Hidden Treasure: Raising Money for Your Theater Company
by Bridget Dingle
To be a theater company or not to be. That is the question. And if so, the real question becomes, "how do we fund ourselves?" It's wonderful to connect with some partners and giddily announce the birth of your brand new company that will change the theater as we know it. It's another thing to actually do it. Just like a script that has to be broken down beat by beat, a company has to be built not only nail by nail but dollar by dollar. However, the end result of successfully producing your own brand of theater is intoxicating.
Starting Your Own Company
Whether you're reacting to a bad situation of working for a dysfunctional producing entity (nobody would name names) or simply share a vision, a lucky few have met, started a company and thrived. Seven years ago, Ralph Lewis, Catherine Porter and Barry Rowell launched their unique company. How did they come up with the name? In the spirit of fairness and teamwork that continues to be the trade mark of how they operate, they each picked a word and came up with Peculiar Works Project (PWP). Artistically, they share a desire to discover new ways to develop fresh, intelligent material for site-based performance. And they're succeeding. Last summer the play, Privileged and Confidential by S.M. Dale was cyber-simulbroadcast from the Gertrude Stein Repertory in New York and the Los Angeles Theater Center. The excitement generated by that production was as electrifying as lift-off from Houston's control room. This fits right into their belief that working in architecturally unique spaces impacts their work, which in turn impacts the site which directly affects the audience.
They made the executive decision not to get their own theater. On the other hand, for years, the Ensemble Studio Theatre (EST) has leased their space, a former warehouse practically next to the river on 52nd Street, from the city. Established in 1971, Curt Dempster and other founding members raised money amongst themselves and got a matching grant from the New York State Council of the Arts. Since then they've been an integral part of the theatre scene by providing a lifelong home for artists as they develop new American plays. This year, they received $10,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts for their famous Marathon of New One-Act Plays.
Pay to Play
The cheapest theatre to produce are one person shows but the majority of companies get together because their mission is larger than that. The early capital for all new companies comes from their own sources like credit cards, savings and rich friends and relatives who have space in high places. Or in the case of Fat Chance Productions, in low places. The basement of a beautiful Greenwich Village brownstone has been donated to this new company founded by Robin Whitehouse and Reed Ridgley. Their mission is to give emerging playwrights "a fat chance," so in addition to their full production of Shadow Boxers they launched their successful Ground Floor series. Readings and workshops are presented in their lush fifty seat space. They are very well attended and Reed says, "Robin and I have great business skills. I think part of the reason we've come so far in only two years is that the way to realize your artistic vision is through those skills. And one of our goals is to have our full seasons in a theater of our own."
It's not easy. Every theatre company has nightmares. The Present Company, famous for starting the New York International Fringe Festival, took over the Theatorium which is 7500 square feet of performing space on the Lower East Side. Alana Holy, the Producing Director, described the horror of getting a notice this January, alleging they owed unreasonable late fees for back rent. They were almost shut down but sent letters to everybody they knew, were gratified by the financial support and were able to settle with the landlord. This crisis made them aware that they need to raise funds for general operating costs to keep them stabilized. It's really not possible to survive on earned income alone. Ticket sales and concessions don't cover the never ending expenses which include space, insurance, utilities and even the cost of buying the paper tickets are printed on. Publicity is another necessary expense.
The Nuts and Bolts
All donations are genuinely appreciated and greatly needed, but the true patrons for the arts are the artists themselves because they have to hang onto their clear artistic vision. And everything takes time. People often have to apply for grants more than once before they get their first one. All of these companies incorporate, which is the first step toward non-profit status which entails getting a 501(c)(3) tax code. It's complicated and to take advantage of various funding with their many stipulations. Catherine Porter says, "The first thing any artist starting a company should do is go to an A.R.T./NY seminar.
