In the spring of 2011 Grantmakers in the Arts published the now famous Rebecca Novick article “Please don’t start a theatre company.” Two years before the article, in Chicago, there was a statistic (that I will paraphrase terribly) that there were something like 200 small to mid-size theatre companies in the city, up from something like 50 in a 10-year period.
So in 2008 and the years following grant funding for startup theaters dwindled, and when we heard talk of theaters shutting their doors you had to remember that it was in the context of a few very small companies out of more than a hundred. Competition remained very stiff for very small pieces of pie, and by 2011 people like Rebecca urged us artists to think, “what could we build instead?” and “does the administrative model really fit the mission (of the artist).” Some evaluated. Some changed. Some gave up and left. But one thing is still very much the same: In the original “non-profit theatre model” companies, started 30-40 years ago, positions of power are largely held by people who got into them 20-30 years ago. The word on the street is that someone has to die for a younger (think “under 35 years old”) person to get into a real, artistic, sustainable position in a large theatre company. The large majority of up-coming artists (and consider that each university that has a theatre major will graduate 10-20 design-arts based students EVERY YEAR) are still banging at the door with our tin cups.
I, of course, fall into this cup banging category, having sat outside the doors of theaters in both Chicago and Boston waiting for someone to drop me some coins. A mid-career artist, I’m starting to want things like a home that I own, children, and (very soon) a new car to replace the one I’ve had for the last 12 years. But there’s no where for me to go. I’m to old for unpaid internships, have too many adult expenses for the wildly unpredictable freelance career, and too broke already to go after an advanced degree. Where else is a theatre artist to turn? Lately I’ve started to think a lot about what Rebecca calls the “rock-band model” of theatre production, which relies on self-promotion, grassroots fundraising, and banding together loosely to get a job done, without creating all the structure of a non-profit theatre. I’m attracted to this model and excited to try it out. There’s just one big problem: TIME.
Between the unrelated-to-theatre 9-5 day job that I hold down in order to pay my rent and put gas in my car, the part time production management I do because (even though they don’t pay me) it’s the only production management opening in town, and the freelance prop design I do because that’s the real art that I enjoy, there is no time to research other “rock band model” companies, let alone go visit them. There is no time to write my own material or visit venues or make connections. It’s enough trouble to work all day, work all night, feed the cat, and stumble into bed, only to get up and do it all again the next day.
Everyone I know is in the same boat. The boat is sinking.