2013: The Year of Transition

January 5, 2013 by  

Some of my Civic Theater students and Fringe producers.

I am employed full time as the LifeRaft program director for the SAG Foundation. I have been at the job part time since October, as I did not want to bail on my teaching commitments half way through the semester. First you might be asking, what is LifeRaft? The LifeRaft program is a series of professional development workshops and seminars to help educate actors about the business side of the entertainment industry. The transition is I will no longer be teaching at the university.

On so many levels taking this job was an obvious decision for me. A 401(k), health benefits, and pension would be something I never would receive as an adjunct professor. The school that I was teaching theater courses at was not ready to offer me a full time position. Also the Foundation job lies within my field and allows me the opportunity to meet so many industry professionals as well as the freedom to continue to audition.

With all that being true, I will also miss the APU Theater students and the work I was doing with them. I felt I was just starting to find my niche as a faculty member. Through teaching courses like Theater Education and Civic Theater, I was beginning to facilitate discussions around applied and community-based theater. Showing the students that they had more options than New York, Chicago or Los Angeles. Through starting the APU Fringe and 24 Hour festival the ideas of arts entrepreneurship were entering into the students minds as they had to learn how to produce their own work. It inspired me to have one student take her one-woman show to the Hollywood Fringe Festival, and I have two student producers wanting to go to the PAVE Symposium in Phoenix. These two students are from Mesa (just outside of Phoenix), started their own theater company that Linda Essig, head of the PAVE program, wrote about, but not until I talked to them about it, and made this connection, that I encouraged, more like demanded, that they go to the symposium. It also looks like there will be a handful of my civic theater students and Fringe producers that will be going to the ensemble creation techniques workshop led by the Ghost Road Company.

All this to say, as much as I am transitioning further into the film and television industry, so will this blog. While I deeply care about civic, community-based theater and arts entrepreneurship it is becoming clear that is not where my time is meant to be spent. At least not as this time in my life. That being said, I will not be completely off the map from those conversations. Anything I read from that field I will probably post on Facebook and Twitter (@dennisbaker), but not write much about it here. Though, Scott Walters has decided to go positive and start a whole new blog, that alone will need to be shared and tweeted about.

MBA Know-How Into Arts Startups

August 8, 2012 by  

Although art startups may seem inherently different from other industry startups, with regards to the creation of company culture, they are very much the same. In today’s post by Julianna Davies, the writer for the MBA Online, discusses how arts startups can take the lessons proffered by MBA programs to help create happy and productive company cultures. Expounding upon Dennis Baker’s post about company culture within the art world, Julianna emphasizes that employees passionate about their craft will lend themselves to the creation of good company culture.

Bringing MBA Know-How Into Arts Startups In Order to Create Good Culture

Designing a corporate culture is just as important in an arts startup as it is in an international corporation. With as many responsibilities as creative professionals have to balance, however, establishing morale often comes as an afterthought. This is usually a mistake. Though the work environments of theater companies, museums, and dance academies are quite different from businesses in any other sector, all have one thing in common: all are dependent upon the successes and contributions of their employees. A culture that embraces teamwork and rewards individualism creates harmony amongst staff, which leads to better productions, exhibitions, and end products.

The Upsides of Starting from Scratch
Startups are often at an advantage when it comes to making culture decisions. Instead of having to reform a negative ambiance or fix a toxic work environment, entrepreneurs largely start from scratch—the possibilities are all but endless.

This sort of possibility requires clear parameters, however. “Do you want to run it as a benevolent dictatorship? A cooperative? Or something in-between?” the American Association of Community Theater asks on its website for theater enthusiasts. Hierarchy and creative structure may also become points of contention. Choosing projects and divvying up administrative work are things that can cause resentment and frustration if not clearly addressed upfront. “Be very clear about the decision-making structure and lines of responsibility,” the AACT recommends.

Checking Off the Basics
Making decisions about the ideal sort of corporate culture to foster is an important first step. Actually implementing that culture is often a bit harder. Getting started usually requires the following, at minimum:

  • A mission statement that clearly defines founders’ ideas and aspirations;
  • A communication plan for conveying the mission to staff and new hires, often through bylaws;
  • A plan for funding decisions, including who specifically is responsible for what sort of fundraising or solicitation work;
  • A conceptualization of the target audience, which should shape a great deal of internal decisions and team aspirations; and
  • A decision about union-related issues, if applicable: whether staff can or should be part of a union is an issue best cleared up at the front end.

