Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Live Nude Feminism

Marissa Skudlarek, walking the talk.

Don’t ever say that I can’t both talk the talk and walk the walk. I spent Saturday evening posting on Twitter and Facebook about casual sexism in local theater, and Sunday evening attending a fundraiser for the feminist theater organization DIVAfest. Saturday was about getting irritated over the persistence of inequality; Sunday was about reminding myself that there are plenty of people trying to find solutions to this problem.

The sexism that I see around typically isn’t outrageous misogyny – it’s subtler than that. It is a worldview that devalues women’s contributions and stories, that refuses to consider their perspectives worth presenting or their money worth having. I’m thinking of things like a glowing review of Maggie’s Riff, at FaultLine Theatre, that initially neglected to mention or credit Nicole Odell, who plays the title role. (Editor’s note: as of midafternoon on 5/26/16, a few hours after our piece went up, the review has been updated to mention Odell.) And also of the latest marketing copy for the Speakeasy, as it seeks a final round of funding before it re-opens in North Beach in August. The Speakeasy producers are very pleased to tout the “one-way mirror into the chorus girls’ dressing room” as one of the major highlights of the show, yet they make no equivalent promise of voyeuristic eye candy for those of us who prefer handsome fellas to lovely ladies.

Let’s be clear: I’m not against sexy fun, or scantily clad women. In fact, DIVAfest, the organization I supported on Sunday night, has a strong sideline in naked ladies. It produces a monthly burlesque variety show, Diva or Die, and a larger theater-burlesque fusion show once a year. Indeed, it was DIVAfest’s Hotel Burlesque show this year that finally convinced me of the truth of something I’d often heard said: that neo-burlesque can be a feminist and empowering genre, rather than a misogynistic male-gazey one. In Hotel Burlesque, the cast featured six lovely ladies and one female impersonator, so just about every moment of the plot passed the Bechdel Test with flying colors. It transported me into a sparkly, glamorous, female-led world and showed me that striptease can be about more than just titillation. A female thief reveled in her crimes as she stripped off all her (stolen) clothing. Nudity was used to represent the anguish and vulnerability that an alcoholic feels when faced with the temptation to drink, or a battered woman feels when recalling her abuser.

At the DIVAfest fundraiser party, Amanda Ortmayer introduced a performance by Red Velvet and reminded us that burlesque artists appreciate vocal approval: applause, whooping, cheering, were all encouraged (and plentiful). And, as Red Velvet tap-danced, shimmied, and stripped down to her thong and pasties, the lights in the main room remained on. I liked that; it kept things honest. It eliminated some of the creepy power dynamics that can arise when a woman takes her clothes off for the entertainment of others, because, as we watched Red Velvet, she could also watch us. She could see our faces and discern whether or not we were having a good time, and also hear our joyous and vocal appreciation. And I can’t help, again, contrasting this with the way the Speakeasy is presenting female nudity: spying on “hot chorus girls” from behind the anonymity of a one-way mirror.

A lot has been written lately about the masculinity and “bro” attitudes of start-up culture in the Bay Area. In many ways, the Speakeasy seems to be positioning itself as a theater start-up. It’s thinking big: it wants to disrupt live entertainment in San Francisco and then spread out across the country. It is soliciting money according to a new model called “equity crowdfunding” (I’m a little confused as to how this differs from traditional for-profit, Broadway-style funding, but no matter) and, with a minimum investment of $2000, it’s clearly aiming for high-roller donors rather than the $25-$100 donations that make up the bulk of a typical Indiegogo or Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign. In 2014, the Speakeasy’s expensive tickets and lack of discounts meant that the show was very popular with the tech crowd while remaining inaccessible to the kinds of people who are getting priced out of this city. And, yes, the Speakeasy seems very, very male. The three founders are all male. The website copy has a persistently male point of view, and not just in its references to the chorus girls and the one-way mirror. For instance, when giving examples of some of the costumed characters that audience members can pay to play, both of the examples they give are male.

Meanwhile, DIVAfest hosted a traditional nonprofit-theater fundraiser last weekend: finger food, raffle tickets, and performances, in a board member’s fancy house that was donated for the occasion. I hope it was successful, and it was certainly quite glamorous to watch the sunset from a North Beach rooftop deck, eating delicious food among nicely dressed people. But it cannot change the fact that DIVAfest is a small, indie, shoestring operation, run out of a Tenderloin theater that has miraculously weathered all the changes to San Francisco in the last thirty years.

I know there is a place for people like me at DIVAfest, but, as a feminist woman, I have a hard time imagining that there’s really a place for me at the Speakeasy. And, while I’m grateful that organizations like DIVAfest exist, I’m also bothered that they feel like such small, precarious members of the arts ecosystem. The Speakeasy caters to the male gaze and raises $3 million in venture capital funding and becomes the subject of glowing media profiles; DIVAfest provides a counter-narrative and a place for women, and is relegated to the fringes. I said before that sexism in the 2010s tends to be subtle and insidious. Well, here’s another example of it: is it fair that the men get the big dreams and the big bucks and the naked ladies, and we women get to play out our stories on a much smaller stage?

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright, arts writer, and feminist. Find her online at marissabidilla.blogspot.com or on Twitter @MarissaSkud.

