The year is 2010 and the face of live theater has changed. Around the globe, money is tight, attention spans are short, and approaching-infinite hours of free entertainment are available 24 hours a day in the privacy of the viewer’s home. The new millennium, it might seem, has not been friendly to a venerable tradition that asks patrons to pay for the privilege of turning off their cell phones, sitting in one place for three hours, and listening quietly without offering any opinions beyond appropriately placed applause, laughter, and perhaps an occasional and well-deserved hiss.
Not a friendly environment in which to create a successful new company.
But live theater isn’t dead: far from it. Your company offers an experience that cannot be replicated in front of a computer monitor. It’s hard, sweaty, uphill work, but hot new companies are making their mark, inspired by the bonds of friendship and their passion for acting.
Who are these starry-eyed optimists, and how are they faring?
Trial by Fire, based in Eugene, Oregon, is founder Benjamin Newman’s lifeline in a hostile world. Reborn over and over again from the ashes of projects going back as far as 1999, the group achieved what seems to be a sustainable critical success this year.
Aerial Angels and Stand Up 8, the brainchildren of writer-director-actor Allison Williams, are based out of Kalamazoo, Michigan, but have developed as traveling troupes, presenting their unique brand of circus arts all around the world since 2003.
And making their mark in film-saturated Los Angeles, California, title3, founded by reunited classmates Lane Allison, Molly Leland, Jane Montosi, and Jiehae Park, has waded into the water with their first production and found it inviting.
So, how does one create a theater company with no money, no space, and no history? Is love of the stage enough to succeed?
Benjamin Newman would say that, for some, it isn’t even a choice. He recalls the mantra, offered by countless professionals across the country: If you can imagine yourself doing something else, then this is not where you belong. “I have tried,” he says, “but I cannot. Where I have veered from my path, life became confusing and disorienting, a series of challenges which I was unable to face, because I had no support, no grounding, no definition.” If the creative path is an actor’s North Star, dedicated performers, must, like Newman, return again and again, to trod the boards, regardless of the outcome. Or, as Allison Williams says, “truly motivated people don’t fail—they have learning experiences in which money is lost or creative dreams go unrealized, but it’s not failure unless they walk away without being educated by it.”
So the short answer is yes, if your love is strong enough, passion can carry the day. But the long answer, of course, is that love is merely the propeller that moves you forward through each new script, new rehearsal, new production, new season. Love lets you persevere. Today’s artists must also carry with them a new toolbox: the gear if the information age.
The old ways are disappearing, according to Williams. Traditional theater is “extremely boring and pointlessly irrelevant and ridiculously overpriced. Its audience is literally…greying out and dying. Subscription theatre is fading away—nobody under 40 ever wants to see another kitchen sink drama ever again—watching Death of a Salesman once in high school was enough.” The future, it seems, is in finding new ways of telling stories. We may be telling the same stories as those who came before, Newman argues, but we tell them through the lens of our own perceptions, so that each new telling provides a new understanding. Though all the stories may have been told, we still must “let each man and woman have their turn” in telling so that we do “not simply honor one voice, but all voices.”
This philosophy was the nucleus of title3’s origin. The group evolved organically out of a weekly writer’s group, where participants began to focus on women’s experience and the place of the female voice in the arts. While simply complaining got them nowhere, they realized, “we could generate the kind of change we hoped for. Thus, our company mission: dedication to the creation of innovative work with an emphasis on providing opportunities for women in the arts.” And so, another company was born, one working within the parameters of the modern world.
With its focus established, title3 reports that, “doors opened and people aligned in ways we never would have thought possible.” LA, perhaps, needed title3’s perspective as much as title3 needed a forum in which to present it.
It’s not surprising, then, that for their first production, they chose a new play by Constance Congdon, called Paradise Street, one that required an all-female cast. Trial by Fire, in earlier incarnations, performed works written by Newman himself. Although less concerned with modernity, they have created a focus on outsider voices, first making a success of Kiss of the Spider Woman and now opening Alfred Jarry’s surrealist work Ubu Roi.
In the 21st century, the default setting for multiple voices is, of course, the Internet, and those with stories to tell cannot ignore the power of the web for communicating their message. Successful modern theaters understand the need to harness those channels. Newman exults in the possibilities of a world where “artists who have just begun their career can simply be stumbled upon, and more forms of expression, such as film, music, writing, photography, and painting, are just a click away.”
By this point, even most traditional old theaters have at least begun to make a place for themselves in cyberspace, but the vanguard is completely comfortable there: the Internet is their living room, their office, and their playground. They no longer conduct letter-writing campaigns; they send mass emails. They don’t rely on print media to spread the word; they create their own websites from which to launch publicity drives, drum up support, issue press releases, and spread the word.
For title3, there was no question that web presence went hand-in-hand with a new venture. They began not only with a website, but also with a strong presence on social media channels such as Facebook. To date, they have successfully shared photos on their website and Facebook pages, and they are in the process of developing video content that illustrates their process: recordings of rehearsals and “other interactive offerings.”
In fact, title3 considers itself “a multimedia production company.” They began with theater, because that was what they knew, but ultimately they “also have a goal to use multimedia in our theater work and hopefully expand to other media in future.”
Allison Williams also understands the driving force of Web 2.0 for creating a vibrant community of fans and attracting new patrons. Explaining the power of social networking, she says, “being ‘friends’ rather than an advertiser is powerful and important.” She’s also comfortable posting not only teasers, but also entire acts, on YouTube. The way she sees it, “our enemy is not piracy but obscurity.”
