What You’ve Never Had

08.24.11 | 11 Comments

CATEGORIES advocacy, audiences, collaboration, community, conversation starter, funding and support, ideas, non-profit theatre, producers, rabble rousing, supply / demand, talk about what's good, the future, the process, theatrical ecosystem

The non-profit model is living on borrowed time. The current model is dying. Even still, I think we spend more time trying to figure out how to fund a show than actually making the show. Read: The way we make money to make art is not sustainable.

Insanity: Doing the same thing again and again expecting different results. Non-profit arts orgs seem to be doing this. Ask for money, produce a show, make no money, gain no audience and ask for money again – all the while, expecting to exist and support its artist’s livelihoods.

The Dream: to make a living as an ARTIST.

Creative fundraising for non-profs is important, no doubt about it. But at some point, if you’re creativity only reaches the boundaries of a bubble that never pops – you have to question the effectiveness of the method. You can call pink – brown if you want but the color will still be pink. New ways of doing the same damn thing – I’m sorry – but that is no paradigm shift.

Remember, the goal is to sustain our lives by making ART. As such, it follows we must be equally invested in the long-term sustainability of our organizations. The things we do in order to sustain our organizations, no matter how much we spin it, is not making art. Grant writing is not making theatre – it’s grant writing. Selling beer in the lobby, also, not making theatre.

But it seems in order for the theatre organization to be sustainable it becomes true that our ability to write grants and get sponsors and throw parties MUST be more sustainable. This is backwards.

Look at Apple. Apple doesn’t sell beer behind the Genius Bar to offset costs because their product isn’t cutting it. No, they just make great, user-friendly electronics. Apple folks don’t make money writing grants, they make money selling and servicing great stuff to people who want it. That’s all they do. Great product and great demand.

I know I’ve mixed the profit/non-profit models – but that doesn’t change the fact that artists have to do more to make less. And it doesn’t mean non-profs shouldn’t work like for profit businesses.

But the goal remains the same (make a living making art). And so does the obstacle. We still need money.

In order get what you’ve never had you have to try something different.

If you’re going to do something to offset the costs of making theatre, it makes sense that activity shouldn’t include doing more work. All your work should be focused on making art – nothing else.

But that’s impossible. Even so, there is a difference between getting grants just to stay afloat and getting grants to pay artists a fair living wage or being able to drop the price of tickets for a few nights or weeks so more people can afford to see your work. And let’s face it – the long-term sustainability of an arts organization depends on good people being paid to make good work and people filling the seats. Great product and great demand.

So what’s the solution? I’ll get to that – but for now – just think about how much you do that isn’t making art so that you can make art.






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Derek Kolluri

Derek Kolluri is the Creator of Sustainable Theatre Project and Co-Founder of Theatre en Bloc. His goal is simple: create a business model and set of best practices for the theatre to promote and retain high quality artistry, triple-bottom-line sustainability and a new, valid jobs sector in the arts.

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  • I’ve been a lurker on the #2amt hashtag and a reader of these blogs for a while. This post finally made me register on the site and respond with a comment. So first, thanks for a provocative post.

    However, I largely reject your premise. The nonprofit model is not dying. There are simply no objective measures with which to make the case that it is. Nonprofits, particularly small nonprofits, always struggle to survive (and of course, in this economic environment all small businesses are having a tough time of it). But rather than wilting away, as you seem to suggest is the state of the nonprofit theater, there has been a recent unprecedented proliferation of Arts (and particularly theater) nonprofits. Nonprofit arts organizations account for an increasing, not decreasing, slice of the US economy. Far from dying, we are, frankly, in a second spring of nonprofit arts in the United States.

    Your example of the contemporary Apple, Inc. is too easy by half. While Apple is a successful company, only two decades ago it was declared dead in the press. Improvements in R&D, product line focus and marketing led to Apple’s lead in market capitalization and restoration to iconic corporate status. As long as we’re looking at electronics companies, we would do well in the nonprofit theater to also look at other successes like Nintendo, which manufactured scarcity during its initial rollout of the Wii, as well as failures like Palm, which squandered its huge user base on products like the Treo 750 when the world was moving to iPhones.

