Thursday, February 11, 2010

Whither Theatresource

OK, so there's this theater I helped start about 10 years ago. About 2 years ago it was decided that we needed an Artistic Director. At the same time, the general manager (who was one of our founding members) got what we might call a "real job" and so we had to get ourselves a new general manager too.

And so we filled those two positions with people who were (relatively) new to the organization.

Over the course of the year we went from having about a $100,000 debt (half of which was back-taxes and half was debt in one of the founder's names -- including, egads, two credit cards) to about $50,000 of debt (just the credit card debt.)

Other exciting things happened too. The general manager and the artistic director weren't talking to one another and, apparently, the liability insurance wasn't paid for about 6 months. Not paying liability insurance, while not a prudent idea, certainly didn't negatively impact our balance sheet. And let me tell ya, if you were thinking about suing Theatresource for something that happened during that period we didn't have insurance, your lawyer is gonna talk you out of it -- 'cause you (and he) ain't getting paid. But yeah, paying for liability insurance is by and large better than not paying for it.

But, and this is really the most important thing, artistically the theater was wildly successful. Now, don't get me wrong, we have always been good at making theater. But we had a goodly run of really top-notch stuff during this time: Universal Robots, Thoroughly Stupid Things, Any Day Now, and many more.

The GM and the AD, even while they weren't getting along, seemed to have the most cogent idea for the direction of Theatresource that anyone ever really had; that is that the theater existed for the creation of new works.

Since the coup d 'etat last year, this idea has been dropped like a hot potato with an artistic director attached to it. Theatresource is foundering from a lack of vision about what it is to do, and founders from lack of an artistic director to do it. All because "That's what the other guys did." So of course, those must be bad things.

OK. So where is Theatresource now? Well, bookings are at an all-time low. We have nothing, I mean nothing scheduled after February. We have no volunteers left to look after the place. (Note that there have always been intermittent problems with bookings and volunteers -- under every set of management we've had -- but it's never been this bad. Not by a long shot.)

And ultimately it seems that the problem is that Theatresource is being governed with the ideology that anything which was happening under the previous GM and AD were, by definition, bad things. If they did it then we must absolutely not do it.

That ideology is stupendously destructive. We really should be focussed on creating new works, and we really need an artistic director in order to do that. (We also need a general manager who actually wants to manage a theater and is willing and able to work full-time, but that's another issue.) The creation and development of new theater is a simply splendid thing. It's great for our community, for our finances, and for our souls. Why?
  • It involves more people (specifically, writers, who wouldn't be involved in remounting, say, a production of Our Town -- it's already been written.)
  • Artistically, it's more interesting (we don't really need another production of Awake and Sing, do we? Do we? Ever?)
  • It builds a "resume" for the theater as a producing organization (producing a work which is published in the 10 Best Plays of 20xx is vastly more impressive than "Oh, we did a production of The Tempest which was... uh... well nobody remembers.")
  • It brings in more grant money (who knew? I didn't. I do now.)
The one big thing which the Artistic Director brought to the table when he came in was to create an organization called the Writer's Forum. He got together a bunch of writers -- some "name" writers and a lot of writers who have been working at Theatresource for years (read: friends of mine) and they read one another's plays and gave one another notes and such. Now, I will admit that when he explained to me what he was trying to do I just sort of smiled stupidly and said "That sounds great", wondering how the hell that was all going to work out.

It went gangbusters. The Writer's Forum was wildly successful artistically and community-wise. The excitement was palpable to anyone spending any kind of time at Theatresource (I'm there 5 or 6 days a week). Writers liked it, actors liked it. There was much joy. And then the AD said "OK, now let's become a producing organization within Theatresource." And the Writer's Forum created the "InGenious Festival" which produced a number of full-length works and short works. Financially it was very successful (arguably the most financially successful thing MTS had ever done). Artistically it was also successful -- some excellent work was created and produced for InGenious.

Now, were there any things wrong with InGenious/The Writer's Forum? Yes. And I think most of these critiques would have consensus among the participants but even with the artistic director himself:
  • The financing was murky. The problem was that we needed money right away and so what was done was to have the participants in the Writer's Forum actually put up cash to produce their works. This led to a number of issues which didn't get worked out like: what if one writer's work was a financial flop and the other a hit? Was the hit subsidizing the flop?
  • We had "name" writers as well as what we might call "newcomers". The name writers in some ways got more attention, at least per capita, than the "newcomers". Ultimately this was worked out financially because one name writer (whose play was not as financially successful, ironically, as the "newcomer" plays) more than adequately made up for the difference in box office and such with a cash donation to Theatresource. But ultimately this was problematic for reasons of fairness and "community-ness" and needs to be addressed in an open way.
  • Logistically the productions were a bit hairy. Some weeks ran smoother than others.
But other than that, InGenious was financially and artistically successful.

And then there was the coup.

So what of InGenious now? Well this year InGenious was the red-haired stepchild of Theatresource. It got virtually no logistical or promotional support. Arguably, it was just straight-up sabotaged by the new management. Because after all, it was the old artistic director's idea. And we don't do that kind of thing anymore.

And that's unfortunate because I think the answer for our financial woes, the lack of volunteers, and our bookings, is all one thing; The Writer's Forum. But the Writer's Forum, being a successful producing organization under the previous artistic director is an anathema to the "present management".

But the management we have right now won't be here forever. They will either 1. finish digging Theatresource's grave and bury the organization outright or; 2. get bored and walk away.

So whether we rebuild Theatresource out of a new not-for-profit organization, or simply get enough non-ideologically-blinded management, we should think about what's next, because we obviously can't continue on the path we're on.

We need an artistic director.

Now one thing which made our previous Artistic Director so good at the Writer's Forum is that he wasn't a writer. Indeed, I don't think he had much ambition toward directing even. He was an actor and he knew drama so he could give good feedback but he didn't have a dog in the race himself. And I suspect that's important. Could we work with an AD who was a writer and/or director? Yeah, probably... maybe. Would it be better if they were "just" a producer? Absultively. No doubt.

I think the job of the AD at Theatresource would be relatively straightforward. Indeed the job could (and perhaps should) have a fairly narrow focus: to guide the Writer's Forum. Guiding it to produce new works which are produced by Theatresource by the AD (somewhere between 3 and 8 new full-length works a year would be nice, with a smattering of short works).
  • The works should make us some money. That means no extravagant spending. Cast lots of actors who have lots of friends so we have sold out houses every night (I'm so not kidding about that).
  • We should retain some amount of interest in those new works but nothing oppressive to the author(s). If the show goes to Broadway and has a successful run I say we get a piece of it. If it goes on to do some regional theaters and such then we shouldn't be eating away at the writer's tiny income by insisting on our share. If the work is published we get our name in the book.
  • We should brag incessantly about the new works we've created. I mean do PR. That's what I meant. Every time a show gets in the Fringe or gets published we should be making a whole lot of noise about it.
Such notions will have to wait 'till there is new management, of course. But they're worth thinking about.

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