May 20, 2014

Why DO Artists Start Theater Companies? - Agile Theater 1

You might have heard some important folks complaining about the proliferation of theater companies. People like Ex-NEA Chief Rocco Landesman have been quoted as saying, “there is a disconnect that has to be taken seriously — our research shows that attendance has been decreasing while the number of the organizations have been proliferating” and sites like Grantmakers in the Arts have posted articles such as, "Please, Don't Start a Theater Company!”

That quote assumes that artists are ignoring declining audiences and funding and therefore are acting irrationally by starting a company. Luckily, here at Form we tend to think that irrationality is in the eye of the beholder and with that maxim in mind we set off to interview 45 independent theater companies in order to learn why artists start theater companies. Our data set was comprised of companies that were nominated for NY Independent Theatre Awards and the interview subjects were artistic and/or managing directors.

Artists described themselves as having to, “beg people to give them an opportunity to do their art.” They stated that it’s, “difficult to get plays done” and “submissions often wind up in slush puddles.” “Even small companies are bombarded by people who want them to do their plays.”

Once writers and directors get a piece into rehearsal they are faced with problems in the artistic process. The problems range from production specific such as, “hazy rehearsal processes” to more systemic ones that touch on how artists work and how creative teams are assembled. We received many complaints about being put in “an ensemble who has never come together before” and subsequently not being able to assemble a “cohesive show over the course of four weeks.”

Artists form their own theater companies because, “producing is more efficient than applying” and because they feel that “even when it comes to other small companies it’s not worth ceding artistic control in exchange for someone else handling the logistics. Having someone else produce [their] play is a year long process and [they] don’t know how the experience will be. [An artist] can do it in six months themselves.” These artists are, “get[ting] more experience watching a play in production than just writing.” Our main takeaway was that the proliferation of companies is due to fundamental flaws in how new work is selected, produced and how long it takes to get it to stage.

The gulf between artists founding new theater companies and the critics of new theater companies is extremely wide. The critics define success as having a growing donor base and ticket sales. The artists define success as being able to regularly create work and improve their craft. These artists are not forming their companies in hopes of audience adulation and abundant sources of financing like the NEA and some bloggers would have you think. The artists need opportunities to take chances, receive audience feedback and to fail if they’re going to fail. They can take their failures and the knowledge they gained through them and use that to iterate until they create a piece that seems magical and just takes your breath away. In order to work in this way the stakes need to be lower. A failure can’t cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, it can only cost hundreds. It shouldn’t take two years to fail, it should only take two weeks. Unfortunately, low stakes and rapid opportunities aren’t what large institutions are geared to offer artists. Instead new companies proliferate because they enable artists to create work at a speed and ferocity that’s otherwise impossible.

Ultimately it would be meaningful for artists to have an outlet that enables them to rapidly put new work in front of an audience but that does not require the artists to start organizations of their own. More on that in a future post...


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Form was created to bring a scalable, repeatable and sustainable growth framework to the arts. We’ve taken a page from startups and are applying a framework that allows companies to test their business models and scale them in a low-risk and low-cost manner. Together we can build the theater companies of the 21st century.

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