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


Writers are often told to imagine the “ideal reader” for whom a book is written. I’m fortunate, because I think I have a pretty clear idea of who that is. If you are checking out a book with the title Building a Sustainable Theater: How to Remove Gatekeepers and Take Control of Your Career, there are a few characteristics that seem likely.

First, you’re probably talented. I’m not trying to flatter you, but if you are considering your theater career, then you were probably the kid in high school or college that was always engaged in shows in one way or another and received a certain amount of encouragement from teachers, peers, and audiences (and if you didn’t get encouragement and hung in there regardless, then you are definitely my ideal reader). You had people telling you that you should “think about doing theater for a living,” perhaps, or at least not laughing in your face when that idea crossed your own mind. You may already be in the midst of a career in theater, or on the brink of starting one. So talent is a given.

Another thing I think likely about someone who has picked up a book about “taking control” is that you’re at least somewhat dissatisfied with your current situation. Maybe you’ve been pounding the pavement for a while and haven’t gotten as far as you’d hoped, or maybe the economics of living in New York or some other high-priced metropolis is starting to wear you down. Perhaps you’re starting to think about financial security, or stability, or traveling less, or being closer to family, or starting one yourself. Maybe the jobs you’re getting don’t challenge you artistically. You might have gone into theater with a vision of making a difference through your work, and “show biz” has started to make you feel as if you’ve lost your way. You might even be thinking about calling it quits entirely. Or you might be someone just about to launch your career, and you find the prospect of moving to New York or Chicago or Los Angeles unattractive.

Or maybe none of these are true, but there is some other reason that has you considering alternatives. All I know is that, if you’re considering this book, you’re probably at least a little discontent.

In addition to being talented and discontent, I also suspect you have an independent streak. You have ideas about the work that you want to do, and you don’t like having to ask other people for permission to do it. In fact, you don’t really like being told what to do at all.

So: talented, independent, and dissatisfied. That’s my idea of an Ideal Reader!

I myself am a retired theater history professor who did his best to teach students to be independent and dissatisfied. Why? Because I’ve seen a lot of very smart, talented people in my life, and while a few went on to carve out careers in theater, film, and TV, many, many more never were able to get their foot in the door. I devoted lectures to going through the Actors Equity Association annual report in order to make clear to my students how the system worked—or didn’t work, actually. Theater is cavalierly wasteful about peoples’ talent, and that has always made me angry.

This book is a result of that anger. I have been working on the ideas for almost twenty years, beginning when I was writing a fairly popular blog, Theatre Ideas, from 2005 until 2012, where I promoted alternative paths to a theater career. In 2008, I received an Access to Excellence grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to develop some of these ideas more fully. I then wrote about similar topics for the Huffington Post and the Clyde Fitch Report, as well as for American Theatre Magazine.

When I retired from full-time teaching, I finally had the time to get everything down on paper. It helped that I was still mad about all the talent I’d seen wasted.

But this book isn’t about railing against the dysfunctional system. My favorite quote, which I had on the Theatre Ideas sidebar, is by the inventor Buckminster Fuller, who famously said

“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

This book is about a new model.

Have I Done It Myself?

Full transparency: no, I haven’t, but others have. As I said above, I’m a theater historian by trade, which means that not only do I think some pretty important things happened prior to the last 10 minutes, but that some of those things might provide a key to figuring out how in the world we created this totally dysfunctional “system” and how it might be redesigned to allow more people to share their gifts.

I’m dissatisfied with the status quo. Cranky, even. What frustrates me is seeing talented people become disillusioned and tired of trying to fit into a system based on scarcity, permission, and lack of a living wage. They get tired of struggling. As a theater historian, I know that it wasn’t always this hard. Or at least it wasn't hard in the same ways. There were other approaches to doing things that provided a reasonable living for artists, and I believe some of them can be adapted to work today.

But I make no guarantees, of course. The fact is that 50% of all small businesses in the United States fail within the first five years of their existence. A new theater is a small business, and a particularly challenging one at that. When I get nervous about this, I look at Actors Equity’s annual report, with its member median income of zero dollars a year, and I think, hell, I can do better than that!

Theater history provides some possible models, and there are things to be learned from other disciplines as well. Marketing and entrepreneurship books, for instance, are a source of inspiration, as well as philosophy, and sociology, and many other disciplines. I love finding something in an unlikely place that connects to the art form that I love.

I had a good friend who loved reading. She used to say about the writers for the New York Review of Books, which she never failed to read each week, that “they read those books so I don’t have to.” In other words, they did the work of curating and summarizing the mountain of available literature so she could learn things from books that she might not have been interested in reading in their entirety. Same here. Think of me as a concierge for your exploration of a different approach to your creative life.

There are a handful of books I’ve read that I think might be worth exploring yourself, and I will mention them as they arise. Otherwise, I will summarize ideas I’ve encountered that I think are useful.

The picture I will paint in the pages that follow will be done in broad strokes. I’m not going to go into minute detail about, say, the process of filing documents to establish your theater as a Partnership or Limited Liability Corporation. It’s something that is important and that eventually you’ll need to do, but it’s different in every state, and frankly that’s what the internet is for. But by the end of this book, you should be able to start planning your own adventure.

My goal is to inspire you to do so. And then I hope you will tell me about what you learned in the process. Share your successes, share your failures. We need a community of people who are creating sustainable theaters across the country who will help others to follow their path.

I’ll be cheering you on!

NOTE: If you would like to read this as an ebook or paperback, you can get copies from most booksellers

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