At the end of yesterday’s post, I made a somewhat bold statement:
Each new member of the company must:
- Buy a share (The Lord Chamberlain’s Men)
- Be able to extend the living of the company
- Have multiple talents (or be willing to develop some)
I can hear some of you (and when I was younger, I would have been among you) protesting the first rule. “But I’m poor,” you cry. “Where am I supposed to get money to buy a share in a startup theater company? I can barely make rent.” The flip response might be to point out that Shakespeare likely didn’t have that kind of money on hand either, but he figured out a way; or alternatively, to point at all the young filmmakers maxxing out their credit cards to make a small-budget film. But neither really answers the question, which is a fair one.
And I must admit that the answer is based more on personal conviction than historical necessity. After all, Robert Porterfield didn’t ask the Barter Theater company members to do anything but show up, right? Daniel Quinn didn’t make Hap and C. J. pony up to become co-owners either.
As I said earlier, I am writing out of a conviction that it is important for the future of the theater for its artists to wrest control of the means of production, which means being an owner. And startups (that’s what a new theater company is) are usually bootstrapped by their founders, at least at first. (Pitching to venture capitalists usually comes much later in the process, and isn’t always a happy situation when the VC’s start putting the screws to you to start turning a profit.)
More importantly, however, my experience is that theater companies in the US don’t stay together long enough to capitalize on the benefits of continuity. It makes sense to me that Shakespeare wrote Titus Andronicus and the three parts of Henry VI when he was new to the company, and that Hamlet came after six years together.
And often the reason that contemporary companies split up is that many of the members didn’t really commit beyond the first show. Once the beer-soaked energy is gone, and when that first show is over (and has more than likely lost money because there wasn’t really a plan beyond “Let’s do a show!”), some members head for the exits and the next audition for something that might pay them a salary–i.e., they escape back to being employees.
You don’t want these folks; you want someone who’s in it for the long haul.
I think that it should be much harder to join a company, and much harder to leave one. I want company members who have weighed their other options and committed to being a part of something ongoing that is based on a vision they share.
So how much are we talking?
For Shakespeare, becoming a Householder cost him around 70 pounds at a time when the average artisan made 10 pounds a year, and a playwright made 6 pounds for writing a play. Let’s do some math.
Shakespeare cranked out three plays in 1599/1600. That’s 18 pounds, so buying his share cost him about four years work.
A day-laborer made about 10 pounds a year. If we use the lowest US minimum wage as a means of making an estimate ($7.25/hr), that comes to $15,080/yr. Shakespeare paid 70 pounds for his share, so seven times that: $105,560.
Did I hear a gasp? I sure as hell gasped when I wrote it. I had to remind myself that his possible annual revenue would be 100 pounds, which makes it a bit more palatable, since theoretically he’d make back his investment in the first year and a 40% profit, but still damned scary. It puts into perspective the level of risk Shakespeare and his fellow Householders were taking. Failure would have ruined them.
But no, I’m not suggesting that each potential company member needs to come up with $100K (although how many theater artists have “invested” similar amounts in order to get an MFA from NYU?). But the investment ought to be large enough to make walking away difficult. Very difficult. Yes, the famed comedian Will Kemp walked away from the Lord Chamberlain’s Men after what seems to have been a dispute with Shakespeare over Kemp’s tendency to improvise, but he sold his share to other company members.
Becoming part of a theater company should involve serious thought. It may take a while for everybody to come up with their portion. That’s OK, there’s no rush. And since this is a long-term commitment, each member needs to consider whether they can imagine working together that long. It’s a relationship, not a shomance.
But to reiterate: if everything went right, Shakespeare anticipated getting his investment back very quickly. That’s a critical orientation. Believing in the possibility of such a thing–that theater can simulataneously be good and make money–requires a real change of orientation for most contemporary theater people, who have accepted the belief that theater is a losing game that requires annual fundraising to balance the books.
This model is not a nonprofit, it’s a Limited Liability Partnership. More on that tomorrow.
forming a company (part 4): for profit or nonprofit? –>
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