A.R.T./NY, which stands for the Alliance of Resident Theaters in New York, was founded in 1972 by 49 Off-Broadway companies to serve and promote the new and vital not-for-profit theater industry. The very helpful Mark Rossier, A.R.T./NY's Development/Marketing Director, says, "The assumption is the artist knows his art but is not necessarily strong in administration and dealing with budgets, marketing and fund raising. We believe there's room for everybody and we help the organization support its artistic mission." They do advocacy work as well as redirecting grant money to theatre companies. In 1998-1999, they were able to award $81,000 in grants to 53 member theatres. Every candidate takes the "Positioning and Planning" seminar to become eligible to apply for grants which are decided by a panel of artists and administrators. A cursory overview of their services include one-on-one technical assistance, artistic leadership, debt consolidation, Board development, and cash-flow loans. Dues for organizations with an annual income of $250,000 or less are $125/year. Call them.
Just as theaters involved with A.R.T./NY are a who's who of Off and Off-off Broadway (Barrow Group, Blue Heron Theatre, York Theatre Company), the funds involved with A.R.T./NY are the who's who of grants. Included is The New York State Council on the Arts which among other things established the New York Foundation for the Arts in 1971, whose charter is to facilitate the development of arts activities throughout the state which launched Arts Wire, the first nationwide on-line communications network for the arts community. Also involved is the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the O'Grady Family Foundation, Pfizer, Inc. and many more. You can search the Internet for information on almost all of these.
The non-profit organization The Field, started in 1986, keeps the creative process at the center of what they do. Their mission is to provide a place where every performing artist, regardless of approach or experience, can take their work to the next level. They offer many inexpensive workshops as well as serve as the financial conduit for non-profit status to companies that don't have it.
Another local organization that is knowledgeable and helpful is the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council which offers grants as well as technical assistance programs. They also help companies help themselves stay solvent as they do their art. The wonderful woman who can give you information about their workshops is Fabiola Karimpour at (212) 432-1082, ext. 212.
Happily, there are many sources of revenue. The Foundation Center is a vast library of grants that also offers a proposal writing seminar. But Ralph Lewis feels it's overrated unless you know exactly what to look for. He suggested, "Read playbills and see who supported work that might be in the same category as what you're trying to do and contact them. Part of PWP's mission is to see our peers' work and be a part of the community, so we collect a lot of playbills."
The fact is everything cost money but it's possible to be as creative her as with your art. "We sometimes barter for rehearsal space," says Ralph Lewis. Some things are very expensive. A New York Times listing in the ABC's can cost hundreds of dollars. Generally, fund raising for any company includes direct mail campaigns. These are carefully constructed letters asking for donations which are tax deductible. Often reviews are used to back up the worthiness of the cause. Media coverage, which is free and ferociously sought after, is valuable both for visibility as well as the cachet. In their most recent fund-raising letter, The Wooster Group not only quotes Margo Jefferson in the New York Times but cites a review of their fierce iconoclastic work in Le Monde without translating the French. Throwing benefits are another mainstay for getting money. They can be as informal as a pot luck dinner or as elaborate as taking over a theatre for a specially planned night. Dixon Place, founded by Ellie Covan and relocated to their new gigs at 309 East 26th Street, has been a haven for artists experimenting as they explore their voices. They sell t- shirts and wild items which fit the atmosphere of this wonderful space. Often companies offer training programs which can be a big part of their fiscal strategy. Others rent out space in their theatres to cover some expenses. Other money for companies come from grants and foundations.
It's never easy to get a grant but if your theme is very specific you might have a slight edge. "Top funded groups know what they do, why they do it and can write about it beautifully," says Catherine Porter who is also a freelance grant writer. For example, the OBIE-award wining company New Georges was founded in order to produce imaginative new plays written and directed by women. This was in reaction to the scarcity of substantive roles for women. Some of their patrons include Nickelodeon's New Brain Fund and The Katherine Dalglish Foundation. You can see their latest work, Imagining Shadows, by Juliann France at the Ohio Theatre.
You start out doing everything yourselves and as the budget expands and success grows, ideally you're able to hire people whose sole responsibilities are grant writing and audience development. The Off-Off Broadway company's dream is to have their non-profit production transfer to a successful commercial run that rains money into their coffers like Rent is still doing for the New York Theatre Workshop. Although they score big in 1996, they've been producing challenging, unpredictable theatre since 1979. Remember, everything takes time. With a little luck and lot of hard work, hopefully prosperity is in your company's future, too.