Stop Forming New Theatre Companies?

The following reflects the opinions of the writer only and is not meant to represent positions taken by the Knightsbridge Theatre.

I passed a new frontier in my Twitter experience last night – I actually lost sleep over a tweet, which linked to the following abstract from a chapter of 20Under40, a publication which seeks to “re-invent the arts and arts education for the 21st century”.

ABSTRACT: In the past fifteen years, the number of non-profit theater companies has doubled while audiences and funding have shrunk. Across the arts sector, thousands of young artists are flooding the field, hoping for sustainable careers in the arts while even our most venerable institutions are looking shaky. Neither the field nor the next generation of artists is served by the unexamined multiplication of companies based on the same old model. This chapter introduces some models for a new kind of arts institution, explores alternative paths for emerging and mid-career artists, and proposes a new definition of sustainability. (Emphasis added.)

Admittedly, I have not read the book, and it seems there may be some good ideas in there, but the emphasized sentence above was enough to keep me grinding my teeth last night.

The multiplication of new theatre companies, whether or not they conform to the author’s structural preferences, are evidence of a vibrant, diverse theatre community, and new companies may bring experiments and risks of a sort that may not be possible under an established theatre’s structure.

The abstract seems to suggest there is a zero-sum game out there with an ever-shrinking pie of funding/audience, and new theatre companies will only weaken established companies’ chances. This is just not true. New companies create new audience for theatre because they start out with their own social networks as their audience, many of whom are relatives or close friends that are new to theatre or are not regular theatergoers. Additionally, if we can get more people in the seats enjoying theatre, eventually there will be greater political demand for arts funding. (Admittedly, macro-economic factors look grim right now regardless, but solutions to that are outside the scope of my knowledge.)

Finally, I was surprised to discover that the author, Rebecca Novick, founded Crowded Fire Theatre Company. Ms. Novick seems to have contributed to the very multiplication she is now opposing. Looks like a great company, and I doubt she regrets it.

What do you think? Are there too many theatre companies in L.A.? Should theatre artists always shop around for existing companies before striking forth on their own?

– Mark Petrie


About knightsbridgela

My name is Mark Petrie, and I've been a member of the Knightsbridge Theatre of Los Angeles since 2007. The Knightsbridge and the National American Shakespeare Company stage innovative new looks at classical plays, as well as the best of contemporary drama, musicals and new works.
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9 Responses to Stop Forming New Theatre Companies?

  1. Erin Daley says:

    THANK YOU! I too, was upset by the blog post and not capable of fully explaining myself in 140 characters. There is never anything wrong with a group of dedicated individuals who respect each others work coming together in the hopes of creating great theater or dance or art or throw pillows for that matter.
    So what if they aren’t the Wooster Groups or Moscow Arts of the world (which at one point were new and untested)? They could produce total rubbish but so what? If they can’t keep up they fail, and then “try again. fail again. fail better” (Beckett not me) With lots of work being produced there will be lots of competition, yes, but from that competition the cream will rise to the top, creating an entirely new theatrical landscape.

  2. Paul says:

    Hi Mark,

    Interesting topic.

    From an economic perspective, I don’t see the problem with viewing the theater community as a “zero/sum game,” either from the supply or the demand side of the equation. Theater companies compete in a free market for a limited supply of actors (and their dues!) as well as for a limited supply of audience members (and their purchasing power).

    Whether there are “too many” aspiring actors and theater companies out there is a judgement call that I would not be willing to make. But if there is a “problem,” the competition over limited resources will solve it. Companies and actors who adapt successfully to the marketplace will survive and those that do not, will fade away.

  3. Thanks, Paul, and yes, we certainly do have to continually challenge ourselves to keep people interested in what we do. And to the extent resources dwindle (for whatever reason), we will be forced to try even harder.

    Here are some more interesting thoughts I came across from Jim McCarthy of Goldstar – see especially his fourth point –

  4. Dennis Baker says:

    I am glad you brought up the topic.

    The first question I would ask, is what does the author mean by the “same old model”. I think that has to be addressed before a full critique can be had.

    If the assumption is made that she means what would be considered 99-seat theater in Los Angeles, or small theater companies in New York, the second part of the sentence that needs to be examined is “unexamined multiplication of companies .”