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Theater Around The Bay: Yes To Crowdfunding!

Bay Area actress/director/performer Lisa Drostova recently posted this on her Facebook page. I thought it created some interesting conversation and I liked that it contributed in a positive fashion to the “where’s the money going to come from/is the age of crowdfunding over?” discussion/panic that hit in July (aka “Potato Salad Month”) and seems to have already blown over. Thanks for letting us share this, Lisa, and if you have any thoughts of your own, be sure to leave them in the comments!

I’ve been linking to a lot of crowdfunding campaigns lately, much more now that I’m a blooded Indiegogo warrior myself, and it strikes me that there are different ways of looking at them. For a long time, it just seemed overwhelming and distressing that every artist and arts organization I knew had to go hat in hand. Yes, there’s a lot wrong with a culture where billions will get spent on military equipment that doesn’t even function while people making beautiful, important work that changes lives have to hit up all their friends to pay for their projects. And as several friends have so aptly noted, artists are all just passing what funds we have around to each other.

But the other way to look at the next campaign that shows on your newsfeed–and the one after that, and the one after that–is with defiance of the system as it stands. And as an opportunity to help with something with which you might not otherwise get to be part. Because even the tiny donations actually do make a difference. You get to help build something, even if you don’t have carpentry or singing or animation skills, or time to volunteer.

No, you’re not going to get a room at MoMA named after you, or a massive million-dollar gala thrown in your honor. But I assure you that your contribution will be just as appreciated by the artist(s) bitting their nails behind the campaign, and possibly more. They are throwing you a gala in their heart. When we were fundraising the last $50K for The Flight Deck, as an admin on the campaign I could see all those unspecified donations, and who chose to be anonymous, and every single donation meant the world to me, because it was another person believing in our project. Five thousand bucks is great, of course, don’t hesitate to give that if you have it, but five is also going to make a difference–especially the way the online campaigns and their freaky algorithms and “Gogo Factor” and the rest of it work. Each contribution nudges Indiegogo, or Kickstarter, or Hatch, or GoFundMe, to push the campaign.

Which is the other thing you can do, even when you absolutely can’t donate money. Cross-post the campaigns you believe in. You might not have the moolah, but someone in your network might just be entranced by what your friends are trying to accomplish. I have donated to campaigns for people who I didn’t know from Adam’s housecat because we had a mutual friend who shared the link. And I know how very hard it is for people to ask for that help.

Which is the long answer for, yes, I am going to keep posting other people’s campaigns, whether I can donate myself at the moment or not, because I choose to see the potential for excitement versus exhaustion, and I beg your patience with me for it. I know people who are doing amazing things, and until we live in a world where artists don’t have to struggle to stay afloat, this is one small way I can support them.

Theater Around the Bay: Sing a Song of Seven Sisters

Charles Lewis III is today’s guest blogger, with an extremely thorough interview of Marissa Skudlarek, author of the upcoming world premiere, PLEIADES. We’re super excited about the show, and encourage everyone to go. We’d also like to let Marissa know we have never used the term Box Office Babe ironically. “Babe” is a gender neutral term and we consider anyone willing to work our box office SUPER SEXY.

Poster by Emily C. Martin

Poster by Emily C. Martin

“Canst thou bind the sweet influences of Pleiades, or loose the bands of Orion?”
– The Holy Bible, Book of Job: Chapter 38, verse 31 (King James Version)

One of TheaterPub’s greatest strengths has always been its networking prowess. Its productions are unmatched in their ability to bring together such a disparate (some would say “motley”) collection of theatre artists to form lasting connections. It was during one such post-show mingle in the ‘Pub’s first year that I was introduced to an unassuming-yet-unforgettable Vassar gal named Marissa Skudlarek. We were both eager to make names for ourselves in the Bay Area theatre scene, but even as we spoke about a variety of topics (I remember Tristan & Isolde being a major one), I knew she was more likely than I to make a splash.

By the end of that summer, most of us knew her bright smile on sight when she warmly greeted each of us as first-ever box-office manager (aka “The Box-Office Babe”) for The San Francisco Olympians Festival’s opening year. What started as idea during a car ride to an Atmos Theatre production has become an annual must-do for the Bay Area indie theatre scene. Now in its fifth year at The EXIT Theatre, the staged reading festival has commissioned more than 130 new scripts; an equal number of fine art illustrations, mosaics, and needlepoints; two books; and the collaboration of countless actors, directors, and theatre technicians. To say nothing of scripts that have gone on to full productions.

It just so happens that the ‘Pub’s own “Hi-Ho, The Glamorous Life” columnist is the latest Olympians alumnus to get a full production. Having gone from the festival’s box office manager to playwright to copyeditor of the two Olympians books (Songs of Hestia and Heavenly Bodies), so too will her original script Pleiades, written for Year 2, graduate to a fully-staged run this August at The Phoenix Theatre. Based on the Greek myth of the seven daughters of Titan god Atlas, the play revolves around the seven Atlee sisters, their activist cousin, and a local Casanova in the affluent Hamptons during the summer of 1971. In the middle of her increasingly busy schedule, I was fortunate enough to pose a few questions to Marissa during the final hours of the Pleiades’ successful IndieGoGo campaign. We discussed how she’s grown as a writer, how the script has evolved since the original reading, and why a production with a largely female cast & crew is so important to modern audiences.

