Making and Paying for the Art
Creating ensemble-based theater is one thing. Paying for it is another. Jeffrey Mosser does three case studies of established ensemble theaters exploring the creating and paying for the art.
“Model the Movement,” Theatre Communications Group’s 2012 slogan, was stuck in my head for a long time. In particular it was the word “Model” that I couldn’t shake. At the conference I found myself surrounded by all kinds of theaters large and small, established and fringe, who followed a business or artistic model. But it was at the Network of Ensemble Theatres breakfast where I met some that said, “there is no model for what we’re doing.”
A light bulb was illuminated. Sometimes you just need someone to state the obvious.
Rewind to 2008. I’m an education intern at Actors Theatre of Louisville. Every classroom I’m in I get to devise how to get from A to Z. I’ve brought with me a bunch of improv and Forum theater experience, but it would be a while until I was making theater with a group of people with the same artistic goals as mine. Throughout those years in Louisville I was very fortunate to observe ensemble-creators at the Humana Festival for New American Plays. In particular I was able to observe three companies with three very different methods: the SITI Company, the Rude Mechanicals, and members from the former Theatre de la Jeune Leune.
Truth be told, I still was a hair skeptical on how companies can truly work like this. How can they get anything done without a more hierarchical structure? So of course I sat in rehearsal as much as I could. While each group developed their production in distinctly different ways, one could tell that they had it. And by it I mean a plethora of things individual to those groups, but most importantly they were working with a focus that comes from understanding one another.
But how did they get to this it? And how are they still together— financially, artistically? The non-traditional model of creation is frequently mysterious if only because it is hard to understand without doing. How do you work as a group? How do you work without a script? How do you ask someone to fund a group without a script?
Before we go any further, I want to be sure we’re all on the same page with the definition of “non-traditional”—at least how I intended it above. A few definitions for your consideration.
Traditional Theater = an organization that offers a season of programming. Programming includes plays that may be new, classic, or contemporary. Works have been selected by an artistic and/or literary committee, and are rehearsed in a condensed set of weeks before being performed. Works are also decided considering risk and budgetary constraints. New plays may receive attention or some form of development. Structurally hierarchical, its personnel retain titles. Actors and directors are frequently auditioned or selected as part of an audition or for particular interest/ability in a piece/style.
Non-traditional Theatre or Ensemble Theatre = an organization that may or may not: generate one project over a long period of time, have one playwright, or utilize titles such as actor, director, or playwright while creating. Personnel may have several slashes in their titles, such as: playwright/director, actor/administrator, etc.
That was hard.
Let’s also agree that it is very difficult to pigeon-hole any theater into either of these definitions, and that to pigeon-hole is to lose flexibility. Yes? Certainly both kinds of organizations do what is conducive to their process. The Network of Ensemble Theatre’s defines “ensemble” as “a group of individuals dedicated to collaborative creation, committed to working together consistently over years to develop a distinctive body of work and practices.”
I’m interested in those practices, especially how they’re funded. In the following blogs I hope to shed light on how three companies, The TEAM of New York City, foolsFURY of San Francisco, and Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble of Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania, invested in and built their ensembles from the ground up. Three groups with unique approaches, backgrounds, and structures.
That being said… to each group let me ask some “traditional” questions:
What is your earned versus contributed revenue?
When did you develop a board?
How do you fundraise when you don’t have the title of the play?
And some “Non-Traditional” questions:
How do you tell someone that they have a bad idea?
Who decides when the group needs another member?
Does everyone get paid?
Throughout, I aim to highlight similarities in order that future ensemble artists don’t let a fear of the unknown bar them from attempting to create. Let’s get started.