Thursday, November 5, 2009

Stolen Chair Theatre's Community Supported Theatre

Stolen Chair Theatre Company was recently awarded a grant to develop a new model for funding their work. Their program--Community Supported Theatre--is based on the very successful Community Supported Agriculture concept. You can read much more about what Stolen Chair is planning to do here. I did a podcast with Stolen Chair members Jon Stancato and Aviva Meyer along with Jennifer Wright Cook from The Field which provides lots of great background about this initiative as well.

We at NYTE think that what Stolen Chair is doing has real significance and applicability to the indie theater community. So we've asked the folks at Stolen Chair if we can have one of our contributors follow the program as it develops and unfolds, as an "embedded" member of the new CST. They've graciously consented, and so today I am happy to let readers know that staffer Jo Ann Rosen will be reporting about CST for the next nine months, right here at the nytheatre i.

Here's Jo Ann's initial dispatch:

Good ideas are plentiful, but the number of people willing to invest time, money, and a detailed plan to see whether, in fact, their concepts actually work are far fewer. This appears particularly relevant in theater, where the daily scramble to keep the dinghy afloat is particularly acute. Therefore, it seemed worth more than a glance to talk to Jon Stancato, co-artistic director of The Stolen Chair Theatre Company, and learn about his ambitious plans for developing community sponsored theater (CST). For the next nine months, I will be embedded for as a member of Stolen Chair, reporting on the monthly events of Stancato’s new business model for theater production.

Basically, Stancato is rethinking the relationship of the audience to his theater, offering an alternative to the actively-engaged theatergoer. His idea grew from his long-time membership in Community Sponsored Agriculture (CSA), where each member invests seed money and in return reaps the profits of local farms. According to Jon, some weeks the produce he received looked gorgeous and tasted even better, other weeks less so due to heavy rains. At times, he received a nice variety of vegetables, other times his share could amount to five pounds of cauliflower. Still, he is nothing short of ecstatic about his heightened understanding and better appreciation for the farm-to-table process. “I’ve learned so much about food!” - about the process, what goes into putting it on the table, an increased enjoyment of eating, and an interest in cooking. Then, the connection sank in. Could he do the same thing with his theater? That is, could he create a rich and committed community by including people in the process?

Jon thinks so. Members will participate once per month in a wide range of events that illuminate his chosen topic: panel discussions, lectures, viewings of rehearsal footage, movies, field trips, and more, ending with a full production of a new play. “My plays always start with an obsession,” he offered. He reads, and reads, and then reads some more on topic. His references for each production are listed on Stolen Chair’s website. “I’m trying to create theater that hasn’t been done before.” The topic for the pilot project is Quantum Poetics. Not interested in science? Too intellectually challenging? According to Jon, the concepts will be presented in relevant, understandable ways that have meaning for the members.

Stancato is aiming for 100 charter members, but will breathe easy with 50. They might be connected to people in the production, interested in the subject matter, or intrigued by Stolen Chair and its process. Wherever they come from and whatever their interest level, Stancato is intent on building a group of invested audience members. “This is not about rewarding donations. It’s about creating community,” he emphasized. “By buying into the community, you get nine months worth” of enlightening and thoughtful entertainment related to the play’s topic. All members receive the same benefits, but there are several ways of joining. A group of three can join for $325; one person for $175; and a student for $150. Stolen Chair has already received a $20,000 grant to jumpstart this idea. Stancato will kick off his CST on November 22.

Watch here for monthly updates of the events. It should be a fascinating year.


RLewis said...

Jo Ann, I'm so down on subscriptions and memberships to theaters, and looking for something different. So, I hope you can highlight how SCT's idea is different. thanks

JRS said...

Hi, RLewis,

I'm happy to highlight the differences for you, though I hope Jo Ann's future posts make these differences even clearer from the audience perspective. Unlike traditional memberships, this initiative is not about shoring up advance ticket sales or wooing donations. It's about deepening our audience's potential engagement with our process. It's about creating a community of informed and invested audience members who are empowered to help us develop our work.

In short: it's about process, not product.

If you'd like further clarification, I'm more than happy to provide.