It's become boilerplate in preshow speeches at local theaters: ticket sales compensate for only a fraction of the costs of putting on a play.
Over the years, repetition has dulled the urgency of that message. Meanwhile, economic and cultural shifts—including gentrification and a burgeoning artistic and nightlife scene—have substantially changed our region since the early 2000s, which saw the formation of Durham's Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern and Raleigh's Bare Theatre, two of our oldest independent troupes.
Neither group has its own permanent space for rehearsals and performances, and neither is in the market for one. This is no surprise in a region where rising rents represent most theater companies' largest expense, directly contributing to the demise of two major ones, Deep Dish Theater Company and Raleigh Ensemble Players, over the last five years.
All of these factors caused Bare Theatre and Little Green Pig to rethink the way they structure their fundraising and the relationships they build with their audiences and the larger community.
Taking its current production of Two Gentlemen of Verona into regional parks and outdoor public spaces across the Triangle prompted Bare Theatre to dispense with ticket sales altogether. Instead, the performances are crowdfunded through tip baskets at each run—and through a recent, successful Kickstarter campaign in which patrons purchased tickets not for themselves but for their communities.
And on Monday, Little Green Pig's Patreon page went live. In contrast to other crowdfunding sites, patrons on Patreon agree to support creators by donating a regular amount each month instead of supporting a one-time project.
"If Kickstarter is a one-night stand, Patreon is going steady," says Dana Marks, Little Green Pig's managing director.
The move is the cornerstone of an ambitious goal for the Durham theater group: to pay all of its actors and crew a living wage. This would improve the lives of performers as well as their work for audiences. As Arts NC executive director Karen Wells puts it, "it's a wonder there's any creative impulse left after they've raised the money to put on a play."
The shift also does away with an economic model—asking donors for money for individual projects—that Marks says no longer works for the company.
"I call it yo-yo funding: the money's there, and then it always goes back to zero and we have to start again," Marks says. "It's like a heart attack on an EKG. It fatigues our donors and it fatigues us, frankly."
According to arts systems analyst Devra Thomas, fundraising is "a huge issue" for most small, independent companies.
"There are never enough hands and hours to do the fundraising and the artistic work," she says. "It's a completely different skill set than most artists have, and they're not trained in it, so of course it's exhausting."
Little Green Pig company member Monica Byrne, who spearheaded the effort to shift the company to Patreon, has been using the platform to fund her own work since last year.
"The present model enables people to keep thinking art will just come to them," she says. "We're at the end of pretending that is true." Byrne cites the success of Cocoa Cinnamon as a major inspiration.
"They've educated the community, saying fair trade is important, and paying our workers a living wage is important," Byrne says. "That's what we want to do: set a standard for the treatment of artists across the city, and create an ecosystem where artists can survive."
A five-dollar monthly pledge via Patreon will earn supporters a ticket to each of Little Green Pig's four main-stage productions in the coming season. The annual cost to patrons is slightly less than the current price of four adult tickets purchased separately. Higher levels of support garner added benefits, including admission to house shows, rooftop concerts, secret cabarets, shows for an audience of one—and regular perks the company is calling "love letters and process porn."
Marks and Byrne think Patreon will fundamentally alter the traditional exchange between artists and the community.
"If you're a theater group, you typically interact with the audience during the show. Then, when it ends, you don't interact with them until the next run," Marks says. "This way, we're in a relationship that lasts all year long."
Bare Theatre artistic director Todd Buker also has his eye on a change in his company's relationship with the community. Whereas a traditional theater audience is limited to a self-selected group in a darkened room, placing Two Gentlemen of Verona in a public square breaks down those barriers.
"Anyone can walk by and see a show they might not have otherwise," Buker says. "It's the most democratic form of theater participation." The move is also savvy from a financial standpoint. Not having to rent venues for Two Gentlemen's run saved the group an estimated $3,000 to $5,000 in production costs. Because admission is free for all, the company has asked its patrons to think of themselves as investors.
"Buying a ticket is taken for granted these days," Buker admits. "But if you frame that to say, 'You're a partner, and you can be one for as small an investment as the price of a ticket,' that can increase people's commitment."
A living wage for production members remains a future goal for Bare. But, Buker adds, "I think Two Gentlemen may have shown us a way to do that." If so, stronger ongoing relationships and a new frame of reference for the exchange between creators and their audiences will have helped make the arts more sustainable in the region.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Going Steady"