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

Chapter 15 Vision

Warning: It's Not About You

Let me reiterate: neither your Quality of Life Statement nor the Vision Statement are for anyone other than the company. For God’s sake, don’t put either on your website, because literally nobody else gives a damn.

Thanks to our mass media obsession with celebrity lives, all artists think non-artists are just fascinated with their artistic goals and inner life. Trust me, they’re not. Unless you're George Clooney (and maybe not even then). Other artists might be, and you can email them your QoLS and Vision on request, but the rest of the world? Not so much.

Nor do they feel a deep personal commitment to making sure that you can fulfill your artistic vision. When they consider coming to your performance, they are not there to do you a favor. They are thinking solely about themselves.

But Create a Vision Anyway

Just because nobody else cares about your vision doesn’t mean it isn’t crucial that you develop one with your company. You absolutely must. This is your artistic life, and there is no reason it shouldn’t be rich and fulfilling. That’s the whole purpose of taking control of the means of production: to do the things that are important to you.

You and your fellow company members (when there are some) should have a shared idea of the type of things you want to do. It’s like a magnifying glass that focuses rays of light to the point that they are capable of setting something on fire. In this case, that artistic flame is your life energy. What work gets you out of bed in the morning?

There’s the old joke about a drunk crawling around on his hands and knees beneath a streetlight looking for his keys. When someone arrives to help him and asks where he dropped them, he says “Down on the corner.” The other guy says, “If you dropped them down on the corner, why are you looking so far away?” And the drunk says, “The light’s better over here.”

This is what happens if you don’t stick to your vision. It’s called “mission creep,” and in this case the punchline to the old joke might be “The money’s better over here.” Begin as you mean to continue. The keys will be found where you dropped them and nowhere else.

Nonprofit arts organizations chasing grant money experience a great deal of pressure to focus on the social good. David Maggs, a Fellow at the Metcalf Foundation, wrote about this pressure in an article called "Art and Social Impact: Having Our Cake and Eating It Too?" He began with a fable by Aesop, "The Dog and the Shadow":

"The dog, crossing a rivulet with a piece of meat in his mouth, saw his own shadow represented in the clear mirror of the limpet stream; and believing it to be another dog carrying another piece of meat, he could not forbear leaping after it; dropping the piece he had in his mouth, which immediately sunk to the bottom and was irrevocably lost."

Just to make this explicit, for our purposes, the piece of meat in the dog's mouth is your artistic vision. Don't Drop it!

Later in the article, Maggs tells a modern fable common to the arts:

"an arts organization was seeking investment for a building dedicated to artist studio space. They identified the impacts of the project on artists, art-making, and audiences (cultural impact). Of the investors examining the project, all the arts funders were content. Bank of America, however, was unconvinced. Only when the project added illustrations of community development, intergenerational activity, and youth engagement (social impact) were they ready to invest. In other words, only when impact crossed from cultural to social did it become visible for the non-arts funder in the room. To position the arts as a social benefit sector, and to stand alongside health, education, environment, poverty reduction, and others delivering clear, universal social benefits, we need to become bilingual. We need to be able to speak both languages — cultural impact and social impact, translating as effortlessly as we can between them."

And maybe it is possible to do two things at once, but I am here to tell you that the most important thing to hold onto--and one of the reasons why I am a proponent of a for profit approach that isn't reliant on pleasing arts funders--is your artistic vision.

So think: what sort of work provokes “flow” in you, that sense of joyful focus that causes time to pass without you even noticing? It could be a way of working (e.g., devised theater or Viewpoints), it could be a particular audience (e.g., children, young adults, the elderly), it could be a particular style (musicals, verse, social realism) or genre (fantasy/sci fi, farce), a specific purpose (political theater, or religious theater), or a particular time period (new work, pre-Renaissance classics). You don’t have to be so specific that it narrows your options to a repertoire that will be exhausted in a year, nor should you be so broad that it is meaningless.

In my case, I love doing plays that have a certain theatrical quality to them and that explore philosophical or religious questions: Equus, The Potting Shed, The Fantasticks, The Sunset Limited, Life is a Dream, Angels in America, Fiddler on the Roof, Marisol, etc. There are other types of plays that I also love (e.g., farce) that also need to be included. I also like to experiment with innovative approaches (black light theater, digital theater, puppet theater). I’m not averse to other types of theater, but if I couldn’t regularly include the type of plays that most interested me, then I wouldn’t be artistically fulfilled.

When designing a company, you don’t need to find other people who share your focus completely, but they at least have to find such projects interesting, and have artistic values that will mesh with yours so that coherent seasons can be created and a specific audience can be identified. If a member of my company only had an interest in doing, I don’t know, jukebox musicals and Neil Simon plays, then I suspect our partnership wouldn't be very satisfying, nor will we be likely to find an audience who likes both of those things. (Unless we called ourselves the Whiplash Theater Company, and sold ourselves as providing a theater experience based on random incoherence. "You never know what the hell you'll find at Whiplash Theater--it's a crap shoot!" There might be an audience for something like that, I guess, and if I found it, I might not reveal the name of the play being done, to emphasize the randomness. Hmmm....maybe this would work....)

As you think about your vision, you can start with plays or productions that you’ve loved (as a creator or as a spectator), but then try to look one or two levels below – what connects them below the surface. This will increase the possibilities available to find other such plays. So when I looked at the list of plays I mentioned above, I noticed that they all had religious or philosophical questions, and they all had a certain level of theatricality. So now I could look around for other plays like them: Hamlet, perhaps, or The Oresteia, Julie Taymor’s production of Juan Darien, or Crowbar by Mac Wellman (OK, now I’m getting obscure). Maybe I could try to expand the style to include comedies: Aristophanes’ The Clouds, Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. But if somebody said, “You know what you should put in your next season? Cats!” I could smile and nod and never think of it again. And that's the purpose of a vision statement: to aid decision-making by leaving things out. So that, if you at some point find yourself in desperate financial straits, you don't make a boneheaded move like, say, if your theater was known as the home of gritty contemporary realism and somebody suggested you do a production of A Tuna Christmas in December to pack the house. 

In addition, consider whether you are content to focus solely on theater. I once visited a community-based theater in Washburn, WI on the shores of Lake Superior, StageNorth, and they not only did plays performed by adults, and others performed by children, but they also had an annual film festival, projected TV broadcasts of importance (election night coverage, Presidential debates, the Super Bowl especially when the Packers were playing), had book groups and poetry readings, and ran a bar where people could drop by for a drink even if nothing else was happening at the theater. They clearly had a vision of StageNorth as a place that provided events that brought together and strengthened the community.

So think it through. What type of theater floats your boat? Put it into words. Any words—there’s no specific format. But you need to find a level of generality upon which you can build a career. Nothing is carvbed in stone forever and always. You can (and should) revisit the vision statement regularly, especially if company members have changed. Always keep in mind, however, that major changes in the vision may necessitate the building of a different audience base as the people who were drawn by the old vision leave and you seek out those who appreciate the new vision. 

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