Thursday, February 07, 2008

Get Yourself a Tribe

OK, so if you have thought about it long and hard, and you think you are someone who can live without the Nylachi dream of fame and fortune, then your next step is to find other people who share this orientation. You need a company, or what Daniel Quinn (Ishmael) calls an "occupational tribe" in his book Beyond Civilization. (You might want to check out my tribalism posts here, here and here to get a better understanding.) So your next hurdle, once you have abandoned the fame and fortune idea, is to also abandon the freelancer mindset. From now on, you are part of a tribe, a company, an ensemble. No more going from job to job and letting other people determine what plays are worth doing and what nitch you do or don't fill. Now, you and your fellow ensemble members are in charge. If this doesn't appeal to you, then for God's sake stay in Nylachi, where a freelancer can make a career.

What goes along with this is a simple rule: in order to be valuable to a tribe, you need to be able to do more than one thing. In other words, you must have something to offer that extends the tribe's earning power. And acting alone ain't enough. Or directing, or designing. That's your entry fee. You also have to have an "and then." "I'm an actor AND THEN I also can write killer grants." "I'm a director AND THEN I can also serve as a consultant for businesses looking for team-building workshops." "I'm a designer AND THEN I can create great posters, ads, and websites." AND THEN is the key, and ideally the skill either saves money or brings in additional money. And the amount must be significant enough to balance out the addition of another mouth to the tribe. Think of Shakespeare: he was a playwright AND THEN he also acted, and by all accounts he also managed the Globe in which he was a part owner. There was no specialization. Sure, if he wasn't playing Prospero he might have written more plays. But if he wasn't playing Propser (or Hamlet's father's ghost), the King's Men might not have been able to make ends meet, the Globe might have folded, and then how many plays of his would we have? So in this model, everybody has to have at least two specialties, and also pitch in with the grunt work. There are no "junior members" who are trying to get a foot onstage by doing the "crap jobs" around the theatre; everybody is a full member from the moment they become part of the group, and the group is as devoted to keeping each member artistically fulfilled as each member should be devoted to keeping the group afloat. As Quinn notes, "A group that doesn't take good care of its members is a group that doesn't command much loyalty (and probably won't last long)."

Now, before you get to wondering how you are going to do all this AND hold a day job -- you're not. The idea is to be able to generate enough income from all sources for everyone to live on. This means thinking in terms of more than ticket sales. It is the AND THEN factor. I will talk about this AND THEN factor in a later post. For now, suffice to say that you need to choose your fellow company members wisely, thinking not only in terms of their primary theatre talent, but also giving equal weight (yes, I did say equal weight) to what else they bring to the table that will extend the theatre's earning power. There are no divas in tribes. An actress may be the next Meryl Streep, but if all she can do is act and she's not willing to pitch in in another area, then pass her by.

I know this is counter-intuitive. We have been brought up to think that talent is the one and only consideration. But I am saying it ain't so. In fact, I would willingly take someone with less raw talent who has a true commitment to the ensemble idea over the uber-talented diva any day of the week. People get more competent the more they work, but a theatre that can't make ends meet puts everybody out of work.

So step 2: get yourself a tribe of multi-talented people who all share the non-fame-and-fortune orientation.


Anonymous said...

Freshmen often enter the program at my undergraduate school all wide-eyed and talking about heading straight to Broadway as soon as they finish school. Recently, a mother of one of those freshmen approached me and asked me for my advice regarding the drama program at the school.

I suggested that her child focus on the technical aspects of the program. Take design classes and work in the shop as much as possible. Take your acting classes as electives.

The reason I suggest this is that at this particular school, the acting side of things is very limited. Most of what I learned from acting classes could be summarized in a four-hour seminar. I got my practice on stage with helpful hints from a professor whom I trust to give good advice. On the downside, I'm very poor with technical aspects. I feel that if I had focused on learning about light design or set design, then I would have more to offer to a theatre.

After I graduated, I decided to spend my time focusing on directing as my primary field, with acting as my second. I want to direct AND THEN act.

Incidentally, I'm also pretty good at website and graphic design, so maybe I've got two AND THEN's.

Good advice. I'm looking forward to seeing the next few posts regarding this topic, Mr. Walters.

Scott Walters said...

Good start, my friend. Now: spend some time thinking how you might extend the earning power of the group. In other words, reach outside of the theatre production itself.

Nick Keenan said...

This was a really inspiring post, Scott. Part of the reason it hit me is that you're catching me right at the moment when I'm actually ready to do this... put all my eggs into the one basket that is my theater company New Leaf, after years of dayjobs and full-time freelancing at dozens of theatres. The company is kind of all doing this at the same time, and within the ensemble we have nearly all the pieces of a well oiled theater machine, plus some of the greatest talents in town to boot. It's been a long time coming to get an ensemble that tight, and none of the original company members are still with us, but the mission has carried us through and taught us how to build a stable ensemble. It's not easy and I don't think you necessarily get it right the first time. I've been a part of many ensembles in my day, but it's this difference that makes us capable of rich theater-infused lives: This tribe willing to go all-in with each other and show a commitment to our communal artistic and financial development (we've helped each other move from non-theater day jobs to theater jobs with the same pay and benefits, and full-time company positions are part of the five year plan) We're all saving money, we're all raising money, we're all getting butts in seats, and we do it on a great number of levels... from on-the-street word of mouth to press relationships and being on the lookout for resources that can shift our possibilities and open doors for the company and the mission.

The way I like to think of it is that joining a company should be nearly as important a decision as getting married. It requires that level of trust, just as a tribe does. In a world of increasing job turnover and non-commitment, theater is a group effort and therefore can be something different that feels like community and home. Our audience needs that sense of community that we can generate.

Think Again: Funding and Budgets in the Arts

Every once in a while, I think I'll post a link or two to posts written earlier in the life of Theatre Ideas that seem worth revisiting ...