Joining trade-specific organizations—national theater groups, local ballet instructors’ associations, or museum guilds—can also be a good way to network with other professionals, particularly those who have already gone through the startup process. Memberships can be pricey, but are usually worth it to executives who know what they are after.

Valuing Staff
Most of what determines whether an arts startup will succeed is far more than funding, clientele, or the right “vibe.” These things are important, certainly, but without a coherent staff, even the best ideas are likely to flop.

“With the current climate and so few jobs available, entrepreneurship has really become a hot topic,” Medeia Cohan-Petrolino, founder of arts support group School for Creative Startups, told Britain’s The Guardian in 2012. When it comes to which startups will succeed, Cohan-Petrilino honed in on substance. “Some of them are brilliant but others just use all the right buzz words and lack any meaningful content,” she said.

Avoiding Appearances
The risk of “lacking content,” as Cohan-Petrolino put it, is that staff will be some of the first to feel the effects. An organization that looks fine on the outside but fails to keep its employees motivated and content risks dissolution from within. The Getty Museum, a Los Angeles landmark, was almost a prime example when it lost its director to “morale issues.”

“In the museum world as elsewhere, deep pockets do not always bring happiness,” the New York Times reported shortly after the Getty’s director, Deborah Gribbon, abruptly resigned in late 2004. “Morale at the Getty Museum has been low in the past several years, with staff turmoil and resignations.” According to the Times, Gribbon’s resignation “came as no surprise to the museum world.” The museum was able to recalibrate, but not without individual meetings between the board and curators and a complete overhaul of the corporate culture at play.

Differences Between Art Industry and Other Business Models
The idea of “corporate culture” is very much dependent on subjective facts: the industry type, market expectations, and staff backgrounds, to name a few. While some of the basic tenets of how to create a culture apply to businesses across the board, startups in the arts sector usually require a more nuanced approach.

Many arts groups are charities or not-for-profit corporations. Most are also driven by fundraising or ticket sales to things like gallery openings or theatrical productions—productions where the staff themselves either are or have produced the main attractions. How employees will interact in these situations, and how they see themselves as personally contributing to the success or failure of the organization, are very important cultural considerations.

Creating a culture of collaboration, respect, and creativity is essential in the arts world. It often takes time, but need not be challenging. In most cases, open communication, a shared vision, and a commitment to the underlying art are all that are required to get a positive corporate culture off the ground and running.

General State of Blogging & Writing

January 1, 2011 by  

Tom Loughlin and I seem to be at the same place in regards to our blogging efforts, more specifically the lack of blogging. (Side note: Great news about Loughlin pursuing entrepreneurial theatre degree for the SUNY Fredonia students.)

I know a part of that comes from the feeling that a blog post should be this great source of information on a given topic, with paragraphs flowing and flowing. I usually save the short, quick stuff for Twitter (@dennisbaker). That being the case, I am giving my self the freedom to post smaller messages. This might motivate me to use the WordPress iPhone app more, instead of waiting until I have hours in front of the computer to write a profound post, in which those hours never come.

Spending the first semester as a new adjunct at two universities, as well as family life, has kept me away from writing and performing. As I enter the second semester, two of my four classes remain the same so I hope to have a little more time to get some thoughts down. I am excited to be advising a group of students, and alumni, who are interested in devising, ensemble-based new work. As the advisor, I will take on a more reflective work coming into their rehearsals a couple of times a month (they will be meeting once a week) observing and helping them form and articulate what they want to create. I think this will help sharpen my reflective practitioner skills, as I will be able to help facilitate, while at the same time have some distance to reflect and write more formally on the experience. I need to start submitting to academic journals, and I think this project will be my first article topic. That being said, the actor in me wants to be in the mix of it and part of the physical creation, but unfortunately the timing of the meetings, and the extra finical burden of driving out to the school one more day in the week, will not allow me for deeper involvement.

