July 22, 2011

Theatre as community organizing and entrepreneurship

Over at Parabasis, 99 Seats is discussing dynamic ticketing in theatre. While the discussion about this particular topic is interesting, I'm more intrigued by how it (once again) reveals the tension between for-profit and non-profit models for creating revenue in theatre. Or rather, the tension between the desire to create theatre that is accessible to everyone with the reality that creating theatre is really fucking expensive.

The value of theatre is most often described in its social impact - it's power to awaken, to inspire, to educate, to explore, to connect, to delight, etc. Yet, ironically, butts in seats determines a great deal about how most institutions function.

And now for a detour that's not really a detour.

I'm a member of the Anti-Racist Alliance women of color group, which I came to through the undoing racism workshop by the People's Institute for Survival and Beyond. At our last meeting, I expressed my growing restlessness when it comes to social justice. While dialogue is crucial, and I enjoy talking to people who really want to learn, this is no longer sufficient for my growth as an artist-activist. When the other women of color heard this, one of them said, "You're becoming an organizer," to which several others nodded or said, "Yup."

This shift in focus and effort is beginning to influence every aspect of my life, from how I want to earn a living to the kind of work I want to do to the kinds of conversations I want to have. This is not a dismissal of the discussion, but a desire to transform ideas into action. While it can be stimulating to once again wrestle with these perennial issues, the debating, explaining, and analyzing seems to be a distraction from the real question: How do we get out of this mess?

For a certain cantankerous professor (said with love), the answer is geographic decentralization. For others, it might be thinking outside the black box for performance spaces. Personally, I'm attracted to exploring the link between theatre and social entrepreneurship and/or lifestyle entrepreneurship. How can we change the way we make theatre so that it does what we believe it's best for while giving us a sustainable lifestyle that allows us to follow our passion? How can we organize differently so that we have an abundance of theatre's essentials (people, time, and space)?

For example, WOW Cafe Theatre does not operate as a production company, but as a collective of different artists and individuals who gather and create work in a particular space for the purpose of empowering women through the performing arts. As a result of the way they organize and how they used their resources, WOW is able to make creating theatre a hell of a lot more accessible than any theatre organization I've ever come across. The weird thing is that I've seen no other group like it in NYC. Where are the other places that do things differently? What can we start doing today to change things?