At the Boston Theatre Conference this past February Barbara Lynch gave a keynote address to kick off our conversations about what the theater community can learn from the slow food movement. Chef Lynch spoke about a shift in the industry that has been a game changer. In the past, she said, chefs held their recipes close to their vests and kept them secret. Now the dining experience is what matters. The recipes can be shared, because they aren’t the important part.
I have had a number of conversations over the past few weeks have all come around, sometimes circuitously, to two talking points I want to address in this blog post. Actually, they aren’t just talking points. These two observations need to become action items our community adopts in order to flourish in these challenging times.
IT IS OK TO ASK FOR HELP
For a collaborative art form, theater has a lot of silo thinking. We keep secrets from who we are casting to budgets to marketing strategies. We create our resumes, websites, portfolios, and audition materials on our own, and then put them out to the universe hoping for immediate return. Asking for help, or advice, is seen as a weakness to the foundation of the silo.
I suggest that asking for help is a sign of strength. It shows a willingness to rethink entrenched positions, develop new skills sets and adapt to the current climate. While theater itself is a very old art form, the business of theater has changed dramatically over the past few years. Social media has revolutionized communication. Funding sources and strategies are not as reliable as they once were. Audiences have different buying patterns that are hard to predict. Technology provides opportunities, but these opportunities are hard to leverage well without budget, expertise or both. The list goes on. Group thinking on strategies to adapt strengthens us all. Let’s break down the silos.
Sometimes asking for help is bigger, and has shame attached to it. The shame of failure. The shame of misjudgment. The shame of not being able to keep up with the constant state of change. Whether you are an organization or an individual, shame has power. But asking for help changes that dynamic.
Help can come from a number of sources. For theater artists, the Theatre Community Benevolent Fund can help navigate unforseen hardships. Professional development opportunities bridge other gaps, or offer new perspectives. For organizations, the community of StageSource offers a number of resources. Additionally, there are other service organizations with have expertise in a number of areas.
SOMETIMES IT IS OK TO STOP
Stopping can mean a number of things. For individuals it can be taking a break from theater. Working in another industry for a while or exploring other related career options. Rethinking strategies. We are planning a number of programs and conversations this year that will address some of these issues.
For an organization, stopping can mean taking a break. Organizations may take a break from producing in order to raise funds, create new work, explore new performance venues or realign artistic visions, especially when they are starting up. For larger organizations, this could mean a hiatus, or stepping down the number or scale of productions in a season. Stopping can allow a needed breath in order to move forward.
Stopping can also mean closing.
In commercial theater the question of when to close down is clarified by the economic mission of the production. Notice I didn’t say it was easy. Closing is never easy.
Non-profits don’t close (typically) until they close. And usually the community doesn’t know they are closing until the board posts a statement on the website. (See IT IS OK TO ASK FOR HELP above to avoid this unhappy surprise.) Sometimes organizations don’t make it for business reasons.
But there is another school of thought on this subject. Last year I read an essay in 20 UNDER 40 by David J. McGraw about the Epoch Model for non-profits. See an abstract of the chapter here, and a blog post about it here. Please look at both of these resources.
The Epoch Model suggests that some non-profits should have a limited life cycle built into their mission. Obviously this isn’t a prescription for the entire sector. But the option of saying “we’ve done the job” and stopping opens up opportunities for some organizations. Opportunities for artists to explore new paths in different ways. Opportunities for organizational leaders (boards, managers and artistic leaders) to celebrate their successes and then move on. Opportunities to keep evolving in different ways, rather than being tied to a mission. And an opportunity to say “mission accomplished.”
As a region New Englanders are known for a certain reserve. As a theater community, that needs to change. What do you think? Are you willing to ask for help when you need it? Are you open to conversations and collaborations? Post public comments here to start a discussion. And feel free to contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.