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

Chapter 8: Characteristics of a Company Member

If you are inclined to follow Mike Wiley’s solo model, then you can probably skip this chapter, because I’m about to discuss the “rules” for adding collaborators to your company. To do so I will be building the concept of “occupational tribes” described by novelist and cultural critic Daniel Quinn in his book Beyond Civilization: Humanity’s Next Great Adventure.

The word “tribe” is a contested anthropological term that Quinn uses as a way of describing a social organization—in his usage, it has nothing to do with, say, indigenous communities, i.e., it’s not the “ethnic tribal model.” In fact, his primary examples of a tribe are a pre-corporate circus or a traveling theater troupe, and he also points to Chicago’s Neo-Futurists as an example of a tribe! In this discussion, I will continue to use Quinn’s term long enough to explain his idea, and then we’ll roll the concept into our idea of the company.

Quinn defines a tribe as a “coalition of people working together as equals to make a living.” I draw your attention to the three parts of this definition:
  • A coalition of people—in other words, a group of people who have chosen to pool their talents.
  • Working together as equals—in other words, a non-hierarchical organization. There may be a “boss”—somebody who handles the lion’s share of the administrative responsibilities, for instance–but they do not have special benefits or status, they just have a particular job.
  • To make a living—this isn’t about communal living; it’s about providing members with what they need to survive and continue making stuff as long as they want to do so.

“The difference between the circus and Disney World,” Quinn explains, moving from abstract concept to concrete example, “is that the circus is a tribe and Disney World is a hierarchy. Disney World has employees, not members. It doesn’t provide these employees with a living, it just pays them wages.” Disney dictates what its employees do, when they do it, and where they do it. The traditional (non-corporate) circus, on the other hand, is a collective. People pitch in at whatever needs to be done, and their livelihood depends on the health of the circus.

The illustration he uses is a weekly newspaper called East Mountain News that he and his wife, Rennie, founded and ran in Albuquerque, NM.

     “Rennie and I started the paper as a speculative venture with virtually no capital. After putting out a couple of issues we got a call from Hap Veerkamp, an old newspaper man living in forced retirement (because no one would hire him at his age). He said he could do literally anything on a newspaper—except sell advertising. We said we’d love to have his stories and pictures, but if we didn’t find people who could sell advertising we were going to be out of business very soon. He said he’d give it a shot. A few weeks later we heard from C. J. Harper, a young woman who wanted desperately to be a writer and who had an idea for a column that we might like. We liked the column and we liked her. The next question was, ‘Can you sell advertising?’
     She said, ‘I can sell anything.’
     Suddenly we were in business—in a modest way. None of us was salaried. At the end of the week, when the issue was out, Rennie would sit down with C. J. and Hap and divvy up the advertising revenue that was left over from paying the printing bill. It was our rule to print as much newspaper in any week as could be paid out of advertising revenue. If we had enough advertising for twelve pages, we printed twelve, and that was a “good week.” If we had only enough for eight pages, we printed eight, and that was a “fair week.”

Quinn notes that “being tribal is no guarantee of success,” that there had to be a need for a weekly newspaper and a fairly large number of businesses looking for someplace to advertise in order for his newspaper to be sustainable. And the newspaper they put out had to be good—quality is an important part of the equation.

     But beyond that, Rennie and I were quite incredibly lucky in finding two people who were ready to throw in their lot with ours in building a newspaper, who were content to make a living out of it (as opposed to a killing), and who were used to living on very little (as we were ourselves). With all this, we could hardly miss.
     I think what is needed at a minimum is a group of people (1) who, among them, have all the competencies needed to start and run a business, (2) who are content with a modest standard of living, and (3) who are willing to “think tribally”—that is, to take what they need out of the business rather than to expect set wages.
     While all of these elements are important, for the point we are at where it’s just us planning the future, the first element above is crucial: a “self-sustaining tribe needs to perform all the functions that will make it successful. A tribe of cabinet makers is not going to succeed without a member who knows how to sell cabinets….
     The tribal rule of thumb is: Can you extend the living to include yourself? In other words, if you want to live out of a tribal occupation, you’ll have to extend the group’s earning power to the point where it covers you. This is exactly what Hap and C. J. did for the East Mountain News. We couldn’t have included them in the business if they hadn’t extended it by selling advertising."

This tends to not be the way that people interested in producing a play or forming a company think. Instead, they say, “OK, we’ll need a set designer, a costume designer, a lighting designer, a director, a stage manager, a cast large enough to do the play we all want to do, and maybe somebody to run the box office.” All of a sudden, you need to sell a lot of tickets just to distribute some tiny amount (if anything) at the end of the show, but nobody is taking responsibility for selling those tickets because who the hell wants to do that job? Oh, sure, we might be willing to spend a Saturday morning going around town putting posters in store windows, and maybe create a Facebook event, but that’s the extent of our involvement in that area—we’re artists, after all! This is how institutional theaters end up with large staffs.

For a small theater, this isn’t sustainable.

So expand the company slowly and carefully, always asking how each new person proposes to extend the living to include themselves. And make sure they are possessed of a cross-functional skillset. Many of my former students had cross-functional skill sets--indeed, that sat at the center of our liberal arts curriculum--but let me give you an example of a student who I feel would be ideal for a company. Her name was Morgan, and she was a very good actor, a strong director, and excellent leader (students would enthusiastically help with her projects), and she recently got her Masters in Arts Administration. This is someone with whom you could build a theater.

There are many ways to “extend the living” of the company beyond just selling tickets (although that, of course, is necessary), and we will talk about those later. But for now these ideas of Quinn’s need to be in the forefront of your mind. Your goal is always to create a sustainable living.

So these are the first two rules of joining the company. Each new member must:
  • Be able to extend the living of the company
  • Have multiple talents (or be willing to develop some)
Next comes the hard one: Becoming an owner.

This page has paths: