Tuesday, March 11, 2008

A Vision

I am reading How to Make Collaboration Work: Powerful Ways to Build Consensus, Solve Problems, and Make Decisions by David Straus, which I recommend to anyone who wants to...well, learn how to make collaboration work. In it, he talks about three different "spaces" in the collaboration model. In the "problem space," the task is "to understand the problem and reach consensus on what it is an why it exists." Several months ago, I was focused on crunching data addressing some of the problems connected to the current regional theatre scene -- whether or not consensus was achieved, I don't know, but that was the problem space. In the "solution space," the task is "to reach consensus on a solution and a course of action." I have been working in the solution space for a while now, proposing some foundational values that could counter the problem. Straus also talks about the "vision space," which is where you "explore a vision of what your organization or community might look like after the problem is solved." He goes on: "Moving to the vision space takes a group away from the pathology of the immediate problem, builds alignment on a common vision, and generates energy and hopefulness about the future." Sometimes, Straus writes, "it makes sense to begin in the problem space to share perceptions of the problem, then jump to the vision space to agree on general specifications that solutions to all problems of this type should satisfy..." (p 84).

I'd like to take a stab at describing a vision of what a functioning theatre tribe might look like in order to inspire others to start brainstorming ideas about how these goals might be achieved. Describing a vision, of course, will lead to an image that is somewhat utopian -- obviously, the reality will have more bumps and bruises, because neither people nor circumstances are ever ideal. However, imperfection will take care of itself. Also, this is not the only model -- I or others may come up with additional ones later on. In this vision, let's follow Willie's final words in MASTER HAROLD...and the boys: "let's dream."


The Independence Theatre has been producing plays in Independence, Missouri (population 110,208) for three years now. There is a company of twelve people who are working in a flexible theatre space that seats 199. All of them live in the community, and several were theatre majors at Graceland University and Park University, both of whom have campuses in Independence, and both of whom have formal connections to the Independence Theatre through internships. In addition, two of the company teach courses in their department. In addition, the theatre has developed an informal relationship with the Adam and Eve College of Cosmetology, also in Independence, to help the theatre with make-up and hair styling for various productions.

On Monday evening, the Crazy Quilt Guild will have its monthly meeting in the theatre. This is not a rental (even though the fee would be a welcome addition to the theatre's income), but rather a way of making the theatre part of the community, and bringing people into the space. The belief is that once somebody has sat in your seats for an event, they are more likely to return to buy a ticket. Other organizations also use the space most Monday and Tuesday evenings, free of charge, such as the local beekeepers organization, the Community Service League, and the Community Foundation. On the Mondays and Tuesdays not claimed by community organizations, one of the company members teaches yoga for $11 per participant per class, and local music groups play concerts as well.

The company is in the midst of rehearsals for a play that was written by their resident playwright, who also writes their grant applications and press releases. There are three people in the cast, so with a director, SM, and scenographer, half of the company are very busy right now and are unable to do many money-making activities beyond rehearsal and building. No problem, though, because for these couple weeks the rest of the company picks up the slack. One company member not in the show runs an after-school arts program three days a week from 4:00 - 5:30, which has 15 students. Two others are on the road giving a workshop on collaboration techniques to a corporation in Kansas City. The remaining three operate the theatre's catering business.

Because the theatre has adopted Peter Hall's approach to scenery, all of these activities do not interfere with rehearsals or performances, since the set for the night's show can be put in place in about an hour. Rehearsals for the new show have been going on from 10:00 until 3:00 each day. Meanwhile, the other three plays in the repertoire have been rotating Thursday through Sunday evenings. One of the plays, a performance that was created by the company from interviews with local people about their religious beliefs, has become very popular and gets a few extra performances each month, while a more experimental piece remains in the rotation despite smaller crowds because the company believes in the play. Audiences for the latter have been growing lately as word of mouth among college students has started to build.

On Friday and Saturday nights after the theatre's performance, the seats are pushed to the side to make room for local bands to play. The cover charge is split between the band and the theatre, and soft drinks and snacks are sold as well. Sometimes, these concerts include spoken word performers as well.

The theatre, which was built for less than $500,000 as part of a program through Del-Tec Homes that adapts their popular eco-friendly round houses into flexible theatres, sits on an acre of land. The company has created a fairly sizable garden that provides them with produce throughout the growing season, and at the rear of the lot they have a few chickens as well to provide eggs and meat. In addition, they have two beehives which provides them with honey for consumption and to sell in the lobby. (During intermission, the catering operation sells fresh biscuits and honey, a very popular treat with the patrons.)

