, 2008

devilvet Challenge -- Part 2

On Tuesday, I responded to devilvet's challenge to tell him in 250 words or less how I was going to change theatre for the better. I did it in 108 words, which, as you know if you've been reading me with glazed eyes, may be a record for succinctness. But devilvet was not one to be impressed by mere bullet points -- oh no! He wrote: "Great! I like it! Now I want an outline of tactics under each of the four points. Top 3 ways to achieve each of the four points." Now, I'm harboring suspicions that devilvet is actually hoping if I put all this out there in a bullet-point form, then I will have shot my wad and lapse into internet silence. We'll see. But I will accept devilvet's challenge. (beat the drums! sound the trumpets!) The numbered items are what I wrote Tuesday; the lettered items are the tactics. Here goes:

1. Decentralization. Get out of the major cities and gather somewhere else that isn't already choked with theatre. No drive-by guest artists from Nylachi.

a. If you have a place in mind, for God's sake go there -- this is about freedom. If not, go to this website (cities with a population of 50,000 as of the year 2000) and find a group of cities that are under 350,000 that appeal to you.

b. Research these cities: demographics, cost of living, real estate prices, number of educational institutions in the area, number of arts organizations in the area (professional and amateur), population density (off the top of my head, it seems to me that a moderate density would be best -- say, between 2,000 and 8,000 people per sq mile), primary employers

c. Narrow it down to two or three and visit, if possible. Do what Zacharay Mannheimer did: meet with people and hang out. Repeat as needed.

2. Localization. Form an ensemble that will stay together for a while. Preferably with at least one resident playwright attached who writes plays for the ensemble. Become an active member of the community. Listen.

a. Join Theatre Tribe to meet people who might share your interest in a new model and talk about the research you've been doing in #1 above.

b. Discuss these ideas with friends who you enjoy working with and who might share your desire to relocate. Pure talent is less important than a commitment to tribal values. Read Daniel Quinn's Beyond Civilization together and discuss it.

c. Put together a group of theatre artists who together have the skills necessary to operate all aspects of the theatre. If you have a lot of directors and actors, you're not done. You need at least one designer, and the longer I think about these ideas, the more I think you need to have at least one person who either is a playwright, or is interested in developing their skills in that area. Also, be sure you have someone who is interested and knowledgeable, or willing to work hard to become knowledgeable, about management.

3. Tribal economics. Pool income. Take out what you need to survive. Each member brings more to the table than their theatrical specialty. Ensemble controls ancillary income. Everyone does everything.

a. Theatre talent isn't the sole criterion; you need to discuss ancillary skills. These are skills that can lower costs within the organization (for instance, if someone has skills as a handyman and can fix plumbing or electrical problems, they are valuable; if someone is good at web design, that is good; if someone is a good ad salesman, that is good), AND skills that can create additional income (for instance, people who would be willing to develop the skills to serve as a consultant in some area, or people who like children and could operate a day care or after school program, or people who are good gardeners who could grow food for the company and could sell food at the farmer's market).

b. Once you have put together the group who will be working together, spend time discussing collaborative processes. How will the season be chosen? How will casting happen? How will business decisions occur? Who will have primary responsibility for what aspects of the operation of the theatre? (Hint: simply because a tribe has a "flat" organizational chart doesn't mean that there aren't people who have certain responsibilities -- it doesn't mean, for instance, that every design choice is put to a vote or something.) The clearer you are about processes, the more effective and efficient the group will be. There are many books that have been written exploring these issues -- read them. Don't ignore the wisdom of experts.

c. Write a letter of agreement for everyone involved that spells out responsibilities and expectations. Be explicit about as much as you can. Do you want a commitment of a certain amount of time with a renewal periond? Say it. Figure out a way that slackers can be voted out. If everyone is expected to contribute all income to the theatre, say that, and outline how it will be divided. Again, the more you do in advance, the more efficient and effective you will be once you're trying to stay afloat.

4. Education. Teach young artists the entrepreneurial and collaboration skills needed to control their own artistic lives and truly co-create.

a. Learn social entrepreneurial skills. Not only grantwriting, but budgeting, marketing, networking, political activism, teaching artist skills.

b. Teach collaboration skills. These skills not only can be learned, but it is necessary that they be learned. It is not a natural skills, and a great deal of frustration could be avoided if young people truly learned how to effectively collaborate. This should be seen as a priority as important as traditional skills. It is the foundation upon which a theatre tribe will exist.

c. Teach community involvement and service learning. For a tribal theatre to work, everyone involves needs to be active members of the community. They need to be comfortable volunteering, attending community meetings, meeting politicians, getting involved in religious or social organizations, and so forth.


Anonymous said...

All of this, to work, takes a great leap of faith. I am so scared that I won't be able to make the transition back from day job to theatre and still be able to cover my responsibilities -- raising two little girls, paying for the house we bought, covering our student loans, etc..

I know I am a long way from making this switch - I need to do the ground work of assembling a tribe. But, that is where it would be helpful to spitball ideas.

I believe the work, right now, involves getting our tribe all located in one place. And, of course, there is a long list of preliminaries that preceded this goal being achieved. This post seems to start to address these tasks.