For modern theaters, there can be no conflict between these two modes, and offering up some content in public forums can only lead to positive publicity. Williams explains, “The experience of seeing it live is fundamentally different than a YouTube experience,” and, she even goes so far as to say, “live theatre has an edge over movies.” In the twenty-first century, offering a few tantalizing tastes—or even an entire serving—only whets the viewers’ appetites for the real experience: live theater, performed by real human beings in front of real human beings. On demand content is wonderful, but it is no substitute for an event that cannot be paused, that has a life independent of the viewer’s decision to hit the play button.
While title3 calls the Internet “a primary driver of both publicity and ticket sales,” and, through tracking, learned “that Facebook and email were effective in mobilizing people to attend our performances,” Williams’ traveling show reports that only a small percentage of their ticket sales take place online, with the majority purchased at the door. However, they’ve used other modern tactics to boost sales, such as Street Crew. According to Williams, “it’s personal contact that sells a lot of tickets.” Sending supporters out to stump for the show, offering deals such as free admission if you bring 3 friends or hang 10 posters, helped them boost attendance and create new fans. Newman agrees: in his mind, the Internet is a great boon for communication, up to a point, but, he says, “there is simply no substitute for human contact.”
The lesson here is that you can’t ignore either end: you’ve got to utilize all the technological tools in your arsenal, and you must continue making direct contact with patrons. You may simply need to get creative on both sides.
Trial by Fire has recently filed for nonprofit status and begun to apply for grants and search out new sponsors in anticipation of running a full season in 2010/2011. Newman himself has sunk a great deal of his own capital into getting shows produced in the past, and, like many producers, watched the dual evolution of a critical success alongside a fiscal failure. Now, it looks as if Trial by Fire is finally poised to achieve solid financial ground.
While Trial by Fire’s evolution was long and convoluted, inextricably tied to Newman’s emotional state and his own determination to try again, title3’s first production came together in a more surprising way. Just as the group had begun discussing a production, they were offered a space “on very appealing terms.” The only catch was that the slot was only 2 months in the future, “an insanely short period of time to rehearse and put up a show, much less choose the show, do preproduction, and set up a company.”
But, the group was dedicated to following through. How did they get funding in such a short period of time? They made direct appeals, sending letters to everyone they knew: family, friends, former professors. Rather than simply asking for money, they explained their mission statement and helped donors understand how their contributions would further that cause. They also filed for fiscal sponsorship through Fractured Atlas so they could receive tax-deductible donations. The next step for title3 will be to increase their fundraising efforts, and to begin applying for government grants.
Stand Up 8 took a different, and very modern approach, to finding funding. Conceived as a for-profit venture, the group originally hoped to find 80 donors willing to contribute $1000 apiece. Williams says, “I thought we’d start with our parents and move outward from there, but then a friend told me about the Canadian reality TV show Dragons’ Den.” They auditioned, got on, and hit big, attracting investor W. Brett Wilson, now a half-owner of Stand Up 8.
For the Aerial Angels group, Williams keeps the overhead low. The Angels usually perform at street festivals and similar outdoor events. They often book gigs that are paid in advance, but just as often they conclude their shows with a hat pass. Williams explains, “We get paid by doing an amazing show that connects with people on a personal level, by touching their hearts and their funny bones to get to their wallets.” She can easily see that the more joy she brings to her audience, the more money she makes. “We offer a 30 minute escape with awe and wonder and comedy, and we ask for the price of a cup of fancy coffee, and the people who can afford to pay subsidize the people who can’t.”
For Williams, nonprofit status wasn’t worth the effort. She found “the level of hassle and paperwork is so tedious it wasn’t worth the piddling grants,” and feels that receiving adequate grants requires employing full-time grant writers. “Frankly,” she says, “I’d rather just go out and make the money without the strings.” Williams, who has written, directed, and starred in dozens of stage productions, makes good use of her experience and consummate can-do attitude to really make live theater pay off. Her belief is that, if you are selling a desirable product, people will buy it, and you can feel good about encouraging them to do so. If it’s not good enough to sell, she says, “start over with a better product.”
She attributes some of her ease at selling performance as a product to “being a non-fourth-wall performer,” who constantly connects with the audience. Selling herself onstage is the same as selling herself before the show. At the same time, she acknowledges, “I’ve done my fair share of Shakespeare, and marketing that is the same process, so maybe more serious theatre people should be thinking like circus artists.”
Live theater, Williams believes, is ready for a revival. Audiences “do still want to see stories and connect with humans and be a part of an experience they can’t have with their TV, they just don’t always know they want it and they’re unwilling to pay more than their phone bill to find out.” The women of title3 agree that one of the greatest challenges to modern theater is that younger generations have less exposure to theatre and arts in general. For one thing, “school arts programs are disappearing,” so “children won’t have theater as a frame of reference.” As technology captures a greater share of entertainment, young adults “may choose to spend their entertainment dollars on other mediums simply due to the fact that they don’t really know what theater is or means.”
But companies like Stand Up 8, title3, and Trial by Fire are committed to combating those attitudes. The world needs live theater, and the modern world needs a modern theater. Modern theaters must make their own way and recreate the ancient art. Newman reminds us that our dearest dreams are not presented to us “in a nice little package all wrapped up with a bow on top. You have to fight for them, you have to travel long distances to find them, and most importantly, you have to make them for yourself.”