This evening, two of the company members are going to a patron's house for dinner. The theatre set up a program for patrons to provide a meal for selected company members. They sign up for who they'd like to invite, and how many times they'd like to invite them. This family chose husband-and-wife company members because they have kids about the same age as their own. Since it is Monday evening, they can take their time eating and then hang out and watch a movie together.

Instead of individual tickets or even season subscriptions, the Independence Theatre set themselves up as a club. While people can certainly buy individual entries, they can also buy a membership -- individual or family -- that allows them to see whatever shows they want as many times as they'd like. The only rule about repeat attendance is that, after the first time, they must bring at least one new person with them. In addition, membership gives them an invitation to the Summer Picnic, where the theatre's members cook up produce from their garden and fried chicken to celebrate the fall equinox.

After three years, the Independence Theatre doesn't have to do a lot of advertising or even mailings. Their patrons have given them permission to call to remind them when a new show is going to open, and their website is available to check which plays are being offered on which night. Company members have become active members of the community, volunteering their time to help out area charities (especially Habitat for Humanity), attending Rotary Club, and becoming active in area churches. These are purely voluntary, and are chosen by the company members themselves -- nobody is compelled to participate in anything they don't want to. However, the company has noticed over the years that their patrons often have met company members at these places, and come to see a play after doing so. Company members, however, never make a big deal out of being part of the theatre -- if it comes up in conversation, it comes up, but there is no "hey, look at me, I'm helping build a house" grandstanding.

Each month, the company gathers together to take a look at income for that month, and discuss any changes that need to happen. For instance, the company might decide that a particular play has exhausted its audience or needs a rest, or that more attention needs to be paid to marketing the Sunday matinees, and they discuss possible solutions. Once, they needed to talk about one of the plays written by the resident playwright, which had been optioned for a production at a larger theatre in Chicago. Fortunately, this possibility had been addressed long ago and put in writing in the agreements that all company members had signed, so they knew that 1/3 of the royalties would come back to the theatre, and the other 2/3 would be kept by the playwright. This was also true for any acting jobs the company got in commercials: 1/3 to the company, and the rest to the individual. This month, their are no issues like that, so they subtract the month's expenses from the income, and then discuss how to divide the remainder. At first, they had decided to divide the income equally. But after a few months, they decided that it might be better for people to take out what they need. For instance, the husband and wife with two kids might need a little more than the single person, but one month when the single person needed to have a crown put on her tooth for $1000 she was able to draw that amount from the income and everyone else tightened their belts for that month. This requires real honesty from each company member, but also leads to a collective sense of discipline and cooperation.

They also have arrangements with the local doctor and dentist for basic dental and health care. This was a bartered arrangement, and something the doctor and dentist does as a charitable contribution. Eventually, the theatre plans to have paid group health insurance, but for right now this arrangement has worked.

So far, so good. The theatre plays to about 60% capacity right now, and that has been growing at a steady rate. Membership have been kept as low as possible, but they may have to raise the rates a bit in the future to cover health care expenses. Their hope is that they can explain just how much their health care costs, and show how the increase will cover only those costs. The company thinks that most members will be willing to help out with such an important expense.

And so the season continues.


Anonymous said...

I dunno about the chickens in the back yard, but the rest sounds pretty good (and yes, utopian) to me. Fortunately, it doesn't sound too impractical either.

The biggest problem, of course, is getting that tribe together. The kind of tribe that would be willing to "tighten their belts" for a month for the sake of another in the tribe. That's friendship right there, and that kind of friendship is hard to find once in a lifetime, much less twelve times.

The rest of the vision seems pretty sound (to me, at least) and very workable.

Great vision. I'm impressed.

Anonymous said...

What you've described sounds good to me. It also sounds somewhat familiar. Have you ever heard of Rude Mechanicals in Austin, TX? When I lived in Austin I worked on a few of their shows, and they have a similar set up to your theater tribe: they have a dozen or so core company members that they call co-PADs, each with certain areas of strength, but all willing to do anything--one of which is the resident playwright; they have a small, somewhat flexible performance space in an old (and small) warehouse building they have dubbed the Off Center; they have deep roots in the community and let other groups (and theater groups) use their space; and on and on. The one difference that stood out was the use of more conventional scenic ideas, which is one of my concerns in theater production, as you know. I would definitely want to follow a path closer to your idea of simpler scenery in order to cut down on waste. Anyway, your theater tribe vision is an inspiration to me.

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