I’m starting my theater company, damn it.

02.16.11 | 12 Comments

CATEGORIES new plays, producers, rabble rousing, theatrical ecosystem

As someone in the process of starting my own theater company, I was predisposed to take issue with Rebecca Novick’s post. It ended up upsetting me less than I predicted, but I maintain what I predicted my position would be: I’m starting my theater company, damn it.

Not that I have a choice. Directors, designers, and other staff are already on board; we’ve booked the space; things are in motion that we cannot stop. I certainly wouldn’t pause those things based on advice from a blog post. But even if none of that were the case, my resolve to do this is not affected; if anything, it’s been made stronger.

This post is a bit overdue, actually; I told myself (and David Loehr) that I would be blogging on here about the process of starting a theater company from the beginning. It turns out that a) I was too busy starting the theater company to write about starting it, and b) producing a play (or two in rep, as is the case with us) isn’t THAT much different when you’re a brand-new Off-Off Broadway company than it is for an existing Off-Off Broadway company. Sure, we have to worry about things like designing websites and getting EIN’s and developing an audience base from “scratch.” But the website is a WordPress theme, the EIN is a brief phone call, and what theater company–especially OOBies like us–isn’t STILL trying to further develop their audience base?

All of which is to say: you haven’t been missing much. If you’ve ever been involved with the process of producing a play on a shoestring budget, then you have a rough idea of what I’ve been up to. So I won’t bore you with that. What I will talk about is why we started the theater company in the first place.

Rebecca says:

“So many beginning artists find that the only way to get their work into the world is to start a theater company, and almost as many mid-career artists continue to run their own companies because there’s no other way to have the artistic freedom they want.  But in many if not most cases, these companies struggle financially, don’t pay living wages to artists or the founders, and divert energy from the true project of making the most extraordinary art you can.”

Getting your work into the world, having artistic freedom…yes, these are the reasons we started this theater company. But as far as struggling financially, or not paying living wages to the artists…how is that different from most theater companies? Yes, perhaps this feeds right into the “there are too many theater companies” argument, but the theater companies that aren’t paying artists a living wage now are certainly not going to start doing so just because I don’t start my own company. If anything, I’m happy to be able to put worthy artists to work. Sure, I can’t pay them as much as they’re worth (yet), but that hardly differentiates me from the vast majority of theater companies.

As for “diverting energy” from the process of making art: that’s true. I haven’t been writing much the past few months. But you know what else diverts energy from making art? Writing endless cover letters explaining why you want/need this fellowship or this production or this writers’ group, tailored to each organization, with mentions of their mission statement and the plays of theirs that you loved and why you’re a good fit and etc. And the majority–the vast majority, in fact–of those cover letters will come to naught. Even if you’re brilliant.

But the energy I’m devoting to my own theater company has immediate results. I’m not waiting for someone to fall in love with my plays–or for the people who ARE in love with my plays to do them. I’m taking my career into my own hands, not praying that THIS is the application to the Public’s Emerging Writers Group that will really knock their socks off. And, therefore, the work gets me jazzed and happy, rather than feeling like a chore or an exercise in forced optimism.

Rebecca goes on:

“If you’re a theater artist thinking of starting a company, or taking your project down the 501 (c) (3) path then I urge you to stop and consider alternatives.  Ask yourself whether this is primarily a way to meet your own artistic or career needs. If so, then give yourself a time period in which you will devote at least at much energy to advancing your career in other ways as you were going to spend reading that Nolo Press book on how to incorporate.  Make meetings with larger theaters to see if you can join forces, try to see if you can connect with someone else with a space, an audience, some kind of demand that you can supply.  Think hard about whether running an organization will give you more or less time to pursue your art.”

Yes, this IS a way to meet our own artistic and career needs, and we really think it’s the best way right now. Meeting with larger theaters, trying to connect with people with spaces and audiences–in other words, trying to convince the gatekeepers of Power/Resources that it’s worth it to share those things with you–these are all activities that may or may not come to fruition (and, who needs to read a book on how to incorporate when there’s Fractured Atlas?). But the chances of getting our plays produced, if we produce them ourselves, are 100%.

A one hundred percent chance of production. That’s worth the time and energy, to me. Plus, I like it. As much as it stresses me out, I like planning fundraisers. I like casting. I like marketing. I like that this whole thing is one big excuse for me to reach out to artists whose work I love and say, “I love you, let’s join forces.” Not everyone likes it as much as I do. That’s fine. They maybe shouldn’t start theater companies. I like it, so I’m gonna.