    Does that mean artists that create theater companies so they can make art and “work”? Isn’t that why the 99-seat AEA contract was created, so more AEA actors could do theater in Los Angeles? Is that inherently bad? No. But when the median income of an AEA member (including Stage Managers) is $7,475, and the weekly jobless rate for AEA members is 85.2% and percentage of AEA members that don’t work at all in a year roughly 55%, that leaves a lot of actors with the time to create theater companies. Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily, but that is a lot of supply. Is there the demand to back it up? Hard to say? Since many 99-seat AEA theaters have to charge its members dues to pay rent as they can not afford to pay the rent and cost of productions from ticket sales alone. I think it can be said that the supply does not fit the demand. When there are more people on stage than in the audience, there is a demand/supply issue. Granted, that could be due to quality, and the Darwin argument would be that they would be weeded out. But if the rent is being paid for by the members, the company can still exist. Does this mean that theater companies should not be created? No. Does it mean that a theater should do Shakespeare when there are four or five other theaters companies doing Shakespeare? I think that would classify as “unexamined”.

    What are examined ways? Still working on that. Maybe we should read Novick’s chapter as a starter. Regarding Novick creating Crowded Fire Theatre Company, what is the context behind it? The mission/history page does not mention her name. It says the theater company is in its 13th season. For all we know, she could have started it, and left after the first year. Also what she learned from that experience could be the source material for the chapter. She is available on twitter (@rebeccanovick) if your curious.

    As I mentioned on twitter, would love to see you at the #NewPlay Los Angeles Theater (#LAThtr) Satellite Meetup. I don’t know if this topic will be part of the conversation, but your passion for Los Angeles Theater would be great for the conversation.

    • Thanks, Dennis. As I mentioned, I have not read the chapter, and only the abstract is available online, so I admit there is some room for interpretation about exactly what it means. It could be that there are some marketing forces at work trying to stir up a little controversy just to get people interested, and I suspect we’re all pretty much on the same side in the end. Certainly, we all want to explore new ways of supporting each other.

      I just start twitching whenever a discussion of the business of making art starts sounding like we’re producing canned tomatoes.

      Ms. Novick’s bio on 20Under40 mentions that she was a founder of the company, but I have no further information regarding her tenure.

  5. As a matter of clarification, Rebecca Novick founded Crowded Fire Theater Company with a group of artists in 1997 and was the Artistic Director for 10 years before stepping down. We’ll update the history section on our website. Thanks, Tiffany Cothran (Managing Director, Crowded Fire)

    • Rebecca Novick says:

      Just making my way here a bit late to the conversation. And conversation is what I was trying to spark (and what is the opposite of “unexamined”) although sorry for the lost sleep Mark.

      I do hope you’ll read the whole chapter (and the rest of the book which is interesting, provocative, and complex) and I think it would answer many of your questions.

      I began writing about these topic because, having founded a fairly successful company, I was frequently approached by younger theater artists asking for advice on how to do that and found myself increasingly advising them to take care before jumping in with both feet to the world of non-profits. Another author in the book, David McGraw, talks about the sector being like an “old-growth forest” with limited light and air for new plants and I do think in that sense that there is a limited pie, with many resources sewn up by more established theaters.

      But what I’m really getting at is two ideas. First, in terms of artists who come together to make work as Dennis is discussing, of course I’m not opposed to that. Those Equity agreements work well for exactly this purpose – the opportunity to work together creatively outside of more established structures. But what I question is the urge to build more theater companies that are simply miniature versions of LORT ones when there are so many other more creative avenues, maybe with a better likelihood of success (and yes, building that kind of theater is exactly what I did, with many good outcomes but also a lot of lessons learned and hindsight acquired). Second, I offer a number of case studies in my chapter of companies that are exploring really new models, Sojourn being one of them, and urge people to examine structural possibilities if they want to make a new institution.

      • Rebecca,

        Thank you kindly for finding my post and responding, I really do appreciate it. Congratulations on your success, and thanks for your innovative ideas.

        But I’m sure you can understand how the abstract caused me (and others) some distress. Although it may be time to examine new avenues, it is quite another thing to claim that new companies based on what you see as outdated models are doing a disservice to the field. We may quibble about the qualifier “unexamined” but that is certainly how it reads to me.

        Personally, I’ve never had trouble getting to see all the plays I want to see. I doubt it’s a problem for anyone else, so where the heck is this supply problem everyone keeps talking about? If we were all producing the same play, there may be an argument for oversupply, but that is simply not the case.

        Thanks again for your response and all your hard work, and I’ll grab a copy of 20under40 soon.

  6. Pingback: Clarification of Comment on Creating New Theater Company | DENNIS BAKER

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