First things first: how did you get involved with the Olympians Festival during its inaugural year?

Almost five years ago now, I submitted a proposal to write the “Artemis” play for the first-ever Olympians Festival… but that was the year that everyone wanted to write about Artemis, so I didn’t get chosen. (This is one reason that an Artemis figure, in the guise of rabble-rousing feminist Diane, shows up in Pleiades.) I still thought that the festival sounded like a really cool idea, though, and I was fairly new in town and hungry to be part of the theater community, so I befriended Stuart Bousel and asked if I could help out with the festival. He mentioned the box-office job, and while it was unpaid, it meant that I could see all 12 Olympians shows for free. And that seemed like a great way to get acquainted with a lot of actors and writers very quickly, so I accepted the gig.

Who came up with the name “Box Office Babe”? Does anyone even remember?!

I feel like Stuart came up with the “box office babe” nickname, but I don’t think that I actually heard it used until Year Two, when Barbara Jwanouskos was box-office manager. I admit I’ve always been a little uncomfortable with that title and don’t tend to use it myself, because there’s something kind of old-fashioned and chauvinistic about the word “babe” (even though I understand that it’s ostensibly being used ironically here. Ah, hipster sexism).

One of the things I most remember from first meeting you in 2010 was that you weren’t all that fond of the term “emerging playwright”. One’s profile definitely raises with the production of their first full-length. How would you say you’ve evolved as a writer in the four years since?

Well, Pleiades is the only full-length I’ve written since leaving college six years ago — I’m not the fastest or most prolific writer, so it’s not like I had a wealth of plays from which to choose. If I didn’t produce Pleiades, it might be another 2 or 3 years before I write another full-length play that I’m proud of… and I wasn’t prepared to wait that long to have a full-length produced in San Francisco. Moreover, I felt that as long as Pleiades went unproduced, it was kind of blocking me from getting started on another full-length. It felt like unfinished business. I needed to see this script to fruition (in the form of a full production) before I could move on.

What was it about this script that you felt it had to be your first proper full-length production?

I wanted to produce Pleiades as a way of actively participating in the conversation about gender parity and feminism in theater that has become so prominent recently. There are all these statistics about how female playwrights and directors and actors are underrepresented, and rather than continuing to talk about how unfair that is and debate possible solutions, I just wanted to produce a new play that has a female writer, female director, eight female actors, and be like “DEAL WITH IT.”

Because I haven’t written another full-length since Pleiades, it’s hard to say how my playwriting has evolved. Maybe I’ve learned to be less afraid of my own voice? Pursuing my crazier whims, rather than trying to make my writing sound like everybody else’s. I definitely think I’ve become more courageous in terms of my nonfiction writing. Three years ago, I’d never have written that piece I wrote for Theater Pub recently, pointing out that ACT hasn’t produced a local playwright in 7 years apart from their own AD. I would have been too afraid of getting on Carey Perloff’s blacklist. But, well, the whole point of the article is that she’s not producing local playwrights, right? So what have I got to lose?

Katja Rivera directed your Theater Pub-produced translation of Jean Cocteau’s Orphée last year. At that point had you already considered her for the director of Pleiades?

At the time of the Orphée reading (April 2013) I wasn’t sure yet that I wanted to self-produce Pleiades. My feeling that I needed to produce the play grew slowly over the course of 2013 until, by the end of the year, it had become overwhelming, and I contacted Katja to see if she wanted to direct it. It’s like that Anaïs Nin quote: “The day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”

Some playwrights think the most daunting thing about self-production is raising the funds, or simply finding the time/energy to embark on such a major project. Those things never fazed me. For me, the most daunting aspect of self-production was always the problem of finding a director.

Did you ever consider directing it yourself?

I have never wanted to direct my own plays — I have no training as a director, no sense of how to block a scene, absolutely no self-confidence in that area. Plus, having a director handle the day-to-day aspects of production (rehearsals and the like) while I handled the big-picture elements (contracts, fundraising, marketing) sounded do-able… handling everything myself sounded like a disaster in the making.

Katja was definitely my first-choice director. I first met her in 2012, when she directed my play “Beer Theory” for Theater Pub’s Pint-Sized Play Festival. “Beer Theory” is a weird little play that, more than anything else I’ve ever written, tries to illustrate what it’s like to live inside my head, and Katja knew exactly what I was going for… I felt like she “got” me right away. Our collaboration on Orphée was also harmonious. Further points in Katja’s favor were that she liked the Pleiades script and she’s from a different generation than me — I thought it would be good for the director of Pleiades to have been alive in 1971, the year the play takes place. But it was still scary to send that initial email to Katja and ask her if she wanted to direct Pleiades! I was asking her to clear her schedule and devote months of her life to my work, for very little compensation. And I’m not sure what I would’ve done if she’d said no!

Another thing I recall from that first year is that you were fond of the phrase “Plays are never finished; only abandoned.” I remember seeing the original reading of Pleiades in 2011 and I understand it’s been read around the country since then…

Well, it’s only had one other reading since the Olympians one, and unfortunately I wasn’t able to attend it: the reading happened in Myrtle Beach, SC, on the same weekend in April 2013 that Katja and I were doing tech for Orphée!

