Essays, Practice, Opinions


If the defunding of arts were to become a nation-wide reality, what charge would it put on artists?

We’re not opposed to arts funding, in fact we’re in the midst of multiple grant applications as we write this! But the system, as many other systems in our country, is corrupt and must be challenged by those who have the power and imagination to do so.

And do so without asking permission.

We view artists as anthropologists. Their role is to absorb, observe, reflect, defend, oppose, and challenge; to study the making of cultures close to home, throughout the globe, and across the universe. 

Let us imagine: government and private funds previously designated for the arts redirected to initiatives of cancer research, clean water, poverty, human trafficking, education—arts in education. If creative non-profits ceased to exist, where would these insightful, compassionate people put their energy?

In an exponentially expanding society the ability to disseminate creative ideas is easier and more accessible than it has ever been. This means there is abundance: more people are able to pursue their artistic and unconscious lives. The means and mediums of artistic production are not only available to the privileged, as it has been in previous eras. Artistic production has been democratized. This means more art, more artists, and especially, more imaginative thinking.

The influx of art (excess supply), however, cannot exist in any current economic markets (little demand). We must imagine another value system that empathizes with and warrants agency to the individual while adjusting their compensatory expectations.

From this very thesis, over the past six months, Buran Theatre toured its work, Nightmares: A Demonstration of the Sublime, to communities throughout the United States without soliciting government, private, or institutional funding as well as individual donors. We asked ourselves: would it be possible to tour our work without raising any funds? Would we be able to tour to communities and invest in the artists living there by involving them in the process and imparting our ethos? Would taking just the box office receipts be enough to fund our way to the next city?

We put our heads down and from January through May 2013 the core of Buran Theatre (Adam Burnett, Jud Knudsen, and Nick Kostner) went to work, taking on numerous freelance gigs, saving our tax refunds, and draining 401k(s). Our model for the tour was to spend, at most, two weeks in each city, recasting the show entirely with local performers, designers, and laborers, presenting the re-imagined Nightmares for two nights only, which seemed most efficient: opening and closing. Bam.

Our intent was to do our work exactly the way we wanted to within the confines of the available funds, without sacrificing quality or aesthetics. The only donations we took were in-kind, for lodging or meals and drinks offered during the course of our travels. These findings—financial, practical and anecdotal—will be released in our case study, “Funding your Own Imagination,” in the coming months.

This model is dependent upon the absolute willingness of the leading participants. We could not operate in this manner if we had even the slightest inkling that any of us would go back on our commitment to devote our whole selves to the project. This is the first obstacle to overcome. Once you have that trust you can cultivate everyone you work with in a similar fashion. Buran’s cultivation of community comes from falling in love with fellow artists and their homes and making the promise to return as often as we can. Our performance training is based upon the innate presence and impulses of the individual, which allows for the truncated rehearsal process. To elaborate a bit, when we tour we do not lead our actors through a rigorous rehearsal process—we trust their presence and what they innately bring to the table. It is this sense of presence that allows us to insert any person into any role, regardless of body type, ethnicity, or skill set.

This, more than anything, is the hallmark of our work.

Due to this process we have seen firsthand, from Brooklyn to Lawrence, Kansas to Los Angeles, how vital and alive theater can be. The show, the act of performance, is really just a conduit for a larger conversation where we can see and hear one another, over drinks, across a table and face-to-face. The separation we construct in the performance is the attempt to destroy, to reach above and beyond the anxiety of social and cultural structures. Despite what happens in front of the foot lights and how we feel about it, theater is for peopling energy toward a shared design. This is the sacred space of theater: the possibility for transcendence with others.

If we consider the value of this interaction—people in a space in a place at a predetermined time—perhaps we can rethink value: professional artists making work from their own earned income. If we defund the arts this will be required, that is, until we are able to cooperate, to work together to make a theater that requires the audience and a true collaborative kinship amongst artist of all disciplines. Not just theater artists—but architects and printmakers and ice sculptors.

What does this theater look like?

It’s not pretty. It’s not polished.

We have been bamboozled to believe that art is supposed to be clean.

But it shouldn’t! There should be piss on the floor and tomatoes in the air.

The dollar sign has mandated cleanliness. And money is not as real as the dollar sign. Anyone who has generated a budget knows this.

We contend that contemporary theater is largely a false market supported by philanthropy’s phantom seats and unless we want to really invest in letting it fail with the support of funding, we ought to pull the rug out from underneath. Zero reimbursement. Pure philanthropy. Unless philanthropy can move away from the model of funding successful products (returns on investment), we have to move away from philanthropy altogether and investigate what lives on the other side.

The phantom seats of philanthropy have made us envious and jealous of opportunity. It has made art a game of competition. It has created a business model of unreal expectations and subterfuge. We pettily envy fellow artists in light of their “successes,” losing our generosity of spirit.

Education points artists in the direction of the competition for opportunity. Young people arrive in the professional world of theater making—whether commercial or independent—with valuable tools but with little agency other than conforming to how others want and need to see them. Non-profit and commercial theaters alike take advantage of this and devalue the actor, director, playwright, and designer by pilfering their time and energy, promising them exposure and no pay. These individuals eventually find themselves in a circular pattern of self-torture and unhappiness, attempting to make their bodies/brains/hearts do things they are incapable of and with absolutely no agency.

The artist, whatever they have to offer, should be set free by their imagination: “make your demons work for you.”

When Buran Theatre develops a new theater work, which can take a year or more since we work in a satellite system of performance communities, all participating artists get compensated monetarily for the premiere. Certainly not as much as we’d like, but it does happen. And we make sure it happens, even if it comes from our own pockets—from Adam’s day job as a grants writer and Jud’s day job as whatever-he’s-doing-this-month. Rather than seeing this as burden, this has been an opportunity of empowerment: treating others as we want to be treated by imparting our ethos as a model for creative agency in pursuit of a life and a lifestyle.

Theater making is not a career. Perhaps it can be, but this is not something one can truly plan for or expect. It is a lifestyle. A huge, fruitful lifestyle that can exponentially expand. That is, it can, if you’re willing to forgo financial expectation.

So, let us imagine a theater that needs the audience and an audience that needs the theater. Let us consider defunding the arts. Let us imagine a reciprocal ecology that grows and fails and experiments and sustains itself by creating an actual marketplace for the imagination with a value disassociated from monies. Let us reach out across disciplines and aesthetics and support others with a generosity of spirit that extends into the generosity of humanity.

If we can imagine a world where our theater’s seats have been ridden of the phantom funder, then the word sustainability might have meaning again.


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