Building a Sustainable Theater: How to Remove Gatekeepers and Take Control of Your Artistic Career

Chapter 12: Subtraction

There is another way to keep the company small and effective in order to speed up getting to scale: subtracting elements so that you don’t need someone to cover those tasks.

This might be best understood by providing some examples.

The Lord Chamberlain’s Men didn’t have a scenic designer because their theater space, The Globe, was a blank stage with an acting area above and traps below. The plays they produced required only a few simple props—a throne, for instance. It wasn’t that scenery wasn’t a possibility—Inigo Jones was creating elaborate scenery and special effects for masques performed in other spaces for the aristocracy—but scenery was avoided at the Globe because it added expense and reduced flexibility (i.e., they could do a different play each day without having to strike a bunch of scenery). Instead, the playwrights helped the spectators imagine the setting through the dialogue.
Mike Wiley travels from place to place in his car and often performs in non-theater spaces. Having a set would reduce his flexibility and thus reduce the number of places who could hire him. In addition, he didn’t need for someone to build a set, he was able to transport a few props and costumes in his personal vehicle, and he avoided paying rent on his own performance space. Because he had the ability to play multiple roles, he had no need for additional actors. Finally, he wrote his own plays that were created with these conditions in mind, and so he didn’t have to pay royalties.
Michelle Hensley, the founder of the Minneapolis theater Ten Thousand Things, wanted to take her performances to marginalized audiences who would normally have little access to theater: people in homeless shelters, domestic abuse shelters, prisons, schools. Everything they needed to perform had to be brought with them to these places, and nobody wanted to be dragging heavy lighting equipment and scenery down corridors and up stairs. So she committed to creating productions that were suitable for being played in an arena configuration (reducing the need for scenery while increasing the number of people who could fit into a room) and she transported only enough scenic elements to suggest the play’s setting. In addition, all of the performances were played using just the overhead lights in the room (thus the name of her fabulous and inspiring book about her theater, All the Lights On). These commitments, in turn, influenced the plays she chose for the repertory.

The Pickle Family Circus in San Francisco, whose groundbreaking work influenced the Cirque de Soleil, is another example of creating a sustainable business model through subtraction. They were a small circus that eliminated the animal acts (expensive, difficult to transport, violated their values) and the 3-ring tradition. Instead, they focused on a single ring, juggling, and three amazing clowns: Larry Pisoni, Bill Irwin, and Geoff Hoyle. Juggling was always an essential part of the Pickle Family Circus, and every show ended with the "Big Juggle," involving almost every cast member.

According to their Facebook page, in the first decades of their existence,

“the Pickles operated with a business model that every show was a benefit, usually for a local community organization. The local sponsor sold advance tickets (getting a portion of the revenue), did publicity and site preparation, and ran a midway. The Circus returned to the same towns year after year, and these events became an important source of funding for the sponsors. This freed the company from much of the advance work.”

In addition, the early company operated on three fundamental principles: all decisions were made collectively by the entire group, all members got the same pay, and all performers also had offstage jobs. Only a very few company members did not perform, serving the need to maintain an ongoing office while the company was on tour, and to have one person on hand who could get dirty during the show. The company had its office and rehearsal space in a former church.” (Thank you, Wikipedia.) There is a wonderful documentary about the Pickle Family Circus on Vimeo.

There are many, many examples throughout theater history that demonstrate how theater companies operated without elements that today we often think are necessary: the Greek and Roman theater, Commedia dell ‘arte troupes, Moliere, Chicago’s Second City, and so forth. British director Edward Gordon Craig imagined a theater with puppets instead of actors.

One of the things that rarely occurs to people to go without, but that I recommend considering, are the Artistic Director (AD) and the Executive Director (ED). Your goal is a nonhierarchical structure in which every owner-member is involved in the important decisions of the company. The AD and ED positions centralize power and control, and remove responsibility from the company members. To some, the removal of such responsibilities sounds like a good thing—it allows them to focus on their own primary talent, and that’s understandable. But you want people who are not only willing but excited to participate in creating and fulfilling the vision of the company, not just pursuing their own careers. Furthermore, often the AD is someone with strong artistic talents, and becoming a traditional AD reduces the amount of time they have available to create. One shudders to think about all the really great directors who, once they became an AD, directed only a single production a year. That’s not good for them, and it’s not good for the company.

So as you consider designing your company, think also about things you don’t need.

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