Friday, August 21, 2009

Explaining the "Model"

A few weeks ago we put out a press release detailing how Combined Artform and PianoFight are expanding their theater management duties in both LA and SF, which prompted local playwright and all around theater blogger Tim Bauer to ask this:

"I'd like to know more about the "for-profit, non-government aided" model. I suspect that's the wave of the future, and would free you up from writing grants and producing the kind of work that you may not want to do but that will sound good to a funder. How's it work and can you share the model with other artists who might want to follow your path? Thanks!"

I can't really speak for Combined Artform here, and to be honest, we're still figuring out what PianoFight's business model is going to be. And I don't really think that our "model" is too different from what most artists do on their own, we've just applied it to a company, but here goes:

1) Produce your own work out of pocket

2) Keep producing until your work is making enough money to pay for itself (ie, you're no longer funding it out of pocket)

3) Keep on producing your own work until it's paying you a living wage

Right now, we're somewhere between steps two and three.

Our basic thinking was that if we get behind something, in this case PianoFight, and work collectively to promote the company as opposed to an individual promoting him or herself, the whole thing would gain traction much quicker with multiple people avidly working towards its success.

PianoFight, thanks to Matthew Quinn, picked up management duties of Studio 250 at Off-Market in 2007, and over the course of the first year a community started to form around the company and venue. We then registered PianoFight as an LLC (which is cheap and easy to do), and had to pay an $800 tax for our first registered year in business in 2008 (which was neither cheap nor easy to do). 2009 marked the first time that anyone in PianoFight received a paycheck (the SF run of FORKING!).

The checks were small considering the amount of work that went into FORKING!, but everyone was paid equally (from the producer to the light/sound tech to the actors), with the idea that over time, as our audience grows and sales increase and the company's other revenue streams begin to grow (theater rentals, merch etc), that those paychecks will get bigger each time we issue them, and eventually it will be a living wage supporting everyone involved.

As I said above, we're somewhere between steps two and three, and we're still figuring this model out. What's liberating about the for-profit model is the freedom it provides to do whatever the hell you want, and change a plan of attack on the fly.

Example: in March of 2008, we expected to have a renter in Studio 250 from April through June, however, a week into March, the renter decided to go to another space. PianoFight was left with a three month hole to fill, and after a few bull session sitting around the theater, we came up with ShortLived, our annual audience judged playwriting competition, which went on to be PianoFight's highest grossing and attention getting production. ShortLived 3 (in 2010), will run concurrently in LA and SF. Because the company has not been beholden to funders or a board, we've had the opportunity to move quickly and without reproach, and learn along the way what works and what doesn't.

I hope that answers your question, Tim, and as I said before, I imagine our "model" is not far from what artists do on their own produce their work til it pays while making career moves which continually provide opportunities to have your work paid for.

If anyone wants to read more about Tim, he's got a great blog, Direct Address, in which he discusses all thing Theater-y and manges to not come across as a cantankerous old-fart like I do.

Tim's also got a show coming up in October, "Zombie Town," which is being produced by Sleepwalkers in October.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Producing "I Heart Hamas"

It's not easy picking shows. What should be produced and why are difficult questions to answer. Those two questions usually translate out into these two:

1) Will it be a good show?


2) Will it sell tickets?

About a month ago, as Combined Artform and PianoFight were getting ready to announce the latest venue addition to the SF Solo Scene, Stage 205 at Off-Market, we were approached by Jennifer Jajeh about a potential run of her solo show, "I Heart Hamas."

Matthew Quinn, Dan Williams and I asked the two questions above and signed on as producers of the show before reading or seeing it, based largely on two factors:

1) The people involved (Jennifer Jajeh, writer and star; and Kamau Bell, director and collaborator)


2) The title, "I Heart Hamas"

We've known and worked with Jennifer for a couple years now, and have enjoyed and admired Kamau's work for some time as well (both are consummate pros and all around cool people), so it seemed a no-brainer that the two together would cook up a pretty kickin' product.

The question of ticket sales remains, but clearly, we're betting sales will be great, and here's why:

1) The, to say the least, intriguing title, will catch the eye of press and public alike

2) Running the show alongside Brian Copeland's venerable "Not a Genuine Black Man" (premiering on Stage 205 on Fri and Sat evenings Starting Sept. 18) will fuel sales for both shows

and most importantly,

3) Having had the opportunity to sit in on a rehearsal run of the show, I can say confidently that the product will be nothing short of what we anticipated - excellent

Whatever you think the title reveals about the show itself, "I Heart Hamas" does not come down hard on any one side or specific issue, rather, through Jennifer's recounting of her life experience, it explores how someone fairly removed from the situation can easily get caught up in the frenzy while poking fun at the process along the way.

