Monday, April 28, 2008

Scott Walters

Scott Walters is a theatre blogger who's developing a theory of theatre tribalism (basically restablishing things like the living theatre), he's kind of a hippie, and he seems like the kind of person who talks too much (and coming from me, that must be quite a lot of talking, right?)
He recently encountered my blog (thanks to Jonathan West) and posted a comment, which i could not reply to promptly because my job's web filter blocks his blog and my own (i have to email in my posts).
Anyway, i eventually took the time to re-read his stuff while online outside of work and wrote this response. (his stuff can be found in raw form here: and more organized here  I thought some of you might be interested in it, as i think it summarizes my current state of mind. Though I must admit turn out and response to Cracks in the Floor, and The Alchemist in general is making me more optimistic every day.


Sorry it took a while to get back to you. My day job's webfilter blocks your blog, and i haven't had much time to get online outside of work recently. I have read your blog in the past, and spent some time re-reading it recently. I agree with much of what you are saying. I think you're putting together an interesting theory of how to run a company and i applaud your and others' efforts in that direction. My approach to running a company is less theoretical. I prefer trial and error. I'd rather do what i can and work out the problems as i go than spend time thinking about and working out what could be. My theoretical thinking is more interested in what it'll mean once we figure out how to do theatre in such a way that this medium becomes important and relevant again, and more importantly, what will happen when we artists come to dominate the economic system generally.  If you want more of that, read my blog, especially the earlier posts (they're the most general and theoretical).

As far as the focus of your work (how to run a company) is concerned, there is, as always a disjunct between the theoretical and the actual. When it comes to running a company, i am more interested in the actual, and i think a description of how our company is run might help give you some actual data to fill in your theory. I say this because our company, Insurgent Theatre, follows many of your prescriptions, and has encountered some difficulty with them.

Decentralization- Insurgent theatre is based out of Milwaukee, WI. On it's surface Milwaukee seems like it should be a great outsider city to do theatre in, and there is quite a bit of theatre going on here as well as other arts. The city is supportive, or at least the city's public relations department pretends to be supportive of the arts and is attempting to make Milwaukee into an "art city". The Calatrava extention to our public art museum is the oft-touted example of this. The problem is, all this support flows to only the most conservative institutions, the big budget theatres and organizations, the ones whose spending is tipping towards arts administration while cutting back their actual arts production. These organizations get gimmicky million dollar "public art" lightshows (see: while the street-level culture is completely neglected if not outright discouraged by the powers that be (the government and private donors).

Meanwhile the blue collar, outsider artists and youth cultures who in Nylachi can be counted on to support independent artists and challenging material have a hard time getting away from the bars and ballgames, not to mention their television sets, in this city. Insurgent Theatre does everything a company can to welcome new (ie younger) theatre audiences. We never charge more than the cost of a movie ($8) for a show. We do theatre in the most accessible non-pretentious venues possible. We do original works that are current and relevant. We're probably doing better than any other company in the city as far as percentage of the audience being new to theatre, but even we have to beg and plead with young Milwaukeeans to get out and give the medium a serious chance.

Maybe we're going about it the wrong way, maybe our marketing sucks or our content is too off-putting or arty (we do try to challenge our audiences), but if so, changing what we do requires either developing much more sophisticated and involved marketing, or tailoring our content to pander to the beer and brats, or ironic-pop-culture-reference crowd here, which is really no different than hiring a marketing director and pandering to the audience. Maybe Milwaukee is just a bad fit, the wrong city to decentralize to, but we've fought to create this company here for five years and we're hesitant to admit defeat and move to another outsider city with may have just as poor likelyhood of supporting what we do.

On a recent trip to New York, it seemed pretty clear that if Insurgent were an off off broadway company it would flourish. We'd at least be in the middle of a large audience pool who actually think of theatre as something to do on any given night. Maybe the grass only looks greener there and we would actually get totally swamped in NYC, but i don't think so.

Localization- we all have full time jobs, or are full time students with part time jobs. I work a full time slacker job with a good deal of downtime, which i use to work on writing plays, setting up meetings and events, solving problems and handling other paperwork functions of the theatre company. This job combined with my frugal lifestyle allows me to put away a significant amount of money which i will live off of when i either quit my job and commit to Insurgent Theatre in Milwaukee as a full time job, or admit defeat on this city and move somewhere else. Working this slacker job provides and steady income and is a more reliable good use of my time than volunteering and giving back to the community in hopes that the community will then support us as you reccomend. That's the thing about community involvement with an ulterior motive, it can work for corporations with giant donations, but on a grassroots volunteering level, people can see your actual motives and will ignore them.

Sustianability- Insurgent Theatre has never spent more than $1500 on a show. Most of our shows cost more like $300. This is before labor costs. We do next to no fundraising, selling a few $25 ads in our programs getting a few private donations of no more than $200. Every show has made money on the door, and all that money is divided amung the workers on that show. Half is given them in cash, and half in ownership of the company. There are numerous environmental benefits, and waste-reclaimation inherent in running a company this cheaply, but more importantly, it allows us to be sustainable in terms of keeping out of the red without becoming dependent on donors, or taking personal financial losses.
This has costs though, many of the most talented techs and actors, people who we've put on the stage the first time, move on to take shitty little roles in other companies with higher pay or more prestige. They sacrifice creative control, involvement in the company, the doing of what i consider "real" theatre, and even personal growth with us for bit parts in dying mainstream and traditional theatres. We can puzzle over these people, say that they're foolish or selling out, or we can do better economically and make it so they don't have to make that kind of choice in the first place. We need to develop a competitive economy to retain talent, but doing so involves expanding our administration, risking financial stability or compromising artistic integrity. All the things we are very hesitant to do especially when I hear from you, Jonathan West, Mike Daisy and so many other people closer to the theatre establishment how such compromises do not pay off.

Business Model- you call for a business model in which people commit absolutely to the company, pool incomes and share returns. Maybe again, i live in the wrong city, but there just aren't many people willing to make that kind of commitment here. People prefer to treat theatre as something between a hobby and a part time job, something they do in addition to their primary money-making employment. Even if we all did theatre full time, if a found a slew of people wanting to make theatre their primary purpose, i'd prefer to see companies (including mine) acting less like tribes with all that social control, cliqueishness, and group identity. I prefer to see a bunch of radically unique individuals who come together as free agents to produce something that is greater than the sum of it's parts. As an unorthodox Marxist, i tend to see tribalism as a pre-capitalist construct and therefore less efficient and less free. Radical free agency is a post-capitalist system, more beneficial in terms of efficiency and individual self-realization and more historically progressive, in a sort of Marxist-Hegelian sense. But now i'm getting overly theoretical.

Anyway, i'd like to hear what you think about these things, and i hope what i've said has helped inform your ideas. I'd like to discuss things further, and open the discussion to the public. If you'd like to post this to your blog, and also email me any responses, it will make it much easier for me to keep up with the discussion.

thank you

Rex Winsome

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