New Ways of Making Theatre

While doing some Internet browsing on monastic life, I came across this article on LaserMonks, the refurbished ink cartridge distribution business of the Cistercian monks of Spring Bank Abbey in Wisconsin. In the article, the Prior of the community, the Very Rev. Bernard McCoy, O.Cist., is quoted as saying that “monasteries, by the Rule of St. Benedict that we follow, are required to be self-supporting.”

I think this is a good goal for a Benedictine theatre company or religious theatre community. To that end, I have been following sites in the theatrical blogosphere that are brainstorming new ways of making theatre. One group blog site is 2amtheatre, which resulted from this late-night/early-morning Twitter conversation between several theatre artists whose blogs I read and whose opinions I respect. (You can participate on Twitter by using the hashtag #2amt.)

My favorite post on the 2amtheatre group blog is Dennis Baker‘s “A Theater Should Be Like a Bookstore.” He talks about creating a theatre that is not a commodity to be bought and sold for a set ticket price, but an experience of and for the community. The bookstore under discussion also incorporates “a café, a restau­rant, an artist’s stu­dio, and an antiques store. This cre­ates a com­mu­nity of expe­ri­ence for tourists, and through the bring­ing in of guest artists, some­thing the local com­mu­nity can return to fre­quently.” A theatre should be a place where members of the local community feel free to come and hang out, and be part of the theatre on a regular basis, not just for a couple hours on a Friday night once a month.

I’ve also been following the Prof‘s posts on his CRADLE(arts) blog. (For more information on CRADLE’s mission, go here.) I’ve really liked a couple of recent ones:

“(Netflix + YouTube) / (time = money)” looks at an alternative funding model for theatre. The idea is that, instead of charging per activity (e.g. like Blockbuster’s per rental charge), a theatre would offer a monthly membership, which would allow the member access to all the theatre’s events. Since, however, a single ensemble of theatre artists can’t themselves offer the variety of activities that make membership models like Netflix work, they would also open their space up to community organizations (like orchestras, choirs, dance troupes, art shows, etc.), which would provide the rest of the month’s events. They get free space, the members get a lot of bang for their buck, and the theatre is able to make a lot more people aware of its own shows – as well as provide the fertile soil for the growth of art in its community. Where the “(time = money)” part of the equation comes in is Scott’s idea to have participation in the arts center’s activities – whether through simple attendance or through more active participation, like creating an event – count towards the member’s next month’s membership cost. So, the more theatre (or dance or poetry slam) you see, the less you pay. The system rewards participation.

Scott’s other recent post is “The Space.” He’s a fan of Del-Tec Homes, a company which makes round modular buildings. He likes them because they’re flexible (in several ways), environmentally-friendly, and low-cost. He’s planning to apply for grant funding to build a model Del-Tec CRADLE theatre building in a community with a population of less than 25,000. (More info is in the above-linked “The Space” post.)

I encourage you to follow both the 2amtheatre and the CRADLE(arts) blogs. I promise to get on that Benedictine theatre series soon, but in the meantime, I’m pondering the membership model for my future theatre. How much would you be willing to pay to be a patron member of a theatre that was also a community arts center? $50/month? Are there similar organizations you’re aware of? If so, who are they, what do they charge? The closest practicing model I’m aware of is Stolen Chair Theatre Company‘s Community Supported Theatre. Their standard membership is $200 for a 9-month season focusing on their theme production of Quantum Poetics, which gives the member “exclusive access to every stage of Quantum Poetics’ development, from its creative retreat to its world premiere,” invitations to events like lectures, field trips, and parties, and “a discounted year-long subscription to New Scientist magazine and complimentary wine & treats at all CST events.”

Community is what’s most important with all these models. It’s also what we need to strengthen in order to combat the “artist-as-Very-Special-Person” and “Artist-as-Outsider” models (cf. Scott et al.’s discussion of these models in this post) that prevail in modern theatre education.

And it’s very Benedictine.

4 thoughts on “New Ways of Making Theatre

  1. Transcendence Theatre Company just posted about their visit to the Des Moines Social Club, a community arts center and hang-out with a black box theatre, lounge, and art gallery. They have the tag “You are a member!” throughout their website; it looks like membership is completely open and free to the community. It appears they make their money through sales at their bar, space rentals, and donations. They just opened last year. It looks like a place worth checking out.

  2. Nelle,

    You’re right, and I’ve been thinking about communities this afternoon. There are colleges at which I’d like to teach in college towns and suburban areas in New England, the Midwest, and Texas. If not connected to one of these colleges, I’d probably be looking at places in the middle of the country (the Plains and Rocky Mountain states), which, besides being the part of the country that runs in my blood, is also under-served by professional theatres. Scott Walters has grant funding for his CRADLE(arts) project, which is meant to serve small rural (not suburban) communities with fewer than 25,000 residents. I think this model might be able to survive in suburban or large rural towns where there’s a thriving downtown arts scene; if it were used in a very small community, barter would probably have to be involved, which would be fine. I wouldn’t want to do it in a large city; I think it might place the small-community feel at risk.

    I think it actually might be perfect for the city-county (city status extends throughout the county) where my parents live, which has a population of roughly 81,000 over more than 400 square miles (exact pop. density of 159 people/square mile). The location I have in mind is in a formerly rural area undergoing development, with a movie theatre (the first in the city), restaurants, and new housing nearby. It’s close enough to the neighboring city to be driveable for a night out, but far enough away to still have a small-town feel.

    How much would you be willing to pay per month to be a member of such an organization? Is there room for such an organization in your community?

  3. Ha! Love these ideas. The bookstore alone makes me want to plan a road trip to the greater Boston area, and the thought of a theater being run on some of these principles is exciting, to say the very least. If something akin to your vision were available in my area, I’m sure I’d be shelling out the bucks if I could at all afford it.

    You would, of course, have to be pretty thoughtful about choosing the community in which you planted such a thing. Those first years of a venture are tender; you’d need to build a core group of participants pretty quickly. But what a great community it would be!

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