Allison Page gets serious for a moment. Not really.
It’s hard out there for an artist. It’s even harder out there for a company of artists. If you were a theater company, and standing in a room with a bunch of other theater companies, I would get up on a collapsible stage and say, “Everyone look to your left. Now everyone look to your right. Some of these people will not survive the next few years.” and everyone would either go “Oooooo.” or “Uh oh” or roll their eyes, or laugh awkwardly, knowing it’s true. The theater community has been shaken up even more than usual lately. Intersection For The Arts, San Jose Rep…there are more fatalities and you’ve seen and read about them, I’m not going to go on about who they are, the point is – we’re dropping like fucking flies over here. And I really hate saying this, but the more I think about it, the less surprised I am.
Remember Vaudeville? No? Oh, that’s because it’s been gone since the early 1930s. People didn’t want to consume their entertainment the same way they had been, and with movies easily accessible everywhere, Vaudeville fell out of the interest of the public.
In a twist of fate, movies took the same blow they had dealt to Vaudeville when television came into play. People could be entertained in their own homes for free, and movies became a less frequent event in the lives of many. With the improvements made to all-things-internet, many people now don’t even bother with traditional television and watch things directly from their computers, tablets, phones, or have the images grafted directly to their eyeballs for all of eternity, or however the hell a google glass works.
I love theater, and I don’t think it’s dead, but I do think it has moved back into its parents’ basement much to the chagrin of the entire family. I feel frustrated that it can almost never sustain itself without resorting to asking for lunch money which it then uses to buy case after case of Miller High Life.
I hate that even the most successful theater in the area, a theater with lots and lots of seats, shows and actors imported from New York and wherever else, still has to fundraise huge amounts of money (recently $100,000…a number I can’t even think about) to make things happen. But I guess that’s something that brings up a discussion about whether or not theater is both an art form AND a business (regardless of non-profit-ness). A business which requires yearly (or more frequently than that) gigantic gobs of money in the form of donations, doesn’t sound like a particularly well-run business to me. And I hate the thought of always scrambling, wondering if you’ll be open the next season, and knowing that if you don’t raise X amount of money with your elaborate Kickstarter campaign of relatively meaningless perks and rewards, that things could get very sticky for you and yours.
Maybe that sounds harsh, I don’t know. I feel frustrated with the state of things lately. I hate begging for money. More than that, I hate needing to do it. I hate that this thing that can bring a little happiness and magic to a bunch of lives all at once, doesn’t seem valuable enough to pay for itself. Obviously costs in the bay area aren’t helping anything. When I started a theater company in Minnesota, I did get a grant. A one time grant which was, I believe, around $1,000. I used it to buy a lot of basic things which we used to build a stage, build a set which could be moved around to create a different set, and generally to get things going. That’s the only grant I ever applied for. After that, I used the money earned from each show to put up the next one (supplemented by some of my own cash, for which I would try to reimburse myself later). I did that for five years. A theater company existing for five years having received only one grant? That’s pretty fucking great. But that would be really hard to make happen here. The cost of just renting the space in which to perform for a few days is more than the entirety of the grant I received in 2003.
When Kickstarter became a thing, artists went bananas. Finally, a great way to crowdsource funds to make your dream happen. It was a revelation. Initially I think it felt like an amazing way to make someone’s biggest, most long-awaited aspiration come to life…and now it’s everyone’s biggest aspiration THIS MONTH. So instead of feeling like we’re supporting a one-time artistic dream project, it feels like everyone wants us all to pay for every single thing that they do. It’s overwhelming. I should mention that I contribute to Kickstarter and IndieGoGo campaigns all the time. When I see a project I like, or when a frequent collaborator or friend is working on something, I donate to it. But I’m definitely starting to feel like it’s going to be too much at some point. Particularly when the numbers start ticking up and up and up. I miss the scrappy days of yore. Scrappiness is a trait I really admire in others, and something I try to exercise in my own life. The pilot episode of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, shot by the guys who thought it up, was made for a famously small amount of money. Depending on who you ask, it was somewhere between $85 and $200. Meanwhile, I know a guy who just tried to crowdsource $60,000 for his independent film. I’m not suggesting he should make it for $200, but I am suggesting that $60,000 might be too much to as your friends to pay for. And as it turns out, I’m right. Because his campaign was unsuccessful and his donations added up to only $5,000 and because it was done on Kickstarter, I’m assuming that means he got a whopping $0. And this was a campaign which included some moderately fancy names.
I don’t know. This feels like a time of change and uncertainty in the performing arts. I’m not sure what the next chapter holds for us. I will continue to support the projects I care about (for example, the SF Olympians Festival, which supports the work of over 100 artists every year: https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/san-francisco-olympians-festival-v-monsters-ball ) but I wonder what funding for theatrical projects will look like in even two years. When will people start to feel maxed out? Is there a better way to do this? Are we making things too big, too complicated, too expensive for their own good? For their own sustainability?
I don’t have the answers, but I am working on them in relation to my own projects in the next year. I’m spending lots of time and energy trying to find a way to not spend every available dime, and to be a nimble creator of nimble things. Because, at the end of the day, I don’t have any other choice. Money doesn’t grow on fake trees even if you spend $10,000 to build them.
Allison Page is an actor/writer/director, and Co-Creative Director of Killing My Lobster. You can find her on Twitter @allisonlynnpage.