    But even as we look to other industries as guides for our own direction as an industry, we must recognize that the production of theater is unique. If we were selling widgets, we would simply make the best widget and sell it at the price the market would bear. But we can make the best production of Heiner Muller’s “Quartet” and still not be able to fund the production without underwriting [Conversely, we can do a shoddy production of “Guys and Dolls” and sell it to the rafters at $150 a ticket.] Theater is not widgets, and if it takes selling beer in the lobby to bring a difficult new work or a neglected and challenging classic to the stage, it’s probably worth sacrificing our purity, taking some time away from “making art – nothing else.” It’s certainly worth mine.

    All of this is not to say that we shouldn’t try new things, and throw out what’s dysfunctional or broken about current practices. I look forward to your solution, and hope that it represents a truly new way forward. But advocating a paradigm shift for its own sake seems to me to be a waste of our collective time.

    • Agreed.  Trying to compare what we do to what Apple does misses the fact that theatre is made up of oranges of all different shapes and sizes.  

      Part of the reason Apple is successful right now is because it sells products at a fair market cost that consumers will use on not just a regular basis but a continuous basis.  It sells an easily grasped aesthetic that is a known quantity, is of a known quality and is consistent from location to location.  Its outposts and products are all of a piece–an iPad bought in a store in Glendale will be identical to an iPad bought at an identical store in Paramus.  (We won’t go into how well–or not–it pays the workers who build these products, we’ll leave that to Mike Daisey.  Suffice to say, I’d rather toil in the underpaid world of non-profit theatre.)We don’t make easily reproduced, assembly line widgets.  What we do create will vary from theatre company to theatre company, aesthetic to aesthetic.  While we may share audiences among multiple theatres within a given community, we create our own scarcity with every production, since X theatre is the only place you’ll see Y play.  At that, each of our productions is a new experience, incomparable with the previous productions beyond general parameters.  This is one reason why it’s hard to get regular theatre patrons to pay full price for tickets let alone attract new patrons.  And we all know that, on average, ticket sales only make up about 40% of a theatre’s annual budget.Are there parts of the non-profit process that could be improved or streamlined?  Sure.  But I don’t think we need to throw the baby out with the bathwater.  In many communities, especially smaller, more economically depressed towns, it’s not possible to do this kind of work without grants.  I speak from such a community, a rural county in southern Indiana with some light industry and a population of about 25,000.  Grants led to sponsors taking a chance on us–they were like a seal of approval, much like an Apple logo on a tablet.  And because these are usually matching grants, it gives potential sponsors even more incentive, knowing their support will be effectively doubled.  That local support looks good to other granting organizations, and the cycle grinds on.As for “making art–nothing else,” I’d much rather be aware of and have a hand in other parts of the making of that art.  I’m a playwright who produces, and having that production awareness informs how I write and design my own scripts.  It doesn’t hinder my imagination; on the contrary, it challenges my imagination.  I’m not going to waste my time on a photo-realistic drama calling for a cast of 70, but it didn’t stop me from writing a fantasia set in the classical underworld with 20+ speaking roles.  Finding sponsors and supporters locally is something I consider part of the making of my art; I want to know what kinds of stories our community would like to hear, whether scripts I write, scripts we discover or even scripts we commission.  That care and inclusion in the process leads to more support, ideally.  And if serving our patrons means inviting our local winery to set up a cash bar in the lobby–which we do from time to time–then so be it.  The patrons like it, the sponsors like it, and the only work we have to do is in letting them into our space.

      I look forward to seeing where this conversation goes…

  • Derek Kolluri

    Thanks for the comments. 

    The recent upswing in non-profit numbers is not a sign that the model is safe or effective. In fact it means more trouble on the horizon. To assume that more non-profs is a good thing is to assume that there are equal numbers of philanthropists and grant foundations to match the growing numbers. That simply isn’t the case. Two years ago I predicted that there would be too many non-profs where I live for the philanthropic funding available. And I was right. A local marketing firm did a research project with the city and determined that in fact – the ratio of non-profits to available philanthropy and grant funding was completely unsustainable. And I live in a community where new work is all the rage. 

    I am not and will never be satisfied with the idea that “killing ourselves to live” is OK. I’m just suggesting we re-appropriate those things we do to yield more beneficial results for our organizations and the communities we serve.