So, will the show sell crazy tickets? Honestly, your guess is as good as mine. But I know that the people who do buy tickets will be in for a relatable, entertaining and thought provoking night. And hopefully, those people will tell their friends.

And they'll tell two friends, and they'll tell two friends ...

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Will TBA Help Change Alcohol License Requirements in SF?

Following up on a couple of recent comments (below):

"There's a reason Chicago has a storefront theatre on every other block: the city gives them liquor licenses." - Dan Wilson

"Small theaters need any income that they can get, and this under table/BYOB shit is getting tiresome. I agree with Matthew that any help that TBA can provide in reforming SF's horribly anti-art cabaret laws would be huge step in the right direction. If we want to attract young audiences, allowing beer/wine into at the theater is an absolute requirement." - Sam Shaw

"If we can present as a collective the needs of the shows, venues and address the city and alcohol board we can find a plan to allow beer and wine to be sold legally, making money for all and making the audience happy ... I would love to talk to TBA and whomever else as well about making this possible in San Francisco." - Matthew Quinn

Now, you may be asking, why are these licenses so complicated to get? In fact, the licenses themselves are not all that difficult to procure, the problem lies in the restrictions and requirements the licenses place on the venue.

The most commonly issued liquor licenses are the following:

Type 47, On-Sale General - Eating Place (Restaurant) -- Authorizes the sale of beer, wine and distilled spirits for consumption on the licenses premises. Authorizes the sale of beer and wine for consumption off the licenses premises. Must operate and maintain the licensed premises as a bona fide eating place. Must maintain suitable kitchen facilities, and must make actual and substantial sales of meals for consumption on the premises. Minors are allowed on the premises.

Type 48, On-Sale General - Public Premises (Bar, Night Club) -- Authorizes the sale of beer, wine and distilled spirits for consumption on the premises where sold. Authorizes the sale of beer and wine for consumption off the premises where sold. Minors are not allowed to enter and remain (see Section 25663.5 for exception, musicians). Food service is not required.

The basic problem is this: Because most small theaters don't serve food (cooked on the premises), the only way to legally serve alcohol at the venue is to ban minors from the premises. (You can download a PDF of all California alcohol license types here) The other annoying thing is that each of these cost $476.00.

Now, if you want to get super specific, what actually needs to be changed, modified, or needs some kind of local exemption added to it, is Section 23038.1 of the ABC Act.

Basically we need to redefine what the government considers a "theater" and remove the clause which stipulates theaters must have a "bona fide eating place" which serves food at least %25 of the year.

The big question is, and one that was posed by Matthew Quinn in his comments above, would TBA be willing to help modify the law for the betterment of small theaters? And if not, do we, collectively (meaning the small theater operators), have the drive and follow through to do it ourselves?

To be totally honest, and this is where an organization like TBA would be a big help, I am really not sure what to do next or who to talk to about this. Do we go straight to ABC and start asking questions? Do we need a lawyer? Do we have to convince a member of the SF Board of Supervisors to support us and put the issue to vote at a Board meeting? Again, I don't know, but a group with the clout, connections and resources of TBA leading the charge would go a long way to solving this problem.

Monday, August 10, 2009

TBA's Sabrina Lazarus Wants To Ban Alcohol In Theaters - I Don't

First of all, and I want to make this absolutely clear, I believe there is plenty of room in the market for all types of theater, audiences, plays, shows, acts, sets, production value, talent etc. Theater is whatever you want it to be. There are no rules. There is no status quo. It is what you make it.

Last week, Sabrina Lazarus, a marketing person at TBA, put out a post titled, "Why I'm Glad We Don't Live in Shakespearean England (Or Modern-Day England, For That Matter)," in which, she quoted me ... the following is my response:

(WARNING: this will be an in-depth response, quoting Ms. Lazarus, offering plenty of good natured teasing and some honest rebuttals)

I'll start where everyone starts, the title of your piece, "Why I'm Glad We Don't Live in Shakespearean England (Or Modern-Day England, For That Matter)". Sabrina, why do you hate the British? I mean, I know that whole taxation without representation thing was bad and all, but now those Limeys have given the world things like "The Office" and the ever endearing David Milliband. Really, they're not that bad, and I'm sure you'd love the English countryside in the spring.

