There’s a thread over at Praxis on the post Giving up the dream? that bears some conversation. It began in reference to a Seth (super-marketer) Godin post provocatively titled Maybe you can’t make money doing what you love. Actually, hang on, it would be rude for me to post here without joining in on that conversation. One sec, I’ll be right back…
Whew, okay, my conscious is clear. Please hop over and check out the thread, it’s a quick enough read but too long to reprint, and it’s a concise summation of a problem that needs much, much more discussion, and then a whole lot of action: how to make a real living as a theatre artist.
This is all I want to do with my life: to be a playwright who workshops his work with his own company of like-minded and talented actors and who also occasionally – just when needed – gets to perform on stage with them. Oh, and I want to do all this and never have to pour another drink (hey buddy, make it a good one this time, eh?) for anyone ever again. There it is, in a nutshell, my own personal little dream. But I can’t do it. Not right now, and not anytime in the immediate future.
I’ve been working steadily towards this dream for quite a while now, and I think I’ve been working pretty hard. Lately, with a new production imminent and yet another new bar job started, I’ve been working so hard that sometimes I feel like running as far away from it as I can get. We’re making a product for a market that barely exists: an independent, small-house theatre audience. Sure, the big civics sell out large houses, heck, The History Boys at the GI Stage extended their run. But the bulk of those audiences don’t ever think to go to black box stage, it’s a subset of the art that doesn’t necessarily fit into what constitutes, for them, a night out at the ol’ theatre. Plus, let’s face it, they probably never even hear about us. Which is fine, okay, but where is our audience? How do we get one of those? One that complains loudly to us that we’re not putting up enough shows for them, an audience that looks for us instead of the other way around. We have to create that audience, somehow, as a community, where one has never existed before. The time has never been more ripe, as discussed today by the very smart Nick Keenan:
Most people – sorry, most theater goers – don’t realize that storefront theater exists. And, at least in our experience, they’re excited when they discover the art they already love being done in tiny, intimate spaces.
That’s from a post entitled Street Vendors make the best Lemonade. That’s us. The street vendors. Street vendors make a modest living doing what they do. They do it by getting out into the streets and talking directly to people.
The simple fact that I can’t make a living doing what I love right now is excrutiating to me. Me and many others, it would seem. I think about our marketing problem every day. I read blogs about it constantly, and I hear the same concerns echoed all over the theatrosphere. I also hear a lot of people saying that we should just put our heads down and do our art, do it for the love of it. But I think if we’re all doing that then nobody’s working on the commercial side of it, and if that’s not taken care of, why do it in the first place?
I took a marketing-for-the-performing-arts seminar a while ago with a room full of fellow indie theatre artists. We heard about how to advertise on buses, and bus stops, billboards, radio and TV. In magazines. I am by no means an expert on marketing, but I know that was the wrong group of people for that kind of advice. We may never get bus-advertising money, but surely we can get decent-living money. At the very least bartender money. You can live on that, I promise.
I have to put aside my art for now. This is a painful decision for me to make. I love making theatre, I have stories hammering against the inside of my skull trying to get out. I’m finally starting to understand what directing plays is all about. But I’ve come to the realization that I can’t put out the amount of energy that this deserves and bring in a paying audience and work another job that allows me to eat and be available to my family. Something’s got to give. Some of us, those with a predelection for the administrative side of the biz, have to champion this thing we love so we can all be free to do more of the work we want to do, and get paid for it. And hopefully, if we can figure out this marketing thing and make small theatre a necessary function for enough of the city, I can get back to doing what I want to do most. Which right now is finishing the greatest play never written about being a career bartender. And believe me, this is a piece that you’re going to want to see.
So I’ll be blogging a lot more about the marketing of theatre here in the future. About real marketing ideas that we can actually afford, innovative ideas like asking people to come to the shows. This, to me, is the greatest use for the theatrosphere, the facet of it that I get the most use out of, anyway. Because to do this it’s going to take a village. A very loud village.
Another great post Simon.
