BLOG: Artists make good company

by Alan M. Berks • Nov. 18

In depth |

“I think the skills that are necessary to live and survive [as a performing artist] are also necessary to make a theater company survive. Learning how to sell yourself as an actor translates really well into selling your theater into a viable business,” said Hal Cropp, Artistic Director of the Commonweal Theater in Lanesboro, Minnesota (pop: 700+), which employs ten full-time “artist-administrators” year round and another three seasonally to work in a $4 million performing arts facility that produces theater in repertory. “There’s no one who works for the company in a strictly administrative capacity.”

If you take a trip down to Lanesboro, you’ll find Hal himself taking tickets in the lobby one evening or serving drinks at the bar another, or acting in a show, or directing. You’ll find Adrienne Sweeney selling tickets in the box office or playing Hedda Gabler. Anyone you might see on or backstage in one show also helps out with other work for another show.

“It’s never presented like an artist has to do administration. It’s all presented in a holistic model,” described Hal. “You want the audience to receive the art in the best possible way, therefore you want them to feel nurtured. House managing. . . is helping the patron of the arts be placed in the most receptive position possible. Once people see the leadership of the company practicing what they preach, it becomes much easier for people to say ‘I get this.’ ”

Eric Knutson was Production Manager from 1999 to 2006 while also starring as Torvald in A Doll’s House and Stanley in A Streetcar Named Desire, among other shows. “It’s a great experience,” he said. “You know your audience. You see them in the coffee shops [in town], and you talk about the shows. There’s a great dialogue between people that you come to know by their first name.”

I’ve sung the ensemble song before at MinnesotaPlaylist.com—and not simply for actors, but also writers and designers. Call it whatever you like—ensemble, company, collective, cooperative—I personally think you should just call it theater since I believe that artists, not buildings or institutional bylaws and plus or minus symbols on the bottom lines, actually define a theater’s relevance, scope, mission, vision, and place in a community—but, whatever you call it, you can’t deny that ensembles often make it possible for artists to take risks, grow, and discover their best work.

Job security leads to job creation

“I’ve never been better because I’m hungry. I’ve never been a better actor because I’m desperate,” said Twin Cities actor Sally Wingert when I asked her whether she thought the insecurity of an actor’s trade helped make actors sharper and better. (I’ve heard this argument advanced in New York.) “I’m not better,” she repeated, “when I have a massive amount of anxiety.” In fact, she emphasized how the two ensemble companies she joined as a young actress (Actor’s Theater of St. Paul and Garland Wright’s ensemble at the Guthrie Theater) made it possible for her to grow as an actress.

Many, if not most, of the actors we consider most established in the local theater community were members of one or the other company with Sally. In addition to the artistic benefits, the stability of the paycheck helped them set up roots in a city that wouldn’t otherwise be considered an entertainment mecca. (Likewise, playwrights migrate to Minnesota when and if the Playwrights Center offers them a large check for at least a year.) You could look back 15-30 years and say that past sustainable, secure, salaried employment for artists actually created the community we have today.

Unfortunately, having a fixed number of actors on salary regardless of the size of each play is expensive. Some people point to the fact that Theatre de la Jeune Lune carried five artists’ full-time salaries as one of the reasons that led to their demise. Of course, another person just as easily could flip that Rorshach around: Look at what they were able to accomplish with five full-time artists on staff! They certainly survived as long, if not longer, than many other more traditional, less-acclaimed companies did.

Monologist Mike Daisey has already written passionately (and controversially) about why regional theaters were designed and argues vehemently that the system needs to be changed. For my part, I think that since the fixed expenses of a theater are always more than the ticket revenue, what difference does it make if we add real working salaries and benefits for artists to the cost of doing business? Of course—of course, of course—some theaters can’t afford this but some who can afford it, simply don’t do it.1

Back in Lanesboro

Back in Lanesboro, “A significant focus of the company’s mission is to put the resources that are generated back into the pocket’s of the people who make the company. . . This is a sustainable model. This is how you can keep artists engaged,” insisted Hal. He acknowledged that there are various individuals surviving as freelancers in the performing arts but “I would be willing to bet that they spend a significant part of their waking hours selling themselves and reselling and networking and doing the kinds of things that they need to do to keep themselves surviving . . . When you remove that, because the 13 people work for the company, they take that energy and focus on selling the company.”2

Of course, company membership is not for every artist—or even for every artist at every moment in their career. Eric Knutson left his great gig at Commonweal Theater in 2006 because, in part, “There was definitely a sense of potential burnout. I wanted other challenges. . . You start to wonder, Am in the fishbowl? Am I improving, or am I kind of doing the same thing? As an artist, am I getting stuck in a rut? You don’t know and maybe you’re not, but after a while you have to go somewhere else to shake things up.”

Even Commonweal has experimented with their own artist-administrator model over the years, moving from a group of core artists to an “artists cooperative” to a more hierarchal structure recently. And Eric notes that the production manager job is probably better handled by a designer/artist-administrator rather than an actor (who is worried about his lines, among many other things, during tech week).

Probably all artists should challenge themselves to leave a secure situation for an insecure one, sometimes. Probably all artistic organizations need to find ways to remain flexible, artistically and economically, and bring in new blood. But as you can see at Commonweal—or on even larger scale, at the Children’s Theater Company in Minneapolis—providing stable, salaried positions to artists, including them in the administration of your organization, doesn’t preclude those things from happening.

It won’t work for everyone, but the institutions that can afford it need to make a commitment to bringing artists (actors, and writers, and directors other than the artistic director, and designers) into the fabric of their organizations. It can and should work for a few more people than it does—and the community (of artists and audience members) undeniably benefit when artists know there’s at least a better chance to be rewarded for good work in the performing arts with a sustainable life in it.

1It should of course be noted, and applauded, that the Guthrie Theater consciously supports an informal ensemble of actors by considering in their artistic decisions the local available talent, by paying the highest actor salaries in the nation, and by spreading around understudy gigs, judiciously. Still, a regular freelance gig doesn’t come with the same opportunities as a salaried position. Put another way, the full-time Marketing Associate becomes, in no small way, more essential to the theater’s identity and vision, generally, than any given actor because everyone else who works in the theater has to make sure they can work alongside that Associate, and other administrators, day after day after day. Any given freelance actor can simply be let go and never rehired. Actors know this, by the way, and it effects their willingness to risk and challenge, whether they admit it to anyone or not. Note also that there are no writers in this picture at all.

2 The more common argument I hear against maintaining permanent company of artists is, in all sincerity, NOT ACTUALLY ECONOMIC. A stable company of artists puts limits on the artistic vision of the Artistic Director. I understand this argument but hate it anyway. This implies that the only artistic voice that really counts is one, usually male, person—who in many other cities isn’t even from here.

We’d all like to be king, I guess, but that doesn’t mean that we should organize nonprofit institutions as though Feudalism (i.e. the king and the “noble” board of directors make decisions for the peasants) were an economically viable, let alone moral, system.