I have also been commissioned by Theatre Journal to write a performance review of the Los Angeles Poverty Department’s production of State of Incarceration that runs January 28th and 29th. I saw a workshop production of it back in November and was struck by the topic of the California prison system filled to 150% capacity and the stories created by an ensemble, some prisoners once themselves. Hopefully all goes well and I will be published by the end of the year.

Reflections on 2010 Sojourn Theatre’s Summer Institute

July 3, 2010 by  

To read why I did this workshop read the blog post The Future Of Theatre.

Shelley Virginia, institute participant, summed it up well: “Finished Sojourn Theatre summer institution devising civic theatre, led by Michael Rohd. Amazing! I recommend it to any theatre artist, educator or community leader interested in using theatre to build community and create space for civic discourse.”

The participants were theater practitioners who were doing devised and applied theater work in a various of settings and were looking to learn more from Michael Rhod. The format of the workshop was familiar from my classes at NYU. We would be wearing two lenses while in the workshops. One lens was that of participant and the other lens was that of facilitator. We would first experience the sequence of exercises, or games as they were called, and then afterward we would reflect and ask questions about the facilitation. The experience level of the institute was broad, ranging from undergraduates just starting in the work, to older professors who have had years of experience as facilitators. This lead for great conversations and insights.

Michael Rohd is best known for his book, Theatre for Community Conflict and Dialogue: The Hope Is Vital Training Manual. It is a great book that introduces the author’s “Hope Is Vital” program and methods. It shares his vision and methods for creating performance workshops that actively investigate social concerns. The book consists of a series of gradually intensifying exercises leading from fun warm-ups to image-building bridge activities. While he has moved away from this process work, and into generative production work with Sojourn Theatre, his mastery of facilitation is based on this model and has deeply influenced aspects of the rehearsal process for their current production of On The Table.

A big component of the book is the purposeful sequencing of games in order to parse out a theme, idea or concept that the ensemble would be willing to explore. This was demonstrated through out the whole workshop. The first set of exercises we explored how can a new ensemble begin to connect to one another through using a common, physical vocabulary, which lead into a discussion of how an ensemble works through collaboration, aesthetics and dramaturgy. In the afternoon, games were played and the theme of responsibility emerged and the ensemble agreed upon wanting to explore that further. With the partner we had for the previous game, we shared personal stories of responsibility (or lack there of). From there we shared to the whole group one sentence summaries of the stories we heard, and then each pair picked a sentence they remembered someone else saying and created a physical presentation of that sentence. From there we discussed in small groups how one or two of the same stories were picked by each group and how we would could further explore those themes as facilitators.

The evenings were spent observing the rehearsals for their production of On The Table that opens July 15th. Most of the rehearsals that week were spent working on act one. Act one (read more about act two and three here and here) consists of a four person cast, each in Portland and Molalla. Through the research the actors have done, they created fictional characters that have come to together at a memorial service in 1980. The memorial service is also for a fictional character in the town, that is in some way connected to the fictional characters the actors are portraying. The goal of act one is to set-up the idea of people and place. During the performance, the actors pop in and out of being the narrator telling about the research and portraying characters in scenes they created. During rehearsals the teams set up the presentation of act one as a game where there are rules the actors follow, but the order in which the stories are told is kept open and fluid. It was interesting to see the same game structure used in the workshops being used in the rehearsal process. The teams were creating the script on their feet and exploring how structured the content needed to be in order to be clear to the audience, while at the same time fluid and conversational. This lead to some frustration as the week continued as some actors were eager to keep exploring the rules of the game while it was clear others wanted to have a set script and/or outline. What I connected to most was that is was truly an ensemble of people creating the show. While it was clear that Rohd was directing/facilitating, many times it was his role of asking the actors what they needed or wanted to explore that determined how a rehearsal was structured. The lack of hierarchy seen in a rehearsal of a traditional commercial, narrative script was refreshing.

Due to the type of institute participants that were present, the theme of leadership was strong. The last day and half Rhod talked more about site specific theater work. We were then broken into four small groups and picked an outside location in which to present a site specific devised work around the theme of leadership.

Don’t Think, Act.