    I agree that there is an art to grant writing and fundraising – or that it is an art of it’s own. But I struggle to see where writing about what you do to get money is theatre. Sure, one could argue (as one often does) that everything is theatre. But, really – I’m writing a blog response – to add to the conversation about theatre – I am not making theatre. 

    That non-profits are struggling to survive is not where I think we should find ourselves satisfied. Sure – that’s what it is for now – but this post is an attempt at looking forward – a chance to engage in discussions about new models. 

    I too think the struggle will always exist – doesn’t mean it has to be the same struggle. Why not position ourselves more more beneficial outcomes and unearth new things to struggle with?

    I’m not sure what others do to make art – but for me and the people surrounding me, making art is a full time job on top of the full time jobs we already have. What I am interested in is making theatre as a full time job. I barely have time to get any culture. I barely interact socially – and I refuse to let that be ok. After all, I was trained at a liberal arts school – taught that understanding theatre has everything to do with having a social life outside the theatre. Knowing people, do stuff, being in relationships etc. – as it stands, just living seems to be a luxury. If that’s the case I think we’re ebbing away from an ability to connect to our audiences – or really, the people for whom and about whom our art is made.

    I understand the point that there are certain measures to take in order to fill our houses. I get that making friends and partnerships in your community is important. I agree whole-heartedly. But the transfer rate from hours and time spent to effective results is too narrow for me. 

    I would argue that it is possible for non-profs in smaller communities to exist without grants – at a point. My contention is not that we shouldn’t get grants – rather what we do with the money has a direct impact on our survivability. And at some point. I think it is possible that an arts organization can exist – in a replicable fashion – without needing to apply for grant money every year – just to stay afloat.

    I’ll share more with you about what I am trying to craft and look forward to doing so.

    Thanks again for your replies – and thanks for the discourse.

  • I am so glad you will be getting to solutions in the near future.  I agree with you, but I think this has been stated a lot these days.  More solutions and less arguing for change might be needed now.  Thanks though for bringing this up once again. 

  • I would go even further than Derek did – I would suggest that the whole notion of theatre as a “consumer” product (I create, you consume) should be killed off. It doesn’t really matter if the form is non-profit or profit; theatre is simply not integrated deeply enough into modern culture to be anything more than a niche product. It was a viable enough consumer product when it had little if any competition, but with the advent of mass media, its days as a major consumer product are probably limited.

    I spent 3.5 weeks in India experiencing their theatrical culture, and in India theatre is far more culturally integrated. To be sure, in the cities there are western-style plays that one pays to see, but the artists creating the work do not in any way see themselves as trying to “make a living” doing their art. India’s most noted playwrights are all people with professional lives and careers outside of theatre; doctors, lawyers, accountants, etc. They see theatre as a means of cultural expression for themselves and their audiences, not as a way to make a living. And in rural India, the idea of paying to see theatre is an outrageous concept. Travelling artists are housed and fed by the people, and that is their “payment.” If you are really, really good, perhaps a few rupees might be tossed to you, but that is out of generosity.

    The true paradigm shift lies in treating our audiences, not as consumers expected to buy our products, but as artistic collaborators who create alongside us the art of theatre. That will embed the form more deeply in the culture and give it a relevance to daily living it does not currently possess.

  • Derek Kolluri

    This last post from poorplayer – YES! And that difference between art as commodity and art as cultural communion, that is, I believe, the net effect of shifting the paradigm of our mode of production. I was taught that theatre isn’t anything more than masturbation until you share it with an audience. 

    The solutions I want to present allow more freedom of artistic expression… Without having to cow-tow to the consumerists, needling for “Sound of Music” again and agin. 

    Mamet speaks of this in his “Theatre” – that broadway is mostly drivel because it’s demographic isn’t the individuals peopling it’s burrows – but Middle America. That theatre has become a commodity and so it’s players and designers and directors. It no longer serves it’s immediacy. 

    My thought on this subject is this: Make something true. The rest is details.

    But we need a mode of production that allows us to create with this freedom.

    Side note:

    I am Indian. And while I understand that theatre is integrated into the culture it should be noted that most everything is culturally integrated. When I was in India everything from greetings to meals were ritualistic and clearly long honored traditions were being enacted. That is that culture. My family ritualistically sacrificed a goat, honoring its life by letting its blood onto the dirt in the courtyard. That was theatre as communion. 

