a #neverbedark approach to making more art

Three years ago, at Sycamore Rouge, we built six acting cubes, and it not only changed the way we rehearsed- it changed the way we opened the doors to artmaking.

Like many theatres, we produce a five-show mainstage theatre season. We have a commitment to new works, but as a young company (Sycamore Rouge is just now in its sixth season,) the “new-work-risk” is not always one to which marketing staff members and board members readily agree. We quickly moved from asking the question of “how do we continue to produce new plays?” to “how do we provide a means for new work to be produced?” The latter question led us to analyze how we could serve not only new plays, but playwrights, directors, producers, and actors.

Our theatre is unique because in addition to our mainstage theatre season, we also produce cabaret & burlesque, and music, too, with a major focus on jazz and blues. We realize that weekends without programming mean weekends without income. We’re a cabaret-style theatre with tables & chairs & couches instead of traditional theatre seating, and we boast an amazing bar & table service preshow & at intermission. Income for us is often as accurately calculated by bar sales as by ticket sales.

We are, however, a theatre first and foremost, so we set out to find a fit for creating more theatre & keeping our doors open for theatre productions more frequently.

Our first attempt at a solution for creating additional theatre opportunities (and one that is now a funded, ongoing series) was our Six Blocks Series. The idea was simple: the Six Blocks Series would provide the means for presenting new, innovative, and exceptional theatre (at an extremely affordable price for potential audiences) that would otherwise not be a proper fit for Sycamore Rouge’s main stage theatre season. This series would fill three weekends not otherwise taken in the season schedule. With only six acting blocks as flexible scenery and basic lighting (lights-up/lights-down), our artists are given a performance space for a three-night run to create art focused on the script and the actors’ talent, not on lavish costumes and scenery and lighting & other technical elements that make additional productions financially impossible. The process is competitive, and we choose three applications from all of those submitted. Sycamore Rouge provides the chosen producers/directors with marketing and box office support (covered by our existing staff members) and two nights of rehearsal before a three-night (thursday-saturday) run at a $10 ticket price. All proceeds are evenly split between the theatre and the producer.

To date, we’ve been able to produce seven additional productions, including three new works. This year’s slate of productions is still under deliberation.

The only alteration to our annual budget for adding this program was to provide a line to cover the upfront royalty fees for applications that entailed published works. If the producer/director requests that Sycamore Rouge cover these costs up front, we do so. The total of rights & royalties are taken from the box office before a payout occurs; if the production does not make enough to cover the costs, Sycamore Rouge takes the hit (but for a maximum of three, three-day runs, this is a manageable line item; we’ve always come under budget.)

After one season of a successful start to the Six Blocks Series, we returned to the questions of promoting new work and new artists. To this end, we set aside two dark weekends (one in the fall & one in the spring) for a 24 Hour Theatre Experience! (we’ve decided the italics & exclamation point are crucial.) Essentially, this project is run by our Assistant Producer (for a $100 stipend, for those curious about how we afford the project) completely through facebook. He sends out a call for writers, directors, and actors, and selects accordingly. All planning & communication, delineation of responsibilities, etc. commences online.

The 24 Hour Theatre Experience! process requires existing staff time for marketing & press relations, and little else. All of the artists participate of their own choice & without compensation, which works in our greater-Richmond-region-community of day-job-holding-artists-who-enjoy-networking-and-building-new-relationships-while-working-hard-at-what-they-love.

A night manager assists the playwrights as they are locked in the building at 8pm to write throughout the night. (The plays that emerge are typically 10-15 minutes long.) A day manager arrives at 7am with the directors, who read the scripts, and precast from a list provided of actors. Actors are described for the directors by type, as we recognize this process as a chance for disparate artists to work together on a new project; often, the artists do not know one another before the experience.

The actors arrive at 8am, are assigned roles, gather for a great read initial read-through, and then commence with rehearsing as the writers go home to sleep the day away. Directors are given the same six acting cubes to use as flexible scenery, and access to props & costumes as needed. This is coordinated by a sole, volunteer stage manager.

At 7pm the following day, the house opens for an 8pm performance of the new works. Our audience members may or may not choose to give a donation at the door. It’s rather a crap shoot for us as producers, but we make a good deal of money at the bar, and we’re fulfilling our mission, which trumps all else.

To date, Sycamore Rouge has produced twelve new plays though the 24 Hour Theatre Experience! (two of which have gone on to be produced elsewhere) by eleven new playwrights.

It is both possible and relatively easy, if you’re in a community of artists ready to work, to create great theatre more often than we allow ourselves to believe. One of Sycamore Rouge’s peer companies is currently engaged in a production with a costume budget that exceeds our entire production budget for Picasso at the Lapin Agile, both of which will run concurrently. and that fact doesn’t actually affect the quality of either production. It’s honestly not about money. For once, funding is not the major issue. If you’ve got an empty stage, theatre can be made there. and the most you have to lose is… well… nothing; you may find yourself with gains you’d never imagined. Sycamore Rouge picked up a funder for the Six Blocks Series…not the Main Stage Series–who would have guessed that?

If you’ve got a mission that promotes creativity, live performance, or the development of new works, open your doors. You never know who might walk through them and create some of the most inspiring work you’d ever imagined would appear under your theatre’s banner.

Seriously: never be dark. Whenever you can, keep your doors open. You’ll reach new audiences, and develop a stronger artistic community. And when you can cite your new efforts as genuine ways to fulfill your mission while building audiences, the funding will follow…

  • November 17, 2011