Community Supported Theatre vs Don't Support Theatre
I am thrilled to congratulate Stolen Chair Theatre Company on their winning The Field's ERPA Award, which includes a $20,000 grant! Beyond the simple joy of seeing an Indie company snare such a prestigious (an economically useful) award, I'm excited because I love this idea and have been advocating for a Fluxy version of this within the Ensemble.
The central idea: framing the artist/audience relationship in the context of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). Go to Stolen Chair's blog to read the details, but the essence is:
Like the CSA model, Stolen Chair hopes to build a membership community, a "CST", which would provide ‘seed’ money for the company’s development process and then reap a year’s worth of theatrical harvests.I talked a little about this model, and how it might work for Flux, in the post The Metabolism of Theatre. On the surface, this idea could feel like a reframed subscriber relationship for an age that hates subscribing. For the change to be more substantive, several conceptual and practical things need to happen:
1. The theatre company must provide a robust and regular harvest of work: it's not enough to ask an audience to seed 1 production a year - that's like the subscriber system without shows to subscribe to! The key is to open up the development process to the audience. Stolen Chair outlines a monthly crop, and as mentioned here, Flux could do so as well with our Have Anothers and Food:Souls.
2. The theatre company must engage in open dialogue with the audience: if a farmer keeps bringing arugula and you hate arugula, you're not going to particularly enjoy supporting a CSA. The same obviously applies with theatre. Without moving into a test screening model, the opened development process must be a two-way conversation, and the company must be willing to seriously consider the feedback received. Even when if you don't take the suggestions, you need to explain aesthetic choices and take responsibility if they don't quite work.
Flux is experimenting with that online, though thus far our open threads have been largely positive (which is appreciated). Hopefully we will gradually develop a critical culture where our audience feels empowered to speak candidly about what's not working, and we'll have the courage to consider changing.
3. The theatre company must empower their audience as artists: Part of the joy of CSA is relearning our appreciation of cooking the best locally grown sustainable foods. Someone who picks up a bunch of locally grown goodies and doesn't know how to cook them is not going to benefit as much as someone empowered to artistically engage with the fruits of CSA. This metaphor extends absolutely to Community Supported Theatre (CST). The theatre company must find ways to empower their community to engage creatively with the work on stage. Flux is doing this with our ForePlays, but we can do a much better job of creatively empowering our audiences (a good model was Electric Pear's solicitation of artifact videos for Artifacts of Consequence).
4. The audience must think of themselves as partners in the enterprise: The relationship needs to go beyond simply writing the checks and showing up at the theatre, though it must be said loudly and clearly that properly watching a play is not a passive experience. For all the exciting conceptual stuff above, the simple act of an audience showing up should never be dismissed. However, in the CST model, the audience needs to take those next step and communicate their feelings about the work, engage creatively with it, and take ownership of the sustainability of the company. This doesn't mean just writing checks: it can mean actively bringing new members to the CST, advocating for grant support, volunteering, and more.
Stolen Chair is reaching out for charter members of their CST - if you've seen their work and believe it worthy of this innovative kind of support, please, go to their website and learn how to become a member. In the meantime, I look forward to learning from their example, and seeing if and how this model can be adapted to Flux.
BUT WAIT!!! Don't get all warm and cuddly yet from this audience-empowering, cross-organizational love fest post just yet. Because our friend Isaac Butler at Parabasis has a post saying Don't Support Theatre!
There are plenty of ways that people can be asked to show their support-- Donating, telling friends about the show, volunteering, providing you with honest feedback. But what have we come to that we discuss seeing the show itself as a form of support? Isn't the show for the audience, and not the other way around? I see this "support us" language all the time. It drives me up a wall.These different ideas posted only a day apart from each other represent, in miniature, one of the existential crises facing theatre today. If you believe that the Marketing and Development departments of a theatre have essentially separate functions, than you might agree with Isaac that Marketing language should be a "sell", not an "ask". If you see M and D as more intimately intertwined (as I do) you might agree that supporting a theatre actually empowers an audience to a greater sense of ownership, and requires from the theatre a higher level of responsibility to that audience. When practiced properly, that ideals behind that language of support are actually the reverse of the entitlement Isaac describes. (Please note: Isaac's post was not in response to the CST idea, and I juxtapose the two posts with no intention of making them adversaries; rather, I'm hoping some sparks of illumination come from banging them together.)
As Adam at Mission Paradox wrote, there are a lot of similarities between churches and theatres, and I don't think most of us want churches to "sell" us anything. Instead, churches ask us to participate in a communal process of practicing faith.
So I think that you should support theatre, but for that support, you should expect a lot more in return. You should expect to be a partner in a communal process of practicing story.
What do you think? Post away!