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Community Supported Theatre vs Don't Support Theatre

Thursday, October 15, 2009 Leave a Comment

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!

To quote:
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!


  • Parabasis said:  


    You and I actually see more eye to eye than you might think! I think if you're the kind of company that wants to have a sustained and ongoing relationship with an audience beyond taking their money in exchange for a show than talking about "support" makes a lot of sense. As long as it comes in the context of the kind of approach/framework you and Stancato are articulating. Something is clearly in the water on this one, you can read Chris Ashworth's similar thoughts here: http://chrisashworth.org/blog/2009/10/14/toward-a-new-funding-model-for-theater/

    Anyway... what I'm saying is that that does, indeed, make sense as an approach if you're orienting your theatre company around community in a profound way.

    But no company other than yours that I get e-mails from asking me to "support" their work is actually doing that. None of them are making much effort at community beyond a community of people who pay money to see their shows. And in that context, "Support" is just bullshit. It's bad marketing language. Their marketing materials (aka the public face of their company) isn't offering my anything in exchange. THey're asking for my "support" simply because art and theatre are worth supporting.

    That's not good enough. I think you and I both agree on that. As artists we need to be giving to our audiences as opposed to feeling entitled to them giving to us.

    I should also note that some of this, I think, comes from self-loathing aka "I'm worried my work isn't good or even if I think it's good you won't like it so I'm not going to try to express to you why i'ts actually worth it for you to see it."

  • Tony Adams said:  

    I get the sense that Isaac is talking about the notion that it should be supported simply because it is a show.

    As opposed to earning the support of your audience, which is what I get you're going for.

    I don't see them as mutually exclusive.

    "The theatre company must engage in open dialogue with the audience" is not the same as "I'm here so you support me."

    What's missing in the calls that Issac's talking about (correct me if I'm wrong) is any reason for support or attempt at dialogue.

    I think to some extent the companies calling for support the way Isaac is describing would never be able to build a community like your describing--until they do stop asking for support of the bullshit variety, and start earning support of the CSA variety.

  • JRS said:  

    Great post, Gus (says the self-absorbed artistic director featured

    I am so glad that Flux may be adopting/adapting Stolen Chair's CST model and wanted to let you know that a nice chunk of the grant we received must be earmarked for replicability, so you can trust that by August we will have all sorts of DVDs, blueprints, and archives to empower other cultural organizations to take the same plunge.

    I just want to add, in response to item #3, that the audience doesn't
    necessarily need to be engaged as artists if that's not the reason they want to orbit and invest in a theatre company. We are trying to structure the CST so our audience will have some opportunity to do that, but also to be critics and scholars, to be playful and (arts-and-)crafty. Regardless, it all needs to feed the organization, feed the work, and feed the community.

    Isaac raises some interesting points. At the New Economy Smackdown last spring, I got booed (see this blog post) for suggesting that theatre was perhaps not at its most competitive when in dresses itself up like a charity. Organizations which directly improve the quality of life of large numbers of individuals will always have stronger statements of need than our theatre productions. Your $4000 could go to build a well to provide clean water to supply 200 people for 20 years, or it could rent 1 week at the Connelly Theatre. Me thinks theatre loses in this comparison.

    I don't want to be a charity; I want to be a valued asset (to a country, to a city, to a local community). Odds are our country isn't going to step up any time soon and, though Stolen Chair receives NYSCA funding, the organization's challenges getting the money from Albany to artist are well-documented. And while some companies can build their local communities through their productions, Stolen Chair's lengthy development process makes these events too infrequent to really add much to our balance sheet. So, at the end of the day, it had to be about process for us, about a farm instead of a grocery store (or a soup kitchen, to carry the metaphor further).

    I'm psyched all of these discussions are happening and look forward to seeing how each company discovers its own unique value and how best to build an intentional community around it.

    (And Gus is right: if you want to join up as charter member of CST Season 1 or get a highly discounted booster membership in exchange for help recruiting other members, please email cst[at]stolenchair.org.)

  • August Schulenburg said:  

    @Parabasis - I completely agree - and thanks for passing on the Ashworth link - fascinating the conversations were happening in parallel places

    @JRS - That's great the grant is designed to be replicable - I very much look forward to seeing what works

  • Mike Tsouris said:  

    As an artist, i don't think audience feedback needs to be taken too seriously.

    No truly great artist we all admire ever had a suggestion box.

    I believe change needs to come from within an artistic endeavor. The general public at large doesn't know what they want. People asked for the McRib to come back to McDonalds.

    As an artist, you never want to be putting out a McRib, even if 100% of the audience asks for it. After all, that's what separates artists from McDonalds.

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