What’s changed about the script since the Olympians reading?

The script still has the same basic structure that it had in 2011, but I like to think that it’s stronger. After the Olympians reading, I beefed up the climax to make it more cathartic. I streamlined certain scenes and expanded others. I tried to raise the stakes a little; I tried to deepen the characters and make them more complex. It’s identifiably the same story, with the same characters; but I think it works a little better.

Have you done any rewrites since announcing the start of production?

I did make some changes to the script between announcing my decision to produce the play (in January) and going into rehearsals in June, but they were fairly minor — rewriting half a page of dialogue so it flows better, that kind of thing. Act One now ends with more impact and has a better curtain line. I haven’t handed out any rewrites to my cast since the start of rehearsals, though.

Your story is about a group of women struggling to define themselves during the height of the Second-wave Feminist movement. One of the icons of that movement, Gloria Steinem, recently celebrated her 80th birthday. You’ve never been shy about defining yourself as such, but what is it about the word “Feminism” that seems to rub modern women – many of them high-profile – the wrong way; particularly the ones who claim to profess the very ideals for which the movement stands?

So it seems to be axiomatic among a lot of people that “young women refuse to call themselves feminists nowadays because they think it makes them sound like man-hating lesbians with hairy armpits,” but I don’t actually know how much truth there is to that. Supposedly, women between the ages of 18 and 29 are most likely to self-identify as feminists. If a young female celebrity says “I’m not a feminist because I love men,” as happened with Shailene Woodley recently, the Internet explodes with essays telling her why she’s wrong. Sometimes I feel like every female playwright I know is a feminist. Which is awesome! But it also means that feminism has lost some of its pungency. It used to be that if you said “I’m a female playwright and I want to tell women’s stories,” it made you sound kind of cool and edgy. Now it’s like “Yeah, so what else is new?”

Thanks to the Internet, more people are discussing and debating feminism than ever before, and feminist concepts (like the Bechdel Test) are entering the pop-culture lexicon. However, the Internet also has a way of magnifying people’s outrage; and online, the people who get the most attention are often the loudest, most extreme, angriest people. So a young woman might see this and think that to be a feminist, you need to be snarky, or bitter, or humorless, or antagonistic, or perpetually outraged, when none of those things are actually true. There are humorless feminists and hilarious ones; there are feminists who want to smash the patriarchy and feminists who want to dismantle it gently. It’s a broad movement. (uh, no pun intended.)

One other challenge of being a feminist is that, once you start calling yourself one, you have to examine your own unconscious prejudices and develop your own understanding of what feminism means to you. And each time you detect sexism, you have to decide whether you are going to call it out or whether you are going to let it slide — and both of those things are hard to do, for different reasons. Even if you live in a supportive environment, being a feminist is not always easy. It requires self-reflection and self-questioning, qualities that our culture does not always encourage.

Marissa Skudlarek takes her place amongst the goddesses. Photo by Tracy Held Potter

Marissa Skudlarek takes her place amongst the goddesses. Photo by Tracy Held Potter

You’ve often spoke of your fondness for productions with large casts and Pleiades is unique among contemporary independent theatre (particularly in the Bay Area) as it has a cast of nine that is primarily female. What were the steps you took to make all the voices individual and how did the traditional Greek interpretation of the characters influence the way you wrote them?

The thing about the Pleiades in Greek mythology, at least according to the sources that I’ve found, is that they weren’t very individual as personalities. They are treated like a unit, especially in the most famous story about them, the one that goes “Orion was chasing the Pleiades and Zeus turned them into stars to protect them.” They’re just objects to Orion — he doesn’t see them as individuals. I mean, how do you even chase seven women at the same time? Then I discovered that, maybe the Pleiades don’t have individual personalities, but some of them do have individual stories. The eldest three of them — Maia, Elektra, and Taygete — all had children by Zeus. In fact, Maia and Zeus’s son was Hermes. The youngest, Merope, married a mortal and was punished for it: she’s the dimmest star in the constellation. Artemis turned Taygete into a deer after Zeus raped her — whether this was to protect her or punish her is a matter of debate. I started to see how I could turn these stories into a play.

But you’re right that my most difficult task in writing this play was to figure out who each of these young women was, as an individual. And also to make the story psychologically credible, since it would be taking place in a realistic milieu (the Hamptons in 1971) rather than the stylized world of myth. It’s one thing for a myth to say “Zeus had children with the three eldest Pleiades,” it’s another thing for me to write a believable, serious-minded play about a man who has sex with each of three sisters.

Toward the beginning of the writing process, after I’d figured out the basic plot of the play, I took a day to just outline each character’s personality — listing the adjectives and qualities that define each young woman. I also decided, early on, that it was OK if not all of the roles were equal in size or importance, as long as each character had an individual voice. And, as I started to fill in the backstory for the play, I made a timeline listing the characters’ birth dates, key historical events, etc., and I had fun thinking about which zodiac sign each of my characters might be and matching their astrology to their personality.