June 12, 2010 by  

Doing a lot of reading in preparation for the Sojourn Theater Summer Institute. Here are some that are sticking with me:

Educating the Creative Theatre Artist by Sonja Kuftinec
“Should we be training students more pre-professionally, undergraduates for performance jobs and graduates for teaching jobs? Or should we focus more on interdisciplinary collaborations across fields that would redefine students as inquirers and artistic entrepreneurs? Surveys…suggest a focus on redefining undergraduates as artistic entrepreneurs, while experience with graduate students…suggests a model for more explicit teacher training.”

“…when asked what they would teach and what they wish they had been taught, reveal what might be lacking in some of our undergraduate training: collaboration, ensemble building, idea development, interdisciplinary approaches to creating art, listening, conflict resolution, community engagement, and application of artistic skills in a wide range of settings.”

“Conventional [undergraduate] production (and I would add BFA pre-professional) training tends to recycle a system that emphasizes the passivity of the individual actor rather than graduating students who can think critically and creatively about the value of theatre in society and who act upon those thoughts.”

Rehearsing Democracy: Advocacy, Public Intellectuals, and, Civic Engagement in Theatre, and Performance Studies by Jill Dolan
“A member of the acting faculty in my department at the University of Texas at Austin has a decal pasted on his office door designed in the ubiquitous Ghostbusters symbolic style that transliterates as “Don’t Think, Act.” Although I very much respect this man and his work with students and department productions, walking past this declaration of his values each day challenges everything I believe in as a theatre educator.”

The Future Of Theatre

June 2, 2010 by  

The below video put me over the edge. It started when I was taking an applied theater course at NYU. Learning about the work of Rhodessa Jones and Cornerstone Theater Company, I saw theater in context of true community. Being raised in the commercial theater context, I believed that participating in theater and community meant going to watch a play and sit in a dark theater, and then leave afterward with very little interaction with the other people there.

Soon after I signed up to attend Sojourn Theatre Summer Institute, I read the below quote from artistic director Michael Rohd, “One thing that gets said a lot about theatre is that a bunch of people come into a room and they laugh and they cry together in the dark, and that builds community. But I’m starting to think that’s bullshit: People crave something that involves more than sitting and watching.” I will be participating in a six day workshop June 21-26th, in Portland. This will be a time where I will determine if my artistic journey will take on a new path. To quote Cameron, one “not out of economic necessity, but out of deep, organic conviction that the work [I am] called to do can not be accomplished in the traditional hermetic arts environment.” To dive deep into becoming the professional hybrid artist that I feel I am already becoming. To become the person I already am.

My goal is to blog daily about the experience with my work at Sojourn, even though my days will be packed with ensemble work during the day and observing rehearsals in the evenings. Here is a little about the show Sojourn is creating, from their website. “On the Table is a theatre production involving inter-city travel, public dialogue, video and participation within the performance itself. Sojourn Theatre, in partnership with Molallas Arts Commission, The City of Portland and numerous local and statewide organizations, is creating this original world premiere theatrical event as an opportunity to start conversations that bridge urban/rural Oregon and wrestle with issues of identity, resources, values, and governance. Exploring the histories and connectedness of community partner sites Portland and Molalla, it goes beyond metaphorical bridge-building to physically move audiences across urban/rural boundaries.

Act I occurs simultaneously in Portland and Molalla, with a cast of actors performing for a fifty person audience in Portland, and a separate cast of actors performing for a fifty person audience in Mollala. Act 1 tells the stories of two families, one in each community, in the year 1975. Act 2 puts both audiences on buses with the actors driving towards each other. Act 2 brings the stories of these two fictional families from 1975 up to the present, so that when the buses arrive at a location halfway between Portland and Molalla, the story has reached the current moment of 2010. Act 3 brings all 100 audience members together, seated at tables of ten; each table consists of five Portlanders seated next to five Molallans. The play concludes, strangers meet and share a meal during this final act, and the buses then take everyone home.”

Some of my favorite quotes from the video:
We are engaged in a fundamental reformation.

Move from a time of audience numbers plummeting, but the number of art participants, people who write poetry, who sing songs, who perform in church choirs is exploding beyond our wildest imaginations. These people are being called PRO-AMs: Amateur artists doing work at a professional level.

