What is economically responsible for a company at the very beginning of its emergence into a public sphere? How can we participate in the work for self-sustainability of the industry in the way that the League of Independent Theatres suggests? Do we even want to be an “industry”? What can a VERY low budget collective, company, ensemble, or those working as “poor theater,” do to assist self-sustainability-building in the field as a whole? Is our input even wanted or are we outside the relevant equations?
First off, I should be clear about what I mean by VERY low budget. Like so much of the advocacy and political movement in this country, there is a cut-off here below “middle class” in terms of energies directed towards support and this suggestion; companies with budgets lower than $10,000/year (regardless of how much work is created and the demonstrated permanence of the company) are “off the grid” and so perhaps considered irrelevant, clutching their Grotowski in a garret somewhere (read Towards a Poor Theater here), but I would like to consider these companies solely in this post, solely self-producing artist-run organizations with budgets below $10,000/year, (statistics on these organizations are hard to come by as most do not belong to the Theatre Communications Group) and, according to NYITF, $18,000 is the average SINGLE PRODUCTION budget for an Off-Off Broadway production, AND this survey states explicitly that these budgets are higher if in-kind support is included. Counter to this statistic, I know that the last four theater projects I’ve seen have been produced on less than $5,000 and that my own last production was produced on an absurdly low number that would be embarrassing (and perhaps detrimental to the grant proposals I have in) to post.
In any case, in my mind, the economic, environmental (etc) sustainability of budgets lower than this average depends on what the budgets are put towards. About a year ago, David Cote in his Fixing New York Theater article urged Off-Off-Broadway and Independent theater, as an industry, to unionize, and form an applicable AEA-esque organization, to ensure payment of artists, which has always been a common talking point in the theater industry. The facts remain, more than 52% of individuals working OOB do not belong to any unions, guilds or associations. (My statistics are coming primarily from the OOB Demographics study and OOB Budget Study made in January 2010, and April 2008, respectively, by the New York Innovative Theater Foundation.)
Cote’s suggestion sparks (as union talk often does) what I think is an interesting perceptual debate facing independent theaters/companies; it asks us to make a choice between two perceptions of what low-budget theater is in terms of economic “class” and forms two sides of another argument about amateur/professional art-making. Although of course this debate moves beyond labor, I’d like to begin with this angle.
Most reductively stated, this debate is between identification/perception as and of “community theater” as such, vs. “the theater industry.” If one is to consider uber-low-budget theater part of the industry, unionization would reinforce this type of theater’s economically sustainable choices about priorities, sending the majority of any small budget towards stipends for the collaborators involved in the project. This focus on paying people legitimizes the work of theater artists in a larger economy and funnels them into the freelancer tax system, etc. It would be silly though to think that these stipends could ever support a performer or designer in terms of living wage, however, so these would still be token stipends that subsidize part-time work during tech week, and that sort of thing.
On the other hand, if one is to consider low-low-budget theater “community theater” than it is the production itself which should receive more of the budget, as the quality of experience for the participants in the community exercise is the primary consideration. In community theater, all resources go towards the production itself, and these resources are often directly supported by local businesses in addition to customs such as costuming from the wardrobes of the actors. Community theater is not about professional artists, it is about the act of performing as a social and political tool and the role of the production itself.
I am wondering at this juncture if it is possible, and if it is sustainable, to develop both the professional industry aspects and the community-based social structure of theater performance, and if straddling these two spheres might actually help survival on a low-low-budget? I also feel that this is the way for a very low budget company to participate in making theater a more sustainable and self-sustaining part of contemporary culture. My feeling about this are that individual donations, foundation grants, and box-office income should go to pay project participants, and that the other expenses of production can be gathered in a community-theater way. For example, production materials can be salvaged and recycled from Broadway productions (check out the sidewalks when they close) and Materials for the Arts, as well as donated by community sponsors. This community support keeps us with one foot firmly planted in our communities, and additionally can expand an audience outside of the knot of traditional theatre-goers. (An additional question about what is meant by “self-sustainability” if it is placed opposite to community support and engagement, could be raised here). Additionally, I feel that more attention could be paid to alternative production strategies, co-production, FEAST-type events, etc (a whole other post, yet to come) in addition to projects which do not fit into the economic framework of the industry, and often tend to be more politically engaged than their traditionally-budgeted counterparts. (watch the latest episode of MADE HERE about activism for examples of some of these low-low budget community activism projects)
What I also wonder, is if, for their part, an advocacy group such as the League of Independent Theatres could actually consider low-budget companies and advocate for projects as a whole, not necessarily for the artists as individuals (as they are, at this level, the creators of the project in the same way that a painter is the creator of the painting) so that fair treatment is ensured for poor companies that operate outside of the economically-minded industry, in terms of space, foundation consideration, and press?
It also seems important for those deciding upon residency recipients, foundation grants, and other types of support, to consider the range of emphases that emerging companies may have; while some self-producing companies do not begin projects until they have amassed their $18,000, many are capable of beginning and creating a full project on almost any budget as long as the actors, designers, etc get their stipends, and especially if the project is something other than a traditional play. In terms of aesthetic considerations, I feel strongly that there is no reason that money should equal quality: financial stability does not always indicate sustainability, in many cases, as in evolution overall, adaptability and community engagement is most relevant.