Claire Rice’s Enemey’s List: When a Theatre Goes Co-Op

Claire Rice on how Thunderbird Theatre Company becomes a Cooperative Corporation…tell your enemies!

Thunderbird Theatre Company has been producing original comedy in the Bay Area since 1998. We specialize in mash-up style storylines where the good guys are wondering idealists and the bad guys come with a posy of henchman. I say “we” because I have been working with Thunderbird Theatre Company since 2006’s “Release the Kraken”, a take-off on Kevin Smith’s “Clerks” and the 1981 classic “Clash of the Titans”. I played Andromeda, who was from the Ukraine and ends up in the Princess Leia gold bikini at the end of the show.

No, really.  THE gold bikini!

No, really. THE gold bikini!

Over the years Thunderbird Theatre Company has brought together some exceptionally talented people to do some exceptionally silly and entertaining theatre. A long the way we’ve also grown up, bought houses, started careers, gotten married, had children and done all the things that people do as they grow older.

We also came to the realization that if we wanted to keep doing what we loved (namely have as much fun on stage as we could) we would need to re-organize ourselves.

I sat down with long time Thunderbird Christine McClintock to talk about Thunderbird, what it means to be a Cooperative Corporation, lost doubloons, gigglebones and other very adult things.

What is Thunderbird Theatre Company?

Christine: After a yearlong hiatus from production, we have been reorganized as a California Cooperative Corporation named The Bird Empire, doing business as The Thunderbird Theatre Company.

If Thunderbird wasn’t a business before, what was it for 16 years?

Christine: Thunderbird was definitely a business, and everything we did was totally and completely legit… as far as anyone knows. (You’ll never find our doubloons, Marx!)

We were previously a sole proprietorship. This meant that most of the liability for the business fell on one person. Aside from this being incongruous with our operating structure and ideals, it made for some awkward situations, such as the predicament of divulging an individual’s social security number on behalf of the company.

Why a co-op and not a non-profit (or sole proprietorship or llc, etc.)?

Christine: The reasons behind the decision to reform as a Cooperative Corporation are threefold.

Ideologically, we do not fit the parameters of a 501(c)(3) organization. Those requirements being:

“…charitable, religious, educational, scientific, literary, testing for public safety, fostering national or international amateur sports competition, and preventing cruelty to children or animals.”

Making silly plays with your friends, for your other friends to come see is not a legally recognized tax-exempt purpose. Whether or not it should be is a worthy conversation for another time and place. Quite simply, we did not want to be beholden to these requirements set forth by a governmental agency, or contort our activities to fit these stipulations.

Secondly, we wanted to formalize and equitably divide our financial contributions. For the majority of our years as a company, we have operated at a loss. This loss will now be evenly distributed across the company members so that each individual pays their fair share – and only their fair share. It’s our hope that in the future, we will turn a profit on each production, and in turn, those profits will be equally distributed among the company members.

Finally, we felt we wanted our structure to continue to be horizontal. We do embrace the fact that no “leaderless” organization is ever fully so, but our current configuration lets us both play to our individual strengths while leaving space for us to rotate responsibilities, recruit fresh voices, and provide opportunities for newcomers.

We felt the best match for these three primary philosophies is the cooperative model.

The meetings will look like this, but with more cheese and puns.

The meetings will look like this, but with more cheese and puns.

Can you still do fundraising (like Kickstarter or Grants)?

Christine: Yes and no… and maybe… and yes again.

Many grants require a 501(c)(3) status or fiscal sponsorship to determine eligibility, so we would only be able to apply to grants to do not require such a status – like TBA’s CA$H grants. We’re honest with ourselves that we’re not the kind of organization that most grantors are looking to fund at the moment. We’re making art for ourselves, and grantmakers tend to look to size and area of impact. We tend to only impact gigglebones.

Kickstarter and Indiegogo, on the other hand, do not require an organization to be a non-profit in order to launch a campaign. We need to be clear with our donors (Kickers and Go-goers) that contributions made to Thunderbird are not tax deductible.

We are still a corporate entity though, and as such, we are only eligible to receive funds that are related to our business. Donations not directly related to goods or services, therefore may trigger an audit or a revocation of our corporate approval. That being said, the rules governing such things are, (for better or worse), more flexible than they may appear.

How does being a co-op change how you make decisions?

Christine: The great thing about being a cooperative is that our decision-making process hasn’t caused us to change drastically. In fact, it highlights a track record of decision-making that has already been mostly democratic. Writing our bylaws helped us to clean up some of the specifics of administering an arts organization such as what denotes a quorum, how will we decide what will be our next production, etc.

The overarching precept is equality: one member, one vote.

Also, standard shotgun-calling rules apply.

Do you know how this will affect your future?

Christine: Some guy named Commodore briefly mentioned something about our membership growing, creating more content, experimenting online, and sometime in the very, very distant future, we will acquire our own space, perhaps in the East Bay.

Where should people go if they are interested in getting involved?

You can write to any of the current members, respond to this post, or email us here: info@thunderbirdtheatre.com

Right now we’re looking for folks who want to be “Collaborators”. This is a non-voting level of membership that comes with perks and treats (and responsibility). After a year, “Collaborators” may be invited to be full-voting members, though they may elect to indefinitely remain at the “Collaborators” level and hoard their perks and treats.

Thunderbird Theatre Company’s latest comedy “SHOW DOWN!” opens on Friday, August 1, at The EXIT Theatre in San Francisco. Tickets are on sale at Brown Paper Tickets. Please, if you love ThunderbirdTheatre Company tell your friends. And if you don’t…tell your enemies!

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3 comments on “Claire Rice’s Enemey’s List: When a Theatre Goes Co-Op

  1. “Empire”, you say? What enemies shall you trample first?

  2. Rob Ready says:

    Congrats to Christine on actually writing the by laws…pretty sure PianoFight has never done this….

    Also, GREAT PIECE! Very interesting, and I’d never heard of that model. Thanks for sharing, Claire!

    • Claire says:

      I believe the SF Mime Troupe is a collective, but there aren’t a great number of theatre arts organizations that work in that model. We’ll see how it goes!

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