Your prompt for writing was the piece in the Times Online about positively rowdy and, occasionally, randy behavior at theaters in London. The Times article can be found here, while Ms. Lazarus' response can be found here. The rest of this post will consist of quotes from Ms. Lazarus and my rebuttal to those quotes.

On to the quoting:

"Personally, I don't think it makes any sense to allow alcohol into a theatre."

Or anywhere else for that matter, especially bars, restaurants, private homes, concerts, family dinners, football games, office Christmas parties or fishing trips.

"I don't see people chugging beers at the movies."

Go to a movie theater in Europe or Canada, there are lots of theaters that sell beer and wine. There's a movie theater in Athens, Georgia, whose claim to fame is that they sell alcohol, and allow you to brown bag it and smoke in the theater. Go to any movie theater at 9pm on a Friday and closely watch the underage patrons ... you'll find beer chugging is not all that rare.

"Once upon a time it was the norm for all food and drink to be banned during performance."

Really, when? Prohibition? The Reformation? The first performance of Cirque du Soleil? To put it into perspective, alcohol isn't even banned from Church - Jesus loved the stuff he turned water into wine to the delight of the masses.

"You can eat at the movies, but only because the sound is cranked up to a level where chewing isn't going to bother anyone too much. In live theatre, ear-splitting sound would be distracting and take away from the show."

I have eaten meals with many, many people, but never have my ears been deafened from the sound of one's chewing ... I'm just sayin'.

"I'm sure it's not just the poor folk being disrespectful."

But, to be clear, some of the "poor folk" are clearly being disrespectful?

"And I'm sure there are many who can't afford high ticket prices who are sitting completely respectfully, enjoying performances in a more mature way."

This is where you lose me, Sabrina, because, to me, it sounds like if I don't enjoy a performance in a fashion that you deem "respectful," I am somehow immature. Different strokes, for different folks, Ms. Lazarus.

"Back in Shakespeare's time ... being an actor was no better than being a prostitute ... so rude behavior in the theatre made just a bit more sense."

What about back in Thespis' time, when actors were priests conducting religious rituals honoring Dionysus, the god of wine, the "inspirer of ritual madness and ecstasy." Was wine banned back then? Or was there only a ban on overtly loud cheering? Or did they ban fornicating? Your above point would hold up far better if the questions I just posed were rhetorical, unfortunately, those questions have very real answers. Drinking, cheering and fornicating were all encouraged and the "actors" were some of the most respected members of the community.

You then go on to quote me and posit your solution to the "problem" in the West End - ban alcohol, and closely monitor the sobriety of patrons.

In all honestly, Ms. Lazarus, I am astounded by your "solution." As I said at the top of this post, there is plenty of room in the market to satisfy every potential ticket buyer's interest. If that interest just so happens to be a "respectful" and "mature" audience experience, great, there are many venues which are happy to oblige. If, however, that ticket buyer's interest lies in a rowdy and raucous evening, there need to be venues which can supply that as well. If those interests are somewhere in between, guess what, there are even more venues which will be suitable.

Banning alcohol from all theaters is not only bad business, but reveals an amazingly myopic view of what Theater should be. While the experience you want to take away from a night at the theater may well line up with the wishes of a majority of current theatergoers, who's to say that the majority of the public (which, mind you, does not attend any type of theater on any regular basis, but does consume alcohol on a regular basis) is also interested in that same experience? Furthermore, banning alcohol punishes anyone who enjoys a glass of wine during a show but does not feel compelled to relieve themselves on the stage, ie, responsible drinkers (the majority of drinkers). Who's to say that if venues began banning alcohol, this subset of patrons wouldn't decide to instead head to a bar for some music, and, of course, drinks? Not to mention, for small theaters, alcohol sales in one evening can easily pay someone to run box office and concessions while still kicking money back to the venue or production.

I will also point out here, that while there are extreme examples of rowdy behavior cited in the Times article, London theater in the past six months is having a record year, despite the worldwide economic downturn. "Figures released by the Society of London Theaters (SOLT) for the first six months of 2009 (Jan. 1-July 18) show attendance up 2.5% and box office receipts up 3.5% over the same period last year."

Banning alcohol is not the answer. It's reactionary, bad for business, and limits what one can experience at a theater. As a representative of Theatre Bay Area, and by proxy the San Francisco theater community as a whole, I'd advise you use more discretion before labeling what is and is not "respectful" or "mature," and especially before doling out advice which could very well be detrimental to the community at large.

I look forward to your response.


-Carl Benson