We live in a world not defined by consumption, but by participation.

We have tended to polarize the amateur and the professional, the single most exciting development in the last five to ten years has been the rise of the professional hybrid artist. The professional artist who does not work mainly in the concert halls but around women’s rights or human rights around global warming issues or AIDS relief or more.

2 days left to win the Business Contest. Leave a comment with your favorite business card at the below post before 6pm EST on Friday, June 4th.

Guest Blogging

April 20, 2010 by  

I have been busying guest blogging, love for you to check them out:

2amtheatre.com is site that acts as a “gath er ing place for the atre ideas.” We’ll col lect and curate blog post ings from var i ous sources that con nect to one another and try to fol low ideas as they develop.

Guest Posts:
Delete Twitter Theater Profiles
A Theater Should Be Like A Bookstore

Theatre Arts Curriculum Transformation (TACT) is a website dedicated to the assessment and re-imagining of theatre training and education at the college and university level.

Guest Post:
Theater Curriculum Based On Professional Entrepreneurial Model

Ford Foundation Grants to Aid Arts Spaces and Their Communities

April 4, 2010 by  

At first this announcement from the Ford Foundation about a new $100 million grant scared me:

“As part of an effort to increase the impact of its giving, the Ford Foundation is to announce a plan on Monday to dedicate $100 million to the development of arts spaces nationwide over the next decade. The plan is by far the largest commitment the foundation has ever made to the construction, maintenance and enhancement of arts facilities.”

Oh great, more money poured into building new buildings. But then the article turned a corner:

“In addition to helping arts groups build new spaces and renovate and expand old ones, the latest initiative aims to encourage the construction of affordable housing for artists in or around some of these spaces and to spur economic development in their surrounding areas.”

“That group, Artspace Projects, has received more than $1 million toward, among other things, transforming an abandoned public school in East Harlem into such a development, in partnership with El Barrio’s Operation Fightback, a New York community organization.”

“The project is to include 72 units of housing for artists and their families and a large space that can be used for art exhibitions, cultural events, conferences and gatherings of community groups.”

“I think people are beginning to understand that spaces for artists and art are more than just buildings, structures,” she said ["Judilee Reed, executive director of LINC]. “The way these spaces animate their communities and the relationships they have to their communities is ripe for development.”

Maybe this is the beginning of something to get excited about.

I’m Not Delusional, I’m An Entrepreneur

March 14, 2010 by  

I am loving the below image by Hugh MacLeod. So much so, I am thinking of buying a copy, unless you want to make an awesome donation. His random thoughts on being an entrepreneur is something all artists should read. Is it delusional to think as an arts entrepreneur that I can create a work/life/art balance that allows me to pursue all my artistic avenues?

I was thinking about this when @JessHutchinson commented that artists are imploding by over-commitment, self-overwhelming, inbalance between life/work/art. This led to a conversation (a reason why Twitter is important) with fellow theaterosphere/2am Theatre people (#2amt) @nickkeenan, @RZrow, @dloehr, and @MaxEPunk. @RZCrow reminded us that, “We need to realize there’s time & sometimes we need to take everything in moderation.” I responded that artists “might be over committed, but this artist has to work three teaching jobs, because the art doesn’t pay.” I think this issue is at the heart of arts entrepreneurship. An entrepreneur looks for finical backing to support their idea, project or product. It is no secret that the arts don’t pay well and funding is difficult, so many artists take on other freelance/part-time work, like becoming teaching artists, because it is a way to use their art to connect with others and its freelance schedule allows artist to also work on their art. Due to this freelance nature many teaching artists work multiple part-time jobs to pay the bills. This, at times, creates teaching artists who are more teachers and less artists. Even though the idea that working a freelance/part-time job creates time and space for creating art, instead sometimes more time is spent going from part-time to part-time job and less time is spent on creating art.

