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Howard Sherman: If you don’t buy these theatre tickets, we’ll kill this dog

All Our Tragic. Photo: Evan Hanover
All Our Tragic. Photo: Evan Hanover
Howard Sherman
Howard Sherman is a New York based arts administrator and advocate. He is director of the Arts Integrity Initiative at The New School for Performing Arts.
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It is not unusual to hear a theatre company announce that if it doesn’t raise a certain amount of money by such-and-such a date, it will be forced to close. A former boss of mine referred to this manner of last-ditch fundraising appeal, seen more frequently than one might realise, as a "fire sale". The metaphor always seemed apt. The spirit of this approach was famously spoofed by the National Lampoon humour magazine in the 1970s with a cover headline (and matching photo) that read: "If you don’t buy this magazine, we’ll kill this dog".

In Chicago, a 20-year-old theatre company called the Hypocrites has turned this model on its head. Earlier this year, it said it would no longer produce a set season, as a result of incurring deficits it could no longer sustain. Instead, it announced, it would begin producing only in collaboration with other companies with more sustainable income models, or would only produce works that were funded project-by-project, paid in advance. But this was no feint to avoid announcing a closure.

Two weeks ago, the Hypocrites posted a challenge to its audience. If it could secure 2,000 ticket commitments, be it advance purchase or pledge, by June 30, it would commit to producing a four-and-a-half-hour project in 2018 to be called The Aristophanesathon. This would follow on from its 12-hour All Our Tragic, which meshed material from Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. The company asked for $45 per ticket (which covers admission to the show and light food to sustain the audience through the durational event). The $90,000 goal is exactly what it needs to cover the cost of mounting the show.

Certainly we’ve all heard about crowdfunded projects, but those are typically grassroots efforts, either at a lower financial commitment overall or initiated by artists without an established reputation. For a historically subsidised theatre in the US, this may well be a first. It seems to be working, because it’s only two weeks in, and with almost two months to go, 1,014 tickets have been sold at the time of writing.

The Hypocrites’ executive director Kelli Strickland tells me the approach is not modelled on that of any other company it is aware of, but was instead the brainchild of its artistic director Sean Graney. “We have heard from a few companies that they are following the outcome closely for potential replication,” wrote Strickland, “but don't know if anyone else has actually implemented it.”

What happens if the project doesn't reach its intended goal? Would that signal a darker future for the Hypocrites? “If this one doesn't move forward, the company will try again to test whether it was the project itself that didn't generate enough interest or if the model doesn't work.”

The new model doesn’t preclude straight donations to the project. Strickland says that some have already been received and are being applied to the $90,000 goal. There’s also the potential for upside, as the schedule of performances won’t be sold out with the advance commitments, and single tickets after the initial 2,000 will be sold at $50 each.

While this week brought news that the National Endowment for the Arts has been spared from our president’s budget cutting at the moment, if only through to September, it’s a reminder of the precariousness under which many arts companies operate. The Hypocrites doesn’t have a large staff, and it doesn’t own its performance facility, so it's better equipped than many companies to experiment with a radical reinvention of the production funding and sales model. But if it succeeds with The Aristophanesathon and subsequent projects, it'll be charting a course for innovative approaches that may be required of established institutions and setting a template for emerging companies that doesn’t require an overcommitment before they’re ready to take on a full operational burden.

I may be slightly behind the times (or indeed, the era) in saying this, but I’m rooting for Aristophanes.

This week in US theatre

Opening on May 5 at Kansas City Repertory Theatre is the world premiere of Larissa Fasthorse’s What Would Crazy Horse Do?, summarised by the company as: “Twin siblings, the last members of their tribe, have just lost their grandfather when the KKK comes knocking with hopes of forming an alliance.” A provocative premise, directed by Sam Pinkleton.

From the perpetually prolific Joe DiPietro and the musical duo GrooveLily comes Ernest Shackleton Loves Me, a time-travelling adventure about a video game designer who manages to join the famed explorer on his Antarctic expedition. It opens May 7 at Second Stage Off-Broadway, directed by Lisa Peterson.

The start of the First World War is examined in Archduke, the new play from Rajiv Joseph, author of Bengal Tiger in the Baghdad Zoo and Guards at the Taj, opening on May 7 at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. Giovanna Sardelli directs the world premiere that is described as “looking behind the headlines” of Franz Ferdinand’s assassination.

St Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn is responsible for New York’s current mini-festival of the works of Irish playwright Enda Walsh. At its home base in Brooklyn, the company is presenting the US premiere of Arlington, opening on May 7, which was first seen at the Galway Theatre Festival, under the playwright’s direction. Concurrently, St Ann’s and the Irish Arts Center in Manhattan are presenting Rooms, an installation work also first seen in Galway, with three prerecorded monologues played out in settings that are fully realised replicas of separate interior rooms, limited to six audience members at a time.

Originally titled Table, the new musical The Most Beautiful Room in New York is making its debut at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, telling the story of a small restaurant struggling to keep pace with the hyper-charged New York dining scene. Opening on May 10, it’s composed by David Shire and has a book and lyrics by Adam Gopnik, a staff writer for the New Yorker magazine, and is directed by the company’s artistic director Gordon Edelstein.

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