In addition to your writing, you’re also quite renowned for your impeccable fashion sense. That having been said, the 1970s aren’t generally regarded as a high-point in 20th century fashion, particularly in the United States…

I actually kind of love ’70s fashion! Especially the early ’70s, which were fascinating. The hippie looks of the late ’60s were still hanging on, and there was also a revival of ’30s and ’40s fashion… it could be pretty glamorous. We have a vintage Seventeen magazine from June of 1971 as one of the props in the play and I’ve had great fun browsing through it for inspiration. It makes me want to grow my hair long and walk through a meadow in a gauzy dress!

What was your and Katja’s philosophy in regards to dressing nine different characters of affluent means in the Hamptons of the early-‘70s?

One thing I’ve insisted on from the start is that I do not want the primary message of the costumes in the play to be “look at the kooky things people wore in the ’70s.” I fear that that would distance the audience from the story. I don’t want people to see this as a “period piece” that has no relevance to life in 2014; I want them to empathize with the characters and relate to them! Obviously I don’t want the characters wearing anything that stands out as anachronistic, but a lot of them will be wearing clothes that could work equally well in 1971 and in 2014.

This fits with my play, too, because my characters are old-money WASPs, which means that many of them favor classic preppy styles instead of wacky trends. And they’re at the beach, so they’re dressed fairly casually. They may be an affluent family and they probably pride themselves on wearing good-quality clothing, but they’re not trying to flaunt their wealth or their individuality through their clothes — in fact they would probably consider that quite gauche.

Earlier this year Allison Page gave five reasons encouraging self-production. In the beginning you seemed to want to do everything about Pleiades yourself. What inspired you decide to co-produce with No Nude Men Productions?

My collaboration with No Nude Men basically means that I can Facebook-message Stuart with all of my silly newbie-producer questions and he’s honor-bound to answer them, because his theater company is nominally producing the show. I also got to use the NNM list of press contacts when sending out my press release. It’s not a financial arrangement (no money has changed hands in either direction) and I still am mostly doing everything myself.

I didn’t approach Stuart asking if NNM would produce Pleiades — he actually suggested it to me, and I took him up on the offer because it seemed to offer some advantages and no significant downsides. Unfortunately, there is still kind of a stigma around self-producing (people wonder where the line is between “self-production” and “vanity production”) and I thought it could only be a good thing if my play was associated with one of SF’s longest-running indie theater companies, rather than being “a Marissa Skudlarek production.”

What’s been the most valuable lesson from the collaboration thus-far?

The biggest challenge I’ve had as a producer was finding a set designer, and after I put out feelers to one designer, I got a rather snarky and aggrieved email in reply. Stuart calmed me down and reminded me that, even though I was desperate to find a set designer, that’s no reason to work with people who seem like they’ll be rude or difficult.

Earlier this year you were in the middle of Bay Area theatre controversy when a playwright took personal issue with your review of his most recent work. And yet as artists we’re meant to be aware that we have very little (if any) control over how our work will be interpreted. Were it up to you, what message would like people to walk away with after seeing Pleiades?

I don’t want to get too spoilery, so forgive me if this sounds overly abstract. But I would say that the message of the play is something like “terrible things can happen, but sisterhood can help you get through it.” The world of the play contains malice, violence, and sexism; it also contains humor, courage, and kindness. As such, while bad things happen in Pleiades, I really hope that people don’t interpret it as one of those bleak, nihilistic, “everything in the world is awful” plays.

As mentioned above, I also want people to see the connections between the era of the play and the present era, and to think about how the lives of young women have or haven’t changed since 1971.

Would you invite the aforementioned playwright to one of the performances?

I’d be fine if he came, as long as the rest of the Bay Area theater community didn’t try to turn it into something sensationalistic. The last thing I want is to have people gossiping about me and this playwright and wondering “Ooh… What’s he gonna say about her play? Is the feud going to continue?” Really, at this point I wish people would just stop talking about this so-called controversy.

With a full production now under your (haute couture, envy-inspiring) belt, what are your plans for the next one? Bigger cast? Musical numbers? Sychronised swimming routine?

I don’t actually know. I still love big-cast plays and will continue to advocate for them, but producing Pleiades has made me understand a little better why producers prefer smaller casts: a big cast means more schedules to juggle, more costumes to find, more stipends to pay out! Sometimes I think that my next play should be, like, a really tightly-structured slamming-door farce; sometimes I think I should go in the opposite direction and write something abstract and lyrical. I know that I don’t want my next play to be too similar to Pleiades; it’ll probably be a while before I write another family drama. And I’d like to try writing something set in the present day — it’d be nice to sit down and write without having to do historical research first! But nothing’s certain yet. As Claire Rice writes in “Europa” (one of the plays that will be published, along with Pleiades, in the forthcoming Heavenly Bodies anthology), “What a great burden an open and unknown future is.”

The Atlee sisters look toward the future. Photo by Serena Morelli

The Atlee sisters look toward the future. Photo by Serena Morelli

Pleiades runs Thursdays through Saturdays, August 7 to 30, at the Phoenix Theatre in San Francisco, August 7 – 30. Tickets are on sale at http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/780504. For more information or to get in touch with the Pleiades team, please visit http://PleiadesSF.wordpress.com.

The San Francisco Olympians Festival, for which Pleiades was first commissioned, will have its fifth annual run this November at The EXIT Theatre in San Francisco. The producers of the festival are currently running an IndieGoGo campaign through August 1st in support of this year’s entries. To learn more about the festival – including artwork, cast lists, and synopses of all plays throughout its five-year history – please visit http://www.sfolympians.com.

