Sustainability in Inclusive Theatre

“Don’t do it for the money because it’s just not there,” Helena Judd, Artistic Director of plai theatre, says as she looks wryly at me through her webcam.

Though this wisdom is perhaps true of a career in most aspects of the arts, it is especially true of inclusive theatre. Plai theatre, which began in Brooklyn, New York, and moved to the UK in 2014, is just one of many small companies making theatre with people on the autism spectrum. When the do-good-goal is to make theatre for or with people on the autism spectrum, or with other developmental differences, how could money be the priority? Most of the time, it simply isn’t. In fact, if I were to walk into a theatre company and pitch an incredibly prop, costume, and set heavy show where the ratio of actors to audience was 1:1, they would surely laugh at my audacity. “No matter how thrilling or relevant the piece, there’s just no way to make that model sustainable,” they would tell me.

And yet, this individualized, highly sensory theatre is exactly what a show for people on the autism spectrum or with other developmental differences entails. As the business manager for Seesaw Theatre, I am responsible for all of our student theatre company’s budgeting, fundraising, and expenses. However, as a student company attached to our university, we are in a unique position. We do not pay any of our teaching artists, ensemble members, board members, designers, or other team members. If we pay for space, it is a small fee to use university space, and oftentimes, we pay nothing at all. We produce a full season of events and a mainstage production on a budget of between $5,000 and $10,000. As a rising senior, I have spent a lot of time in the past year wondering how to turn my university level passions and skills into jobs in the “real world.” While applying for grants to fund Seesaw’s 2017–18 season, I pondered what this process would be like if we were an independent not-for-profit company, not attached to Northwestern University. Though Google turned up result upon result about the importance of theatre and the arts in general for those with developmental differences, there was virtually nothing on how companies sustain themselves while doing this kind of incredibly specific and individualized work.

I decided to dedicate my summer to finding out.

This was, perhaps, the unifying factor in all of my conversations—an interest in doing more and better with whatever means they have.

And so, on July 1, armed with an undergraduate research grant from Northwestern University, contact information for a variety of theatre professionals, and a stockpile of books on producing, marketing, and leadership in theatre, I moved to Brooklyn, New York, for the summer. Though the practices that many companies making theatre for and with people with developmental differences utilize began in the UK, namely with Tim Webb and Oily Cart Theatre, I chose New York very specifically. It’s no secret that New York City is a theatre hub, home to Broadway, huge not-for-profit companies, and an always growing immersive/experimental performance scene. In the past five to seven years, the city has become home to a number of companies doing the work that I was interested in exploring. These companies are quite young, as are the people running them. They know the way things have been done in the UK in the past, and have a vested interest in shattering that norm. This was, perhaps, the unifying factor in all of my conversations—an interest in doing more and better with whatever means they have.

My first interview was with Drew Petersen, the Artistic Director of Trusty Sidekick Theater Company, in early July 2017. Trusty Sidekick is a company that “creates bold, original productions for young people and their families. Rooted firmly in the belief that kids deserve theatre that ignites their imaginations and makes them think about the world in a new way, the company creates work that is multidisciplinary, and its ensemble of collaborators includes artists trained in physical theatre, puppetry, music, dance, animation, and video projection.” In the past six years, they have been commissioned by and worked with a variety of companies, from The New Victory Theater, to the Kennedy Center, to Lincoln Center. We spoke about the company, how they started, how Drew got involved, and who gets paid for what and how. At the end of the conversation, I asked him simply, “What’s next?” His answer boiled down to one thing, “Staying power.” Though they have seen a lot of success as a company, most of their income comes from commissions. Drew hopes that in the next three to five years they can increase their earned revenue that will allow them to make projects that their collaborators and audiences are excited about, whether the productions are self-produced, commissioned, or in collaboration with other cultural institutions. 

Melanie Gertzman, Executive Director of Bluelaces Theater Company, shared a similar sentiment. Bluelaces was started by the founders of Theatre Stands with Autism, which then became Seesaw Theatre. Because I work closely with Seesaw Theatre, now entering its fifth season, I was excited to talk to speak to Bluelaces about their transition from working at a university level to starting a company in New York. When I asked her what her goals for the company for the next few years were, her answer echoed Drew’s. She feels strongly about Bluelaces’ pay-what-you-can model, which gives any potential audience members a chance to see the show, regardless of socioeconomic status. This past year was their first season doing two shows. She hopes to keep them at that number of shows successfully for a couple of years before expanding. Gertzman said, “For us, growth doesn’t just mean more shows. Right now it means being able to pay our artists a living wage, not just a stipend. Another goal for us is to continue doing two shows, but for longer than the two weeks that our shows run now.”

