Claire Rice has some ideas.
Theatre Bay Area recently had two very big fundraising drives. One of those was the Blushing Orchid Ball and the other was an on-line campaign asking members to help “bridge the gap” in funding that the event (and I’m assuming other endeavors) didn’t fill. How big a gap? Quoting Brad Erickson: “Nothing life-threatening ($50,000 is about 3% of our total budget)…” I got the first “Bridge the Gap” email on June 12. One day after San Jose Repertory announced it was filing for bankruptcy. Thirteen days after Intersection for the Arts announced that it would be restructuring. As of this writing Theatre Bay Area traversed the funding gap. The sweat can be wiped from our brows and we can all go back to doing what we were doing before…raising money for everyone else.No, but seriously, I’m glad they were able to raise the money. Programing shouldn’t have to be cut because the rent was raised.
Programing should be cut because it isn’t working.
So now that Theatre Bay Area is out of the danger zone, I think it’s time we take some evaluation time.
Here are a few things that I would like Theatre Bay Area to be.
1) Be More Like Public Radio/TV
I’m talking about membership here. My membership to KQED isn’t about me; it’s about what I think is important. I believe that Public Radio needs to exist in the world. My membership to Theatre Bay Area is like that too. I am a member because I believe Theatre Bay Area serves my community in an important way. I’ve been a member of Theatre Bay Area on and off over the years, but it was only the first year of my membership where I was doing it for me. The magazine, as good as it can be, is perishable. The discounts in services are negligible to being a non-member and most events are just as open to non-members as members. Membership dues right now are 30% of Theatre Bay Area’s annual income, but I know plenty of people who aren’t members who benefit by proxy from other people being members (like the companies they work for, or they read the articles on line). They may say: “I didn’t go to the conference because I’m not a member,” or “I was a member, but I didn’t get anything out of it.” American Conservatory Theatre is a member of Theatre Bay Area, and I’m pretty sure they aren’t getting anything more out of the membership than most. Why are they members? For postcard distribution? No. It’s because they understand that Theatre Bay Area is a hub of a very large metropolitan area. It’s a hub that connects a diverse range of communities. Our thinking about cost/benefit of membership needs to change. Our relationship to the organization needs to change. When a membership payment is made the member should not be thinking: I’ve paid $75 and what have I gotten out of it? They should be thinking: I’ve paid what I could and now I can feel like I’ve contributed to the community at large.
2) Tear Down the Pay Wall
And like Public Radio/TV, Theatre Bay Area shouldn’t look as if it is providing services strictly for the benefit of the cash that comes out of those services. There is a big part of me that agrees with local theatre personality and soon to be podcast celebrity Rob Ready that too many theatre companies are operating on a crutch of fundraising. There are too many theatre companies who are more worried about their pass the hat speeches, program inserts, kickstarters, and gala events than they are about whether or not a show actually sells. But theatre companies are not services organizations. As “intrinsic” as they may be to our experience as human beings, (or insert other inane grant-speak statement) they do not provide necessary services that support communities. Not all of them, anyway. Theatre Bay Area does! CA$H Grants aren’t just money to local artists; the process of applying is practically grant writing training wheels. No other organization will hold your hand throughout the grant writing process. No other organization will call you and tell you your budget is weird looking and give you 24 hours to resubmit. No other organization will let you sit on a panel first so that you know what it is like to apply before you apply! That alone is worth the $75 membership fee. But right now, Theatre Bay Area, either because of pressure from members or funders or from their own history, has set up a system where everything it does must be able to fund itself. Thus the pay wall. Right now, as a member of Theatre Bay Area I get a magazine, access to what’s behind the pay wall on the website, and discounts on their events and services. But I argue that the news, opinions, forums and opportunities are too important to put behind a paywall. The articles are too well written, the important news and opinions of the day are too of the moment, and the voices of the leaders of our industry are too necessary to keep behind a pay wall or oppressed by a press date. HowlRound, 2AMt, BitterLemons and various blogs are filling the internet for free with up to the moment opinions, incisive critical reactions, brave foretellings, and just plain old news. I argue that the pay wall is hurting Theatre Bay Area more than it could ever help it. It makes it feel like a for profit venture when in every other way it’s main and best purpose is to be for the benefit of it’s members.
3) A Yearly Omnibus Publication
I know, this sounds crazy! And, in a way, it is. But it needs to be full of nonperishable items like plays, dramaturgical analysis, and a place where writers can be published. The magazine is beautiful and it is the biggest reason to become a member. This month’s magazine included IDEATION by Aaron Loeb, and that is wonderful. But if the pay wall comes down and we can get something that looks closer to The Bold Italic or HowlRound with daily stories, editor’s picks, updates and news bits, then we don’t need a publication with those things. One yearly Omnibus publication can have: a “best of” section for articles that mattered throughout the year, the Glickman winner, Theatre Bay Area’s annual report (LINK: http://www.theatrebayarea.org/?page=2013AnnualReport), a report on the whole Bay Area Theatre scene, and a listing of award winners and where they are now! It can have reports from important unions, big funding organizations, government agencies and more. It can be so much. And it can be available electronically for my Kindle.
4) Really, Stop Being Sad that San Francisco Isn’t a Theatre Going Town
San Francisco is going through an arts revolution right now and theatre isn’t being left out of it. Really, it’s not. We are just so caught up with being “relevant” and “important” that we are overlooking the fact that we are part of a larger tapestry of incredible things going on right now. Yeah, times are hard and Netflix is better than going outside. Fact. It’s just a fact. I can’t and won’t argue it. Please, can we stop talking about it? At the very least can we find another way to frame the thought: “San Francisco isn’t seeing us. How do we make our presence known?” One day there is going to be a San Francisco Chronicle story with a headline that says: “Who knew we had so much amazing theatre?” And we’ll all stomp our feet and get red in the face and say: “We were always here!” I just need a new argument here. I need more than cheer leading and intrinsic impacting. I hope the awards will help, but I sincerely doubt they will do more than boost both internal moral and internal strife (yes, at the same time!). I don’t want to waste time telling people that I’m important. It’s time we figure out how to let them know we EXIST!