The official Pleiades poster at the top of this article was illustrated by Emily C. Martin. Emily’s work can be found through her official site: http://www.megamoth.net The official cast photo for Pleiades was part of a set taken by photographer Serena Morelli, whose work can be found on-line at http://www.serenamorelli.com.

Charles Lewis III considers himself privileged to have seen both the original reading of Pleiades and the very first Olympians Festival. He’s even more pleased to see what each has become in the years since.

Hi-Ho the Glamorous Life: Some Thoughts After a Successful Crowdfunding Campaign

Marissa Skudlarek, running on producer time.

I read Allison Page’s and Anthony Miller’s recent critiques of crowdfunding with interest, because at the time they were posted, I was running a crowdfunding campaign for my show Pleiades, which opens in two weeks.

Now that the campaign’s concluded and we made our goal, I feel compelled to chime in with some additional thoughts about the experience of crowdfunding.

Anthony mentions the idea that “people are more likely to support an all-or-nothing Kickstarter campaign than a you-get-whatever-money-you-raise Indiegogo campaign,” but to me, that feels like it’s largely a rumor. (Perhaps Kickstarter is spreading this myth in order to prevent people from defecting to Indiegogo?)

Instead, in my experience, crowdfunding campaigns often fail when the perks they offer don’t seem appealing enough. Working in theater, we have the opportunity to offer a really great perk that, unlike T-shirts or coffee mugs, doesn’t cost anything to manufacture: a ticket to our play. Thus, when I see theater crowdfunding pleas that don’t offer a ticket as one of the rewards, or offer tickets only to the most high-rolling funders (say, requiring you to donate $100 in order to receive a ticket that normally costs $25), I think that the people running the campaign have been shortsighted. Your most enticing perk should be offered at a level where it seems like a good deal, not outrageously overpriced. For Pleiades, we offered a pair of tickets for a donation of $70, which ended up being our most popular perk (and our average donation was just above that, at $79).

I’m really glad that crowdfunding websites exist. Had Indiegogo or Kickstarter not been invented, I’m not sure if I would have had the confidence to self-produce a play, because I wouldn’t have known how to raise the money. And if I didn’t have the $5,000 from my Indiegogo campaign in the production budget and had to subsist on ticket sales alone, I’d really be panicking right now.

But, like Allison and Anthony and other intelligent people who are feeling a little burnt-out after the onslaught of crowdfunding projects this year, I see some dark sides, some discontents, to this trend as well. Although crowdfunding likes to associate itself with virtues like charity and altruism, I found myself becoming less altruistic while my campaign was running. It made me greedy – I checked my email more compulsively than ever, hoping each time to see an email from Indiegogo saying that there was a new contribution to my campaign.

It also made me think about the fine line between asking your friends to support your dreams, and monetizing your personal relationships. I found myself having evil, mercenary thoughts like “If only I was close friends with this person rather than mere acquaintances, if only I’d been better at keeping in touch with my friends from high school and college, they might donate to my campaign!”

There’s also a problem with the way that crowdfunding taps into the larger societal trend of Instant Gratification, and for all I know, exacerbates it. As I mentioned above, I do choose to support campaigns based on the perks that they offer – and while part of me feels like this is being a smart shopper, part of me feels like it is antithetical to the spirit of giving. I should donate to a campaign because of what it will offer to the world, rather than what it will offer to me. And I realize that I can become easily seduced by a campaign that seems especially shiny or flashy, or that gets media attention. No, I did not donate to that damn potato-salad Kickstarter, but I did donate to Amanda Palmer’s a few years ago, mostly out of curiosity and a desire to be part of the zeitgeist (I was not really familiar with Palmer’s music).

And in an instant-gratification, Instagram world of hipper-than-thou hipsters, the less-flashy crowdfunding campaigns can have a problem. It’s especially acute for campaigns that aren’t one-shot endeavors, but are yearly and recurring. The San Francisco Olympians Festival, for instance. We believe that this festival is an important part of the community; it’s been around for five years and we want it to be around for a dozen more. But for that to happen, the festival will also need steady contributions from regular donors.

Start using phrases like “steady contributions” and “regular donors,” though, and the whole thing starts to sound boring and adult and institutional. Loyalty to a cause used to be a virtue; now I fear that loyalty is seen as synonymous with naivete or dullness. Crowdfunding has made it so that anyone can ask for anything at any time; perhaps now it’s time to remember that we should be careful what we wish for.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. Her play Pleiades runs from August 7 to 30; tickets are available here. And if she hasn’t used up her “give me money” karma this year, she also encourages you to donate to the San Francisco Olympians Festival Indiegogo.

 

The Five: Five Questions to ask about Bay Area Theatre Crowdsourcing.

Anthony R. Miller is back with part 2 of his crowdsourcing lists. This week, he asks questions.

This was only going to be one list, I was just going to make a list of crowdsourcing campaigns that I wanted to draw attention to. However, having just helped run my first Kickstarter campaign, and after looking at so many incredible campaigns, I began to see the enormity of all this. Crowdsourcing is only going to get bigger, and that could be a great thing or a terrible thing. It depends on where we go with it.  So here are five questions to ask about crowdsourcing before jumping in.

