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

Chapter 3: You ARE an Owner

The next crossroads moment of your journey immediately follows from the first:

          You are an owner.

You’re starting a small business, something that will exist beyond a single production or even a single year.

The goal is the creation of a company in both the business sense of a “structure that is a separate legal entity from its owners,” but also in the theatrical sense of a group of artists who have an ongoing creative relationship.

In theatrical circles in the US, companies are eyed with suspicion. Everybody has a story of a company with which they were involved (or more likely a friend of a friend was involved) that imploded in some way. They think about being stuck forever working with members of some production they once were in, trapped in a maddening circle of conflict and boredom. They bemoan the idea that all the roles in a production might not be played by a performer who is “perfect” for it. And so on—insert your own horror story.

But as I mentioned in the Introduction, I’m a theater historian, and when I look back at the most successful artists of the past, I see a long line of companies. Shakespeare wrote his plays for people he had worked with for years and for a stage building that he’d been writing for and acting in even longer. Without lead actor Richard Burbage, Hamlet might be entirely different or perhaps might not even exist. The comic characters in his plays changed radically when Will Kemp left and was replaced by Robert Armin. Furthermore, the longer Shakespeare worked with those in his company, the better his plays became. Yes, he learned his craft the more he created, and likely so did the actors, but far from the continuing artistic relationship leading to stultifying artist boredom, the plays and productions improved.

The same was true of Moliere, who wrote for himself, his wife, and a permanent company. The companies of the Spanish Golden Age were often made up of members of the same family, and the same was true of the Italian Commedia dell ‘Arte. In fact, throughout theater history, banding together in companies was the way that artists were able to more effectively make a living.

Let’s look a little more closely at the company that Shakespeare joined, initially called the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, and later the King’s Men.

Continue to Chapter 4: William Shakespeare: Owner

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