I’d like to add the while marketing is surely a key weakness/opportunity, the independent theatre world also has some other core business problems: a senior management vacuum; very few management mentors; systemic under-education on small business matters; no human resources strategies to speak of (acquisition, retention, development); low fluency in accounting, investing, and budgeting; and I guess a lot more.
In my opinion, the independent theatre industry needs to figure out a how to development far more firepower across all the management disciplines.
I think a vital step toward this is recognizing that these blind spots and knowledge gaps are directly affecting our work and our lifestyles, as you’ve argued eloquently here.
Yep, yep and yep. And to distill the problem down to its essence: all the aforementioned tasks are, to the creative types, capital-B Boooring. But we can’t hire people to do it all, because we don’t have any money. So there’s only one way up, it seems. Learn to love the business side or perish.
How about creative accounting?
No? Sorry. Low-hanging fruit.
But I would challenge “creative types” to actually live up to the promise of the title and start seeing that HR and accounting and investment management is actually pretty amazing and creative work.
It’s probably not realistic to expect the current swath of creatives to jump over to the management side of the business, though some of them would surely be more productive there (oh, snap!).
So maybe the answer is in recruitment. Let’s make it a priority to bring in one new “hire” a year. And it’s got to be someone who’s not a writer or a director or an actor. For heaven’s sake, enough with the actors already. You’re killing me. Go make a soap commercial. I’ll wait.
God. I sound like a broken record. Can I be the official complainer of the independent theatre world? What? The job’s already taken? Let me talk to the manager.
I think the independent theatre world needs more complainers, actually. I, for one, plan to keep complaining (coupled with action, of course) until this industry is a viable, self-sustaining business. Why do we think it can’t be?
“Why do we think it can’t be?”
Because we’ve never/rarely seen it work?
I’m with you Simon. I decided a while back that if I really believed in theatre (and not just myself in theatre) me and my MFA better knuckle down and help some of the people willing to suffer for their art. And I have found, as Ian puts it that “administration” is extremely satisfying creatively. The Fringe has taken up the vision of becoming community leaders in arts marketing. That’s been something that I have found a lot of people are interested in rallying around (yourself included). Keep up the good work.
Right on David. We’re building an army! An administrative army! Lock up your daughters!
Yeah or we’ll show them our spreadsheets.
This one makes me kinda sad. Partly because I am in a similar place to you right now. I mean, I love being a publicist, but in an ideal world, I’d be an actor. But as a single parent with a five-year-old son, I gotta be responsible, more.
Like the dream of ‘someday my Prince will come’ that we are sold from the time we can have Cinderella read to us, I want to believe…
That there is an audience.
That there is a way to create fantastic, homegrown theatre that doesn’t have to be commercial (or have ‘sex’ in the title).
That if we work hard enough, all our dreams can come true.
If I didn’t/wasn’t, I couldn’t go on. I’d have to get a job in a bank or something. *shudder*
That’s exactly it Bex, artists should be allowed to make a living practicing their art. That’s the crux. It doesn’t have to be ‘celebrity’ money, but it should be at least bank teller money. Some people don’t think that’s possible with indie theatre. I think they only think that because it’s never happened yet.
It’s going to take an astronomical amount of work. It’s going to take some wheel reinvention. It’s going to have a lot of detractors. We’re talking about revolution here, make no mistake about it.
Rebecca is an officer in the army, by the way.
This so hits home for me. As a playwright who has found a niche, it’s the marketing needs for the company that haunt my days and nights.
It really does comes down to community. Community, community, community. People who will talk to you, talk for you, love you enough to do things for you.
Seth Godin is, of course, a marketing guru (just picked up his latest Tribes) have you heard of Gary Vaynerchuk? He’s got an energy that’ll make you want to run to New Jersey you’ll be so excited, and I like what he has to say about creating a web presence, building a brand, and making money from it.
Yep Gary’s great too, I love that he video blogs. Very generous.
Great site too, by the way Lindsay. It’s a pleasure to meet you. Welcome.