Why should I do a crowdsourcing campaign?

You should do it because you can, because you want to put something into the world. To put it in the most idealistic terms; crowdsourcing sites like Kickstarter and Indie Go-Go allow anybody with a computer and a smart phone to reach out to the world at large and say “This is my idea, please give me money.”  You no longer have to pitch your idea to a producer who will ask you to cut it to 4 characters and 90 minutes with no intermission. You don’t need to Kevin Smith-it and rack up thousands of dollars in credit card debt, you don’t need to be independently wealthy, and you no longer need to float your budget on ticket revenue alone. More and more people will self-produce, more artists have a shot at telling their story, and it will be told the way they want. Dreams are gonna come true! Hooray! Arts Funding for all, right? Well, sorta. Because everybody can attempt crowdsourcing to make their project happen, they do. And, despite most theatrical ventures asking for funding in the Bay being very good causes, not everyone makes goal. So in addition to doing it because you can, do it because you need to. Which brings us to:

Why shouldn’t I?

You shouldn’t if you don’t need to. To take an example from the Indie-film world, a few years back, Filmmaker Kevin Smith considered crowd sourcing his film, Tusk. He eventually went the traditional route of finding a producer to finance the film for the simple fact that he could. He felt that people that can find funding in ways other than crowdsourcing, should do it and leave that money for the people who need it. I’m not going to give criteria on who does or doesn’t qualify; but if you have the resources to produce without crowdsourcing, you probably aught to. When talking with folks who have run campaigns to fund a show, they all find the experience exhausting and scary. Crowdsourcing shouldn’t be seen as an easier route, but simply A route; grants, angel donors, or producers who want to support your vision are certainly less abundant (A strong reason why crowdsourcing is necessary) but they’re still there.

What’s the difference between Indie Go-Go and Kickstarter?

Oh there’s a few, but the one I’ll talk about is that of Fixed Funding vs Flexible Funding.

Kickstarter is solely fixed funding, so if you don’t make your goal, you get nothing. Indie Go-Go is the increasingly Arts-friendly of the two, this is in part due to its flexible funding model, an option in which you can still get some of them money you raised even if you don’t make goal (IGG takes a bigger cut in this case.). This is pretty awesome for self-producers; making 2000 is still pretty darn helpful even if you didn’t raise 4000. Now, there is larger debate about the “message” or “Urgency” that comes from Kickstarters’ Fixed Funding. It can be argued that by going the “All or Nothing” route it says that you’re not messin’ around, or it makes making goal all the more urgent. This is based on the notion a person is less inclined to give if they know they get money no matter what. Obviously, there are good reasons for both, in the end it’s your call. One sweet thing about flexible funding is that you get charged to your card right then, not on the day the campaign ends, so you don’t have to make sure you keep $25 dollars on your bank card for 20 days.

Are we all non-profits now?

If you’ve ever received a phone call from your local non-profit theatre asking for a donation, you’ve heard the phrase; “Ticket sales only cover 50 percent of our operating costs”. Even the big kids on the playground like Berkeley Rep and ACT rely on a strong donor base to cover operating and artistic costs. So if crowdsourcing is allowing independent producers to do the same thing, are we all essentially operating as non-profits? In a reductive way yes, we’re all doing it for the same reason, to put on a high quality show without charging everyone 100 dollars a ticket. But what we don’t have that the big kids do are Development Departments, brilliant people who have incredible ideas on how to raise money, and the resources to carry them out. Kickstarter and Indie Go-Go give us the ability to be our own development departments, we provide perks for donors, have a database of donor information, and it allows us to keep in contact with all of them. Now there are other things (besides being a registered 501c) that make you a non-profit, like a mission statement outlining a desire to play a strong role in the community as well as a plan for exactly how you plan to do so. And yes, documentation proving you actually did give back in a quantifiable way. So if we are going to operate and fund our projects like a non-profit theater, then we have to decide if we’re going to do work that serves our community in some way or give back in ways above and beyond just putting on a great show. (Spoiler Alert: The ones that do, often make goal, I’ve given to several campaigns not because I was dying to see the show, but just because I felt like this show needed to exist.) But should we all be non-profits? Maybe, or maybe not. Non-profit regional theatres had to switch their models for fundraising in the mid-sixties when the Ford Foundation ceased its proverbial showering of money on them. They then became far more dependent on individual donors, and it worked great when rich people cared about theatre. The model that worked for 50 years isn’t working as well anymore for a barrage of reasons. So, being an actual non-profit isn’t exactly a sweet deal either. The pain in the ass about those darn development departments is that you in fact have to raise more money, not for production costs, but to pay for your development department. There is something to be said for making a profit, or at least attempting to.

Is it sustainable?