    I think the solutions I will offer will shed some light on how we can work to get back to that place – where theatre can be free to people – not a commodity but a cultural beacon – AND artists can be paid to be artists.

  • Jacob Zimmer

    Which part is the “true” part? 
    I certainly agree that new tactics and strategies are needed (and I’m very aware in these discussions are different, culturally and in nuts and bolts, in Canada than they are in the U.S.)

    But also, the truth I (as a maker/producer) make is the truth of *experience and event*. The play is part of that, but so is the poster, so is the lobby, the concessions sales, the quality of the FOH experience, the availability of social space after. 

    There can be an implication that the “play is thing” – which doesn’t meld with my experience of going to the theatre – it’s all the thing. It’s not all a play or all the same, but it all is part of my work. And thinking about that doesn’t make me less of an artist. 

    (Grant writing and administration are also part of it, but I’m less god at them, so I try to find collaborators who are better than me – this has as much to do with accidents of personality and education.)

    Of course, in North America, theatre has a much different history and therefore cultural position than in Europe, Asia, India etc… We are absurdly young and descended from colonial imports and entertainment for the hard life of settling and working the frontier.

    I am eager to hear thoughts on changing this – I suspect it is something to accept and turn, rather than try to make us older.

    Adding on Apple – they did in fact start selling things that weren’t their original “art” (very good computers that designers and media makers liked, but could financially support)  and started selling things that appeared totally unrelated (music players) – what stayed the same was the quality and excitement of the experience and the event.

    The question of making a living is a hard one. I am ready to accept that I might, part of the time, make theatre events as a community practice. I consult, event plan and work as a facilitator for income. We’ve somehow decided (differently up here than down there) that professionalization is the only route. 

    I want a better, articulated and more fluid relationship between recreational/amateur/pro-am/pro. I suspect that fixing this relationship will help fix the cultural problem – people who *do* theatre (even in their spare time) *go* to theatre. So let’s increase that number. But we’re not all going to make a living doing it.

  • Derek Kolluri

    @google-8e673d011d63bff8629e5547f087d162:disqus  – The true part is all of it, poster, loby etc. … agreed.
    “True” for me means something universal and inherently human. I go to the theatre to enjoy myself and to learn more about being human. I think the art challenges me to be better than I am. That is always more possible when ll production elements are true. 

    However – I think each of us will intend the word “True” based on our own desires and subjectivities. And I think that leads to increased diversity. So I didn’t want to define truth in that way… it should be true to you and hopefully will be true to your audience. 

    I want to state that I don’t think selling beer is bad – nor is grant writing. It’s just not – for me – and I think a lot of others – where the focus should lie. I don’t think administration is bad – in fact the crux of this conversation is about administration.

    Refreshments should be add ons… peripherals – not a marketing strategy.

    Grants money should be sought and used to sustain more than a season. There are costs that are restrictive to the type of artistic freedom we all desire. Or at least I think so. 

    Apple: I’m making one point about Apple… well no I’m not because this guy will say it better. 


    There isn’t a direct correlation – again as Apple makes a replicable product – but the point this guy makes about inspiration is where I find apple’s mode to be adaptable. I’m not suggesting we all become Apple – rather that there is a difference between the way they (very successfully operate) and it’s competitors. 

    I believe that theatre can change people and those people change the world. That is what leads me to believe there is a necessary and better model for our modes of production. 

    I don’t think that was as clear a point as could have been in this initial post.

    I’m going to post a follow up soon. 

  • This article just reads as a rant with no useful alternative suggestions. “I want to be a full-time artist; I don’t want to have to work so hard on non-art related stuff like funding” is not a compelling argument. I am a self-employed graphic designer. I have to spend about 20% of my time each week managing my business, doing things like accounting, taxes, marketing, etc. Unless I plan to hire people to take care of these for me (thus requiring more money), I have to do them myself. That’s part of running a small business.

    Systems can always be improved, but unless you have a more elegant solution, complaining is just a waste of energy.

    • Derek Kolluri

      Sure – Solutions: coming soon.

  • guest

    I have a feeling that when Steve Jobs took back over Apple in 1996 he didn’t sit around and blog/bitch about their market position.  He got to work.