Wednesday, May 6, 2009

This One's For The Theatres

As Isaac noted here, the biggest cost that small NY theatres face is space rental. And, in fact, this drives a lot of the overall decision-making. It leads to the Edifice Complex in theatres, since we see renting as throwing money down the drain, not to mention, if you own your own space, then you can rent it out and make money (though that rarely seems to work out). I was just talking the other day with an artistic director about this very issue. The very high rents constrain a lot of other costs and decisions. And since commercial rents are out of our control (at least directly) and there are fewer and fewer places to rent space from for shows, it seems like this isn't like to change. it?, I ask slightly disingenously.

Maybe it's the grey, rainy weather here in New York. Maybe it's the Cinco de Mayo hangover (free tequila shots...oh my). Whatever it is, I'm still feeling a little revolutionary. I'm reading this book right now and thinking about ways of making theatre open source. That, combined with this article on Employee Free Choice (stay with me here...), led me to think about these ideas for theatres, small and large.

- Roommates, not subletters. For small theatres that rent space on a show-by-show basis, look for roommates. Real roommates. Usually, when we talk about these sort of arrangements, companies are either looking for significant others or subletters: significant other (i.e. "co-production") who shares the risks and rewards, your values and, ultimately, the same property or a subletter (i.e. "dark night" programming), who uses what you have but with limited rights and responsibilities for a short time. I'm talking about a different arrangement, a more equal footing arrangement, where two companies share the rent, possibly run shows in rep (which has the added benefit of extending the run, natch), where the two design teams work in tandem, each theatre has its own administration and whatnot, but you split the box office evenly, cross-promote, share as many resources as possible. Maybe double opening night party/benefits. Whatever arrangement works best for both companies. This would require a lot of collaboration and serious transparency and trust. But those are good things, right?

- No more fees. This is more for the mid-sized-to-large theatres. And it address some of the talk about artist-administrator hybrids and it also speaks to this basic inequity. Stop paying playwrights and directors one-off fees. Give them a salary, a real salary, complete with taxes and benefits. It's a burden, I know. But I'm not talking about giving them a year's salary. We do this with actors in our portable system, but we expect playwrights and directors to take their fees and then show up every day when they don't have to go to a day job to keep their health insurance. them, the same way you pay the actors, on a weekly basis, with health and benefits. No more commission fees. You want to support a playwright while they write a play? Support a playwright while they write a play. And if the board or the financial department starts to care about what they're doing while they pull down their princely $180 over ten weeks or whatever, make them read scripts. Or grant proposals. Or attend staff meetings. Maybe they'll help you raise more money. Or find a great script. Or, heavens forbid, write a better one, when you give them an office they can use. Stop buying us off at cheap prices.

- Embrace term limits...for everybody. Including companies. No one ever said that theatres were supposed to last forever. Maybe they shouldn't. I'm a big TV person and a huge fan of LOST. That show was losing its way, beginning the long meandering slide that winds up with Robert Patrick and Annabeth Gish. Then a funny thing happened: they got an end-date. That gave the story focus and drive. It's how the British are able to make such compelling shows (among other reasons). So...why not set out to do a specific thing and then wrap it up when you're done? "We're going to take five years and explore the role of the individual in society" or whatever your mission is. Personally, I'd rather this was done on the federal level with a special theatre 501(c)3 that expires every five years and you have to re-submit. Force yourselves to examine where you are, where you've come from and have you said what you wanted to say. There's no rule against forming a new company, finding new partners or re-upping with old ones. But we have to start acknowledging that things change. And that's okay.

- Read this.

- Cap Donations. I often talk about the regressive nature of theatre and how, inevitably, the big money wins out, one way or another. Let's level the playing field a bit and cap the size of any donation, either foundation-based or individual. Yep, you'll need more donations to get up to your needs. Go get them. And the people giving the smaller amounts will have the same voice. It would also mean, essentially, changing how we build boards, since, right now, your board is full of rainmakers. Rather than having the bigwigs who write big checks making the decisions about your budget, maybe it's the little guy who knows lots of people and can sell your theatre better. That seems like a good person to have on your board.

- Screw the foundations. Now I love me some nice, easy foundation support, but as I think I mentioned...somewhere I can't find right now...I think that foundations are a part of the overall mission creep we've experienced. They want certain things, certain assurances that their money won't be spent willy-nilly on art, so their grants tend to be restricted and given to theatres whose structure resembles a foundation. And that's how we got into this whole mess. So screw 'em. As with Equity, nice and pubicly. Make sure everyone knows that you don't take a dime of foundation support. Just direct donations from individuals. Maybe some city money (if there's anything to be had). Stay out of that game and the temptations it provides. Keep your board full of wacky crazy artists and spend your money on the shows. Start a program when there's a need for it, not a grant for it. Seriously: think like a business, not like a charity. Fuck charity. We earn what we make and we eat what we kill. (I don't know why this got so agressive all of a sudden...but there you have it.)

Well. Okay. Enough. That all turned out much more off the top of my head than I intended. So, for the rest of the afternoon, I'm going to go wander into a cafeteria, with saliva dribbling out of my mouth and scream about socialism.


Sterling Lynch said...

Great post and I agree wholeheartedly with your key observation, from which all the others more or less spring: think like an entrepreneur, not like a passive recipient of top down hand-outs.

Actually, it is pretty amazing how quickly the artistic instinct, which is intrinsically entrepreneurial (e.g. I have an idea that I want to realize and share with others) get channeled and transformed into passive subservience.

Brant said...

I was once in a company that tried the "roommates" arrangement. When the other company folded after about a year into the partnership, our rent suddenly doubled with no other viable partners ready to step up to be our next roomie. Our company was forced to leave the space not long after. Not saying it's impossible, but in our case it had pretty disastrous results.

99 said...

I'm actually not talking about long-term arrangements like that, in particular, though that is a possibility. I was thinking more specifically about short-term rentals, since that's where most theatres are shooting their wad (so to speak.) That if company A is planning a show, in a rental space, and company B is planning a show, they rent one theatre and share the space until the shows are done.

For a long-term partnership/space situation, yeah, those are the risks and you would need a higher level of co-involvement. That's more the "significant other" kind of relationship, and your financials and such would have to be wedded and the partnership would need to be deeper. It's not impossible, but, you're right, it is risky. But we've all had roommates from hell and bad living situations that blew up in our faces. We do know how to deal with it.

Duncan Pflaster said...

My company IS actually doing the roommate thing now with our upcoming Get S.O.M. Festival.