It can be. One thing that stood out to me in all my research was that for every SF Theatre campaign I saw, I knew somebody running it, or I had seen a show in the space. The Bay is a Small community, if you add up all the campaigns that have happened, are happening, and will be happening soon you have about 400K in money being asked for in SF theatre alone. Now that’s not much if you’re Reading Rainbow or Pebble Watch, but if you’re putting on your show in a local 60-seat black box, costume shopping in your own closets, and having lofty goals of paying people something- as Jesse Pinkman would say; “That’s mad cheddar Mr. White”. So it looks like everybody is asking for the same money. That’s half true; there is definitely a community of people that are always going to give $25, $50 because they want to help their theatre scene. As more campaigns spring up, folks won’t be able to fund everybody they want, or as much as they want. That however, is not the whole story. Each campaign is different; they are done by different people, for different plays, theaters, festivals, and dream projects. We all have a circle of friends and family that get turned to for help. This option however, has its limits, your friends and family may start to raise an eye brow when you’re on your third dream project in a year. Also, each project has its own base of people, fans who will be exclusively interested in that project theme (this base wants to feel involved, so make sure to give them cool perks to keep them feeling wholly invested). The point is that it’s not one source of money, it’s several, or at least it better be. Crowdsourcing allows us to cull every resource into one place. What will make this viable is not depending on one source. Before going into a project, look at your existing resources and build around those. What will also help keep this movement going, is giving back; promote other campaigns and donate to them. Finally, what will make this sustainable is working towards needing it less, don’t ask for your whole budget, be smart with your money, and don’t settle for breaking even, make money so you can do another show without a Kickstarter campaign. (Or at least wait a year or two.) Small companies and independent producers in the Bay are seeing a world of opportunities in crowdsourcing, and that’s a good thing. But with great fundraising power, comes great responsibility. The idealist in me is very excited; the pessimist has a lot of questions.

Anthony R. Miller is local playwright, director, producer and that guy who won’t stop calling about renewing you theatre subscription. His show; TERROR-RAMA opens this October at the Exit.

Higher Education: Show Me The Money, Part One

Barbara Jwanouskous’ first column of 2014 is asking some tough but vital questions. 

This is the last week before the second (and last, for me) semester of the dramatic writing program at CMU. Over the course of the holiday, I’ve gotten to link up with various people and re-connect with the Bay Area theater scene. One thing that I’ve been keeping my eye on is the A.C.T. Indiegogo for their project to research women’s leadership in residential theaters, and I hope others are keeping their eye on this too.

The idea for the project is that women’s leadership came from the statistics that point that women have never held more than 27% of the leadership positions in American nonprofit theater. A.C.T. seeks to discover why there are so few women in leadership positions and what can be done to achieve greater diversity in theater leadership. They plan to make a study with the Wellesley Centers for Women and conduct forums alongside HowlRound.

There are a couple interesting facets about the project I’d like to point out and then I’d like to start asking some questions. Let me get it straight that I’m neither in vehement support for or against this project, but I do find some things vague and I would like to open them up a bit more (if nothing else, so I can wrap my head around them…). That being said, this topic will probably get a lot of love from me, so this, my friends, is Part One!

Tom Cruise's standard money-getting turtleneck.

Tom Cruise’s standard money-getting turtleneck.

Though they used a crowdfunding platform to raise funds for the project, there was already been support from a variety of players.

A little background for those unfamiliar: Kickstarter and Indiegogo are known for their ability to raise funds and visibility for various projects using a social media to encourage funding. Kickstarter is an all-or-nothing platform where the goal for funding is established by the project creator whereas Indiegogo projects receive all the funds raised regardless of whether the goal is met. Those interested in supporting the project receive specific incentives for “investing” at certain levels with both services.

Both on the indiegogo project and on the page on their website, A.C.T. indicates that they are receiving a matching grant from the Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation. This means that whatever they raise from other donors for this project will be matched by the Toulmin Foundation (it does not indicate on their pages whether there is a cap on the matching level). They are also partnering with the Wellesley Centers for Women for the research (though they do not indicate whether partnership with the WCW is an in-kind service, or if they will use money raised to pay for Center services).

As of December 31, 2013, the indigogo project raised $6,805 for the project via indiegogo. A portion of that will have to go to indiegogo for administrative hosting fees, but the rest will be matched by the Toulmin Foundation, bringing the total for this research project to more than $13,000 – nothing to sneeze at if you’re a theater producer or arts organization.

They could be reaching out to their donors in a variety of ways other than through indigogo and their webpage.

I would be surprised if A.C.T. hadn’t targeted particular current major gift donors that were interested in women’s leadership within theaters. It would be easy to find this out since most foundations and donors indicate during the cultivation process what their priorities and interests are in funding nonprofits. A.C.T. has a link on their webpage encouraging folks to donate to the leadership project directly (not through indiegogo).

One of the main ways we used to encourage individual support for a matching gift from a major donor when I previously worked in fundraising at Second Harvest Food Bank, was to use our direct mail campaigns as a venue for this solicitation. The direct mail stats year over year indicated about how much revenue we would receive given on past history. I remember once we started using more challenge or matching grants (which, let me just say, are one of my favorite ways to raise support) we received even more favorable responses than in years prior.

That means, that instead of a total project budget of $13,000, they have possibly raised even more than that from other donors for this research.

So, one of my questions is, why would A.C.T. use indiegogo as a way to generate support for this project when they could have found it using their own donor base?

There are a variety of reasons why an organization would choose to do this – perhaps to receive greater widespread visibility for this project or perhaps it helped with the matching grant accounting to show which funds came in for the support of the research. I’d like to hear thoughts from you! Let’s keep this discussion rolling before I move on to the second part of this series.