“Think about whether running an organization will give you more or less time to pursue your art.” Less, certainly. But what is the point of creating art that stays on my hard drive?

I’d rather beg someone to come to my play than beg someone to DO my play. I’d rather spend my time making a production happen on my own terms than pray that someone else will do so. This has nothing to do with my confidence in the quality of my work. My plays are awesome–ask anyone who’s seen them. And I feel certain that, if I spent as much time applying to things as I spend on my theater company, something WOULD come of it–it’s happened before, after all–and I know the same is true of my partner.

But here’s the thing… I will NEVER spend as much time applying to things as I’m spending on Purple Rep. The time I spend on Purple Rep has immediate results, it’s gratifying, it’s need-based (as in, I NEED to write this marketing blurb today or the postcards won’t be done in time for our fundraiser), so I actually put in the hours. When I have all the time in the world to apply to things, I don’t put in the hours. This is probably a character flaw, but better to acknowledge it and work around it than promise to change and then guilt trip myself for not doing so.

I happen to agree with a lot of Rebecca’s post. For instance, her advice for established companies:

“[M]ake sure that you’re offering real artistic opportunities to your junior artistic staff and take a hard look at your hiring practices to see if you’re succeeding at bringing in the next generation of artists.” — Amen, a thousand times amen.

And for funders:

“Start funding projects with fiscal sponsors and try your best to get money directly in the hands of artists.  Stop advising every arts organization to meet some cookie-cutter set of best practices before they have enough “organizational capacity” to receive funding.  And please stop demanding that every organization have a plan to exist in perpetuity.”

Again, amen.

But as for the notion that I still need to keep going through established channels because we as a sector are overbuilt…no, I don’t accept that. Because as Rebecca herself points out, we are NOT overbuilt when it comes to artists. Starting my own theater company gives voice to artists, period. Maybe we won’t last. That’s OK  with us. In the meantime, our work will go up, it will be seen, it will stop sitting on our hard drives. And then if the time comes to disband Purple Rep, we’ll have a formidable production history to our names, rather than a series of excellently written cover letters that came to naught.


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  • Call me crazy, but it sounds like you agree with Rebecca even more than you thought. You went through the steps, you saw what you could do that wasn’t being done, and you’ve put together a company of people to do it. You’re not putting up a production of Talk Radio two weeks after another Talk Radio closed down the block…

    • Of course, this is very similar to how and why we started Riverrun Theatre out here in the wilds of Kentuckiana…

  • Dominic D’Andrea

    You know what you should do, totally reach out to MTC and tell them that you guys needs space. I’m sure they’ll hand it right over free of charge! 🙂

    In the mean time: looking forward to purple rep!

  • Rebecca Novick

    Good on you Mariah! Sounds like you’re thinking it all through and getting the results you want. I think the return is very great at the beginning and for me the questions came later, as did the pressure from funders to turn ourselves into something else. But I’m all for the incredibly empowering process of getting your own work on its feet, with the collaborators you choose. I’m looking forward to seeing you in action!

  • Brandon Moore

    At some point during the supply/demand discussion, we started joking about “issuing permits to create art.” I’d say you’ve earned one with this post.

  • If you’re about making an end-run around gatekeepers and bringing out art that wouldn’t find it’s niche (or would be nearly strangled to death by the gatekeepers first), then I celebrate you. If you end up adding more of the same kind of art to a crowded field, for the same audiences, I can’t get that excited.

    I believe you’re trying to do the former, though, so I’m predisposed in this case to celebration.

    • I’m pretty sure it’s the former, but then, I’m biased. Happy to have you celebrate with me. 🙂

  • Lisa Adler

    You go girl! I think younger artists are now clued in that creating an institution is not the goal. Get your work up, get it seen and get noticed. As soon as others will hire you to do what you want to do, abandon that particular non-profit theatre ship and move on. Your own company is a means to an end. And then once everyone wants you, keep that 501c3 in your back pocket for those special projects that no one else will let you do. Just don’t get caught up in the building-an-institution model – it will eat you alive and consume your artistic impulses.

  • Great post, I am in the same process, my company just opened its first show, and you gave voice to my feelings perfectly.  Brava!

  • Phá

    Hello! I’m Marina, I’m from Spain and I’m 19, and I’m looking for a theatre company here in London. I did two years of acting in Barcelona, and I enjoyed that time very much, and now I’m living here, I want to continue with drama. What do you think?? Regards!