Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Where does the money come from?

Contributed by Guest Blogger of the Week, Sean Williams.

Producing is a lot of things, yes, and I don't know a single producer who wears one hat, but if we are going to go strictly by our titles, then "Producer" is the person who finds the money to pay everyone, and then collects the money at the end. In a for-profit world, we find the money to build the widget factory, and then we collect the money from the people who buy the widget. Unfortunately, in our world, there's no factory and no profit, so as much as we hang on to these terms, they don't really mean what we want them to mean.

So let's talk for a minute about who is paying for your show.

1) Grants. I want to talk about grants for one second, because that's all they're worth. Yes, they are out there. Yes, you should apply and do everything you can to get them. But here is a fact for you, cold and hard - non-profit corporations bring in just over 10% of their funding through grants. That's ALL non-profits. And if you spend some time looking up grant application, you'll find that a vast majority of the available funding for non-profits out there is NOT for arts organizations, and the funding that is out there is being gobbled up. There is no holy grail in Grants. Please know this before you spend all your time and money becoming non-profit and 501C-3.

2) Funders. AH! Yes. Yep… This is… yeah. See, this is where it gets rough. But almost all arts organizations get all their money from individual funders. Basically from wealthier folks who are personal fans of the producer and his or her work. And this… It is what it is.

Should I try to defend this? I can't. I grew up as a lower-to-middle class American, going to public school, and then free junior college until I could transfer to a public university… but that STILL makes me one of the wealthiest people IN THE ENTIRE WORLD. I went to college, and my friends in college went into business, and their friends like our shows… you see where I'm going with this.

So, when you look at the professional theater world and you see a profound inequity, and you blame the artistic directors or the producers or whatever, please just keep in mind what I said about "Grants" above. These poor assholes think they have no choice.

But WE DO. And I'll get to that in a minute, so just bear with me.

3) Your Staff. These are the real source of your funding. Wait, you're saying, say, your actors have never invested in your company? Well, let me ask you this. According to the showcase code, you're allowed to schedule thirty-five hours of rehearsal a week, for five weeks, and then run sixteen shows over four weeks. In return, you're responsible to pay for the actor's transportation.

That's two months where that actor is forbidden to find other employment, and hundreds of hours of work, both in and outside rehearsal, all for the cost of a monthly metrocard. If you paid him or her *minimum wage*, then the rehearsal period alone would be $928. So, please keep in mind, when you're casting a show, who's doing whom a favor here. The actors are doing VASTLY more for you than you could EVER do for them. When you look at an audition room, the producers are the ones with their hats in their hands, and all you actors should know that.

4) Your Audience. Ah! This is where you will make back all your money, right? After all, if you sell out 90 seats a night, for 16 shows, at $18 a pop, you will earn almost $26,000!!!

It might happen, sure, but even if it does, that's no model to live by. Would you take a full time job that paid you 26k a year? That's what most of us spend on rent.

But what if you sell the show to an off-Broadway producer? Yes, that would be great, but far more likely is that THE SCRIPT will be optioned, not your production. And if the production is optioned, they will want you to help come up with the money. And then, suddenly, you're in the world of watching-your-back and obsessing-about-the-bottom-line.

We don't have to be those guys.

I mean, that's the fun thing, right? We aren't screwed into a corner the way the big theaters are. I went to the Devoted and Disgruntled thing here in New York a few years back, right after "Outrageous Fortune" came out, and BOY were people throwing a fit. Every regional theater, every off-Broadway group, every organization was freaking out about how screwed they all were, especially with the cuts in the NEA and the fear of a disappearing audience.

And I walked out of that place elated. Because five companies, that very month, were putting on episodic shows at the Vampire Cowboys Battle Ranch in Brooklyn, and when we weren't on stage we were all sitting in folding chairs drinking beer and yelling for our friends. These regional theaters were trying to figure out how to reach a new younger audience by selling skittles in the lobby, and meanwhile "Craven Monkey" was going up at The Brick.

We're in a better position than almost anyone in America as storytellers, writers, actors and artists. Think about it. I know, it's really hard to scrape together, say, ten thousand dollars, but EVERY SINGLE OTHER ART FORM requires so much more. You wanna go off-Broadway? For ten grand? You wanna make a TV show. A MOVIE? Are you kidding?  If you want to make a single *sculpture*, how much do you think that will cost?

I know that raising money is hard, but it should be a *little* hard, right? Your sole source of funding is "people giving you money", but that's true for almost everyone at all levels of theater. The difference is, nobody can make more with less. I am willing to defend the statement - no business in America can make more with less than the Indy Theater World. If you've got a thousand dollars, you've got a show, and nobody else in any industry can say that.

We're already light. We're already flexible. We already do theater in the back of a van. We're already appealing to a younger crowd, a group of theater people who don't know they're theater people yet. And twenty years from now, when the world wants to remember how culture got to be the way it is in 2032, they're gonna remember The Brick and Horsetrade and The Mad Ones and Cry Havoc and Rising Phoenix and Flux Theatre Ensemble… and if we just keep pushing, maybe they'll remember me and you too.


  1. Terrific--and in the end, heartening!--post. =)

  2. Great post, and I so relate to the feeling after that D&D event. All these funding hurdles just re-enforce for me the need to have a diverse portfolio. yes, just like a 401K.

    Don't put all eggs (& time) in one basket, but do keep pursuing every means necessary to make make the work: Do the fund raisers, but know they are more valuable for "cultivation"; Do the donor letters, but know that it takes more than fine prose to maximize the effort; Do write grant applications, but know that it starts with your local arts counsel (LMCC, BAC, etc.) and ART-NY's Nancy Quinn Fund.

    There is always more to do than we're ever able to do, so I try to spread them out on the calendar, and eventually, they add up. I hope the diversity helps me focus on the work in a way that is "light" and "flexible". Thanks for that.