As a teaching artist that works with three different organizations pretty consistently, I spend a range of 13-17 hours teaching a week and commuting 13 hours a week for a total of 26-30 hours a week on “teaching”. I also freelance in web design and SEO, to help pay the bills. I have other special circumstances that do not allow me to do theater at the moment (baby and wife that works three nights a week). Does your schedule allow you to create art or are you about to implode? How are you creating a work/life/art balance? Are you working part-time/freelance or as a full-time employee? To end with Jess’ question, “How do we begin to find true balance?”

Missional Arts Entrepreneurship

January 12, 2010 by  

I’m not certain that entrepreneurship is the right model. That still requires a capitalist approach. and capitalism in theater leads to middle brow dreck. – Comment by Uke Jackson, in Arts Entrepreneurship post

For some artists, the term entrepreneurship has negative connotations, as it is a term used mainly in the business field. For some, it means more about the focus on making money above anything else. Travis Bedard comments, in the same post as Jackson, “Folks [theater practitioners] who aren’t trying to ignore that we don’t have a widget to sell but rather are trying to adapt their model to monetizing what we DO have.” Theaters might not have a tangible product, but they are selling something. They are selling ideas and have a specific mission through which they are building relationships with their audience members. This requires innovation, creativity, teamwork, and the handling of ambiguity, all traits of an entrepreneurship mindsent. (Essig, 118)

There is a great journal article in the September 2009 issue of Theatre Topics entitled Suffusing Entrepreneurship Education throughout the Theater Curriculum by Linda Essig. Essig is director of the School of Theatre and Film at Arizonia state University and director of ASU’s p.a.v.e program in arts entrepreneurship.

The article proposes the definition of entrepreneurship to be “the spirit and process of creative risk taking”. With this definition in mind, entrepreneurship becomes mission-based, one that is designed to advance a mission rather than generate profit for shareholders. Essig links entrepreneurship to the arts by the themes of taking risks (artistic, financial, or personal) to create one’s own opportunities. “This idea differs from arts management programs which focus on how to run an arts organization, arts entrepreneurship focuses on how to manage innovation, ambiguity, and change required to launch an arts-based venture or support creativity in the performing arts.” (118)

When I was a freelance designer without academic affiliation over two decades ago, my actor friends and I used to wait for the proverbial phone to ring while waiting tables or working temp jobs. In a good year, the phone might ring often enough. But times change and the climate for theatre artists changes as well. There is more competition and fewer opportunities in traditional theatre forms in the major theatre cities of New York, Seattle, and Chicago than there were then. Yet, as small and medium-sized cities [with possibly less than 100k?] build performing arts facilities [read Don Hall's great post on government subsidized theater buildings], new opportunities arise to produce, perform, direct, design, or teach theatre as these new venues seek community-centered programming. (119)

While Engig goes into how artists need entrepreneurial skills like marketing a freelance career, negotiations, legal and tax issues, in the light of the topic of self-producing, the starting of an arts-based business is an aspect that I want to look at in the article. Through the performance arts venture program (p.a.v.e.), this arts entrepreneurship incubator selects twelve students to form a collective board that produces a season of plays in a black-box theater. These students, with guidance from the faculty, create a season of plays and run their own theater. Each take on the speicific roles needed like general manager, marketing director, literary director, etc. The student led theater has become very popular and generates 80% audience capacity for its productions. This mindset of creating opportunity filters into the type of entrepreneurial art classes provided at ASU. The arts entrepreneurship class itself was first taught in the fall 2007 semester:

This trans-disciplinary course relies heavily on guest arts entrepreneurs, who share their start-up stories with the class. The case-study approach is a common method for teaching entrepreneurship in business schools, and is adapted here for the arts-oriented student constituency. Another focus of the class is development of mission and vision: the culminating project of the course is not a full-blown business plan, as one might expect from the business school model of entrepreneurship education, but rather the development of a thoughtful and well-articulated mission and vision for an arts-based venture. (122)

The Phoenix Fringe Festival and Progressive Theatre Workshop are two projects created by students while in the p.a.v.e. program. The students applied and received up to $5,000 dollars in seed money to start each project. I agree with Essig that entrepreneurship is not a dirty word and that a theater artist is not selling out to business interests. Instead, in a field where opportunity is low, now is the time for artists to build up their business knowledge and skills to create opportunities for creative work. Below are some other programs that teach entrepreneurship with the arts:

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