Community support is crucial for local theater
Company members mentioned in this article: Rachel E. Kraft
by Rachel Kraft (guest columnist)
Creating, and then sharing theater with the community in which you reside â€” especially original work with no name recognition â€” is a challenge.
As arts organizations compete for resources and attention, the challenges only become greater.
Imagine how much harder that becomes when your patrons have to find you in a different space every time they want to see your work. In its first 15 years, Lookingglass Theatre Company performed in 22 different spaces, which required perseverance and an adventurous spirit from its then-small but loyal band of patrons.
In 1998, the City of Chicago invited proposals for a theater company to reside in the historic Water Tower Water Works. Lookingglass Theatre Company was awarded this opportunity.
The proposal was compelling for a number of reasons, not least of which was Lookingglass' history of creating bold, physical theater that would thrive in what would become a two-story black box space, and the fact that its mission includes a strong commitment to education and community programming that would flourish in a more central city location. Finally, the ensemble's group of artists, staff and board had demonstrated the capacity to raise the money required to renovate the space. Once the property was secured, a dollar-a-year rent was negotiated, contingent upon ongoing collaboration with the Department of Cultural Affairs and the community at large.
A benefit to a theater company having a permanent home is that it allows the company to develop more sustainable relationships with its community. Last year's provocative new work "Trust" included a partnership with Rape Victim Advocates and its sister organizations, enabling us to have a trained volunteer from the organization at every performance.
When it comes to making and sharing new work, having a home is only one piece of a larger puzzle. To do so requires artists who trust each other to create a safe place to experiment and risk, dollars to underwrite a development process that can last for months and even years, and a fiercely committed base of audience members and donors who don't need a recognizable title to commit to a production or, even better, a season of theater.
Perhaps most important, making something new demands the freedom to fail, which is why a theater subscriber is so cherished. This audience member says: "I'm here because I believe in what you do. Everything may not be my favorite, but I'm going on that ride with you because I don't want to miss your highs, which means I'm also a witness to your less distinguished achievements."
Chicago is rightfully celebrated for a discerning audience for theater, which explains why high-profile productions like "The Producers" want to try out their work here before moving to Broadway. But Chicagoans and visitors to our city also support more than 200 local companies. (This) city cares about its arts community as demonstrated by former Mayor Richard Daley's commitment to finding Lookingglass and others more permanent homes, and by Mayor Rahm Emanuel's inclusion of "Arts and Culture" as one of his eight transition committees as soon as he was elected.
Further reinforcing this notion is how quickly new executives get involved as volunteers and on boards in the city. Often I've heard these individuals say it doesn't take much time to realize that to have access to the true "players" in town, you must distinguish yourself with a commitment to the nonprofit community.
In the midst of government cutbacks, the annual contributions of individuals, foundations, corporations, government and special-event fundraising are to any nonprofit arts organization the difference between a balanced budget and closing its doors. And for Lookingglass, that support was affirmed with recognition for excellence in regional theater at this month'sTony Awards.
The economics of producing theater are sobering, and the manpower required is significant.
Making art in a city that values what you do makes a huge difference. In pursuit of their mission, most nonprofit companies could perform at capacity and still need to find as much as 50 percent of their annual budgets from revenue sources outside of ticket sales.
In Lookingglass' case, that's accomplished by remounting and touring popular productions, selling concessions and merchandise and, most significantly, by turning to our community for support. This requires making a daily case to everyone as to why our mission is necessary and why cultural organizations are uniquely positioned to make that a reality. That daily balancing act is at the heart of making and sharing one's art.