We should all live in the same geographical area. How closely is this defined? Same block? Same house? Same town? Same side of town?

We all need to be working right up until our work is the theatre. Best case, our "day-job" will lead to/become part of the theatre work.

I'm going to have to leave my day job with the wed company.

Wow. This is scary.

Scott Walters said...

It is very, very scary. You don't see me doing it right now, right? There are still a lot of things to hammer out. And perhaps some creative thinking can provide a transitionary process, I don't know. I certainly wouldn't leave any security until there was a clear plan for hitting the ground running. Baby steps -- keep the north star in sight and start preparing.

Devilvet said...

Just who the hell does this "devilvet" guy think he is?!!!!

In all seriousness, I issue these challenges believing that the succinctness is essential to the dissemination of the idea (how many big words did I use there? I am gazing over on my own damn comment.....blink....blink....)

Now if this were a powerpoint presentation...I think it has even more hope of convincing others of sinking into the long term memory. This is starting to appear more actionable...especially to people like me who even if we want change are still maybe a little set in our ways.

Anonymous said...

Succinct = Elevator speech

Successful elevator speech gets more people onboard quicker, by planting the idea quicker.

Scott Walters said...

devilvet -- It has been very, very useful to boil this down. And you suggestion of a PowerPoint gives me an idea. I have been wanting to create something like Lawrence Lessig does (see his YouTube presentations, especially the one about supporting Obama). And I just installed screen capturing software on my computer... Hmmm -- may be time to do a multimedia campaign...

Anonymous said...

just as an aside, in re: screen capturing software --

I use this type of software a lot in my day job. The best we have found is SnagIt. I believe they are on version 8....

Just in case you need it.

Anonymous said...

What you list here sounds very much like the steps towards starting a theatre company.

So, I'll follow up on devilvet's challenge with a next question:

How would it not lead to more of the same of what you object to?

Scott Walters said...

Well, let's see. Do most theatre companies pool all income into a common pot, including income from ancillary activities, which serve as a substitute for day jobs? That is probably the biggest difference -- the structure of the organization. You are right, though -- what works for a tribe also would work for a non-tribe, except that pretty significant difference that makes up points 2 and 3.

Mike Daisey said...

Great post.

Devilvet said...

More posts like this might be the ticket to helping your current and future readers embrace the notions you outline. I'm not going to debate the value of "preaching to the choir to make them sing"...I am only going to say that specificity and succinctness, even within the realm of the hypothetical, is where this nationwide conversation needs to go if it is to evolve and metamorph into a more substantial significance.

(72 words)

(plus positive emoticon)

Anonymous said...

Responding to your question, "Do most theatre companies pool all income into a common pot, including income from ancillary activities, which serve as a substitute for day jobs?"

I can't speak for Most, but it's certainly a known phenomenon. Or I wouldn't be asking you the question in the first place.

That phenomenon includes earning income from "ancillary activities" such as teaching classes, selling merchandise, etc. to augment the earned income from ticket sales. Taking offstage non-artistic responsibilities such as marketing, development, facilities operation and management functions for the theatre in addition to appearing in shows, designing sets, writing scripts, etc.

With that beginning, I have seen and directly experienced more than one company eventually running into the exact problems you discuss in other posts -- burnout, wanting/needing/choosing to employ artists who come from other places, not being able to put together enough income to pay everyone the middle-class salary you describe, etc.

So I'm quite interested in how the model you're developing would head in a different direction and avoid these problems.

Anonymous said...

We've just celebrated the eighth birthday of our hive, a term coined prior to this tribe model. If I understand Scott/Devilvet correctly, our differences are that we are all unpaid volunteers and have day jobs to fund the "common pot."

Our central hive (or tribe) is small and consists of a playwright, costumer, tech, and marketer, and each drone can and will be the Queen when a situation warrants.

I think the model works if the hive is solid...

Scott Walters said...

NGale -- As a recent graduate of the Buncombe County Beekeepers School, I truly appreciate your choice of "hive" as your model! Would you ever consider trying to come up with a way to provide enough employment through the activities of the hive to allow you all to live? The goal of my model is to eliminate the day-job/volunteer pattern if possible.

Anonymous said...

@Scott: We've struggled with this question for many years. As much as we'd love to quit our day jobs and devote 100% time to our craft, in our climate and city this is not possible without funding. Therein lies our conundrum; we're free of the ties associated with grants, yet always bound by the realities of finance. We've been a 501c3 for almost 15 years, yet have never sought funding. At this point in our development, we would graciously accept funding, but I feel it would have to be on our terms. We sacrifice for our families, and our theater is as much a part of the family as our children...

Anonymous said...

@Scott: Sorry for the double-post, but upon reread I realized that I didn't really answer your question. I think where we differ from your model or the Des Moines experiment is in mindset. I see no difference between my day job and any other revenue-generating mechanism for my theater. In effect, I take from The Man and give to my art. If I were to enter a socialist tribe who served food to fund their theater, would I still not have a day job serving food? If I worked for corporate theater and spent my day grantwriting in order to fund my theater, would I not still have a day job as a grantwriter? To me, it's all semantics. I work to play.

Think Again: Funding and Budgets in the Arts

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