Bluelaces recently collaborated on a summer camp with CO/LAB Theatre Group. According to their mission, “CO/LAB Theater Group is a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing Creative Opportunities without Limits And Boundaries. CO/LAB exists to offer individuals with developmental disabilities a creative and social outlet through theatre arts.” I had a chance to see their show Love is Love this past December, and was impressed by the work they do. When I sat down with Becky Leifman, CO/LAB’s Executive Director, she explained that they are currently in year two of a strategic plan. From a staffing standpoint, they hope to really hone in on each staff member's specific skills and make sure that people are doing the job best suited for them, and that they are the best at the job they are doing. This can be difficult for a company founded by good friends, but they are working with a consulting firm to give them an appropriate third eye on any potential restructuring. From a programming perspective, they hope to expand and “make more meaningful, longer connections with other organizations,” which is something that excites Leifman very much about the partnership with Bluelaces. The camp itself was for children aged ten to thirteen with a variety of developmental disabilities, but CO/LAB’s actors had a chance to be counselors. “We want them to take on more leadership roles and have more of a voice in everything from ‘What kind of show should we put on?’ to ‘How do you want to identify? Are you someone with a developmental difference or disability or neither?’”

However, despite these successes and new goals, sustainability for any theatre or performance based collective has grown increasingly more difficult in the past year. Smaller theatres in general have seen a decline in audience and revenue. yoshi kuroi, the new Managing Director of the New York Neo-Futurists summed it up best when they said, “Our audience base is almost entirely liberal, they all feel like their money has more important fights to fight.” Though the Neo-Futurists are not a company that creates theatre for people with autism, they are an ensemble based company with a unique and specific set of values. Part of their mission states, “We embrace those unreached or unmoved by conventional theatre—inspiring them to thought, feeling, and action.” This is exactly what companies working for/with those with disabilities strive to do.

Performers and children dance around a maypole
Seesaw Theatre is able to utilize a huge variety of artists to design and perform in our shows (as seen here in our spring 2017 mainstage, Under the Big Top) on a volunteer basis. This is simply not the case for professional companies, who must pay for space, desingers, and performers. Photo by Justin Barbin.  

There is no perfect strategic plan for the entirety of the American inclusive theatre industry. There is only time.

In the modern age, the way we choose to consume the arts is also changing. Leslie Marcus has served as the Managing Director for Playwrights Horizons for nearly twenty-five years. When I spoke to her in mid-August, the last of my series of interviews, I understood the value of years given to one company and field. She has seen the way the economy and changing technological climate affect audiences. She says of the 2008 financial crisis in the United States, “I remember talking to people who thought the unemployment rate would never drop below 10 percent again.” And so, it fell on her to lead the mid-sized arts organization through that time. Though not-for profits in general lost about 25 percent of their typical annual revenue in the crisis, Marcus lead the company deftly through that time and minimized their losses. More recently, she faces a different conundrum. Marcus says, “Today, the informed theatregoer never has to pay full price for a ticket.” Where there used to be two or three different price points of tickets for one show, now there are about fifteen. New companies, like the TodayTix App, have forced ticket prices down. However, Marcus didn’t cite this change as a bad thing, merely as a new aspect of her job to juggle. This is perhaps why she’s kept at it for so many years. Just before we parted ways, Marcus told me, “You know, that’s why I’m still enthusiastically here after twenty-four years. Because no two years are exactly the same.”

Despite the fact that, “no two years are exactly the same,” I walked out of the Playwrights Horizon’s administrative offices that day with a new understanding of time. There is no perfect strategic plan for the entirety of the American inclusive theatre industry. There is only time. The companies that I talked to are as young as the field of inclusive theatre is in America. They are passionate about making theatre with and available to people with developmental differences. From the vantage point of someone exploring this field, it is frustrating to watch companies doing such important work struggle to pay the bills, and grow so slowly, but the field is doing just that: growing. Despite the obvious challenges of the field, a sense of hope was a constant throughout my interviews. Every interview concluded with the person encouraging me to call or email with more questions. Many people followed up with emails connecting me to other people that they thought I should talk to. That hope isn’t numbers. It isn’t a strategic plan or development goals, but it was a reminder of why I want to remain in this field, why I want to continue to figure out the intricacies of how inclusive companies can and should be run, and why I think it is so important to continue doing this work now and well into the future.

Bookmark this page

Log in to add a bookmark

Interested in following this conversation in real time? Receive email alerting you to new threads and the continuation of current threads.



Add Comment

The article is just the start of the conversation—we want to know what you think about this subject, too! HowlRound is a space for knowledge-sharing, and we welcome spirited, thoughtful, and on-topic dialogue. Find our full comments policy here

Newest First

It would be interesting to see how Deaf West Theatre finds sustainability in their model, as they seem to have struck some "mainstream" success, such as with their revival of Spring Awakening which reached Broadway a few years ago. Certainly that single production is atypical, but they run productions like it throughout the year in other venues, mostly in Southern California.

I've been running a nonprofit theatre company for underserved youth (foster care, homeless, juvenile detention...) in Portland, Oregon for three years. I agree that the main characteristics you need to be sustainable are to want to improve and to stick with it. I've always made it a priority to pay the instructors a good rate for each class and that is the main thing that has made Rogue Pack sustainable. I also agree that we need to give audiences compelling content. We give at-risk youth a forum to tell their stories. In turn audiences learn about these "street kids" they pass every day who are runaways, throw- aways, trafficked, abused and neglected. The youth feel empowered when they get their voices heard.We'd like to get to another level. What we don't have money for at the moment is a leadership team where we can pay 2-3 admins to run things. This and keeping a strong active board in tact have been our greatest challenges. But we're going to stick with it.Thank you for your wonderful article. Please get in touch if you'd like to talk more.