Monday, September 24, 2012

When Did We Stop Being Artists?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about art and expression, and some of the fears that actors have as we try to explore the things that inspire us. There's so much of an emphasis on doing “good” work, so much energy put into work that can propel you “to the next level.” I’ve started wondering -- when did we stop creating art because it was fun to be expressive? To tell stories? To pretend to be someone else, and show off these characters to our family and friends? 

I’m at the point where many of my friends are starting to have children, and one common element you find in each parents’ home is the refrigerator filled with drawings from their child. Heck, even if you aren’t a parent, if you know children you probably have a piece of artwork hanging on your wall. Or a batch of photos from a child’s recital. Or a video from a school play. Parents and family members weep happily at the sight of a child expressing him/herself in an artistic way.

Then, at some point, this stops. Parents stop encouraging artistry. Drawings are removed from refrigerators and videos are put in the cabinet (to be pulled out when the child is 16 and bringing her boyfriend to the house for the first time. Oh yeah, we’ve all been there.) What happened? Where did the expression go? I have a theory -- The Age of Reason, that "magical" thing that happens around Age 7, is killing art.

According to, the Age of Reason is described as:
“Few parents would argue with the observation that children age 6 and younger do not have great control over their feelings and impulses. Nor is your very young child likely to take genuine responsibility for her actions, or heed adults' urging to be considerate of others... It is not until the age of 7, give or take a year or so, that your child's conscience begins to mature enough to guide her actions...It’s been called the "Age of Reason," since these children have a newly internalized sense of right and wrong... At 7 "plus or minus one," your child begins to problem-solve in a new way, using reason rather than pure intuition. He can separate fantasy from reality; and so can be expected to know and tell the truth... At about 7, fears are no longer of monsters, but of real people, and most of all of not being liked, being different, and risking loneliness. Pride and shame are real now too. Real, rather than simply imagined achievement, enhances self-esteem...”
Not only do children lose the ability to fantasize without embarrassment, but it’s also the people around them who change their viewpoints on their children’s artistic impulses. At an early stage a child singing out of tune is adorable; at another point the child is hushed and told not to sing. Children and adults alike stop painting pictures because they tell themselves, “I’m not good at it,” and forget that creating art is about expression, not about excellence.
“Every act of conscious learning requires the willingness to suffer an injury to one’s self-esteem. That is why young children, before they are aware of their own self-importance, learn so easily.” -- Thomas Szasz
Of course, if one wants to make money at an artistic profession, that’s when excellence becomes important. But in the striving for excellence, many actors forget that joy of creating and playing for fear that it won’t live up to some standard that world has set for them.

So, I am challenging myself and the artists around me to nurture their inner artist and beg it to come out to play. Find an environment where you can practice being expressive and go hog wild. Pretend to be bigger and badder than you ever dreamed possible. Will yourself into a new reality that gives you a visceral charge. Fight the Age of Reason and awaken your imagination in the way we did as children. This is what we do at The Seeing Place, encouraging our artists to fully live out a situation on stage night to night, without fear of making mistakes or going too far. 

As a side note: it’s also around the age of 7 that we stop unabashedly seeking an audience. When’s the last time you ever saw an adult jump into a crowded room, do a little two step, then chime, “Ta-da!” to elicit applause? For once, I want to do something silly and have a bunch of adults exclaim, “Yayyyyy!”

Photo Credit: By D.M. Vernon, aka DVernon at en.wikipedia (Transferred from en.wikipedia) 
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Monday, September 3, 2012

How To Crowd Fund for Theater

As many of you know, in July 2012 we completed a successful fundraising campaign which included online crowdfunding. Most any people think that crowdfunding is just for filmmakers or that it’s too difficult for artists to master. While it is a lot of work, it’s a great resource for most artists who have a base of supportive people. So, I thought I’d create a post that goes over the facets of crowdfunding and how we approached them for our campaigns.

First of all, let’s define “crowdfunding.” USLegal states,
“Crowdfunding refers to the collective cooperation, attention and trust by people who network and pool their money and other resources together, to support efforts initiated by other people or organizations.”
Using that definition, most of us are already familiar with crowdfunding. Think about the last time you sponsored someone in the charity walk/run - this donation was done through a crowdfunding campaign to support a non-profit organization in their charitable efforts. Nowadays, artists are using crowdfunding to mobilize their fan base online, and audiences from across the globe are using these platforms to make donations of all sizes, the reward for which is more than just a tax donation. Donors are now being treated to extensive perks and behind-the-scenes involvement in the creation of the artistic works that they’re funding.

Our theater is a young, ensemble driven company with members who range from ages 21 to 65+. In our first two seasons, we’ve done a good job at developing audiences and defining a mission & focus for our work. As we started our third season, I called on our ensemble members to start developing our fan base using social media. In 2011 we created a professional page on Facebook and started a Twitter account. And in an effort to engage a younger audience, we decided to take a portion of our fundraising effort online, and that’s how we landed on the idea of crowdfunding.

Before I get into the “how-to,” we’re proud to announce that we’ve been able to run two successful Indiegogo campaigns - one in September 2011 to launch Season 3, and one in July 2012 to close out Season 3 and plan for Season 4. We could not be more thrilled with the faith our audiences, near and far, have in our ability to bring quality art to the masses.

Based on our experiences, here are the tasks you’ll want to consider when setting up a campaign:

We chose a campaign company

The front runners for crowdfunding are currently Kickstarter and IndieGogo (a honorable mention goes to RocketHub.) Kickstarter is the most well known - with them, you choose a fundraising goal and an end date, and your project only gets funded if you are able to raise the full funding. (If you don’t, no funds are collected from the donors.)

IndieGogo runs with a similar goal & deadline, but you can choose an option to receive all of the funds raised regardless of whether or not you meet your goal (however, they incentivize you by offering a 5% bonus if you reach your funding goal.)

In the end, we chose to go with IndieGogo.

We chose our campaign goal and time frame

As we planned the campaign we brainstormed about what we hoped to achieve, and when we needed to complete it. For our last campaign, we estimated what kind of funding we wanted ($5000); for what purpose (to allow us to fund our current production fully so that 100% of ticket proceeds could go to the opening of Season 4. Also, funding allows us to provide affordable ($12) tickets to general audiences); and finally, what date we wanted to raise it by (July 31.)

We shot our video

Each campaign comes with the option of presenting a promo/pitch video, and I highly recommend doing so. I watched hours upon hours of pitches as I prepared for these campaigns, and here’s what I learned: videos don’t need to be professionally made, but your video should be very personal and introduce the people involved, and include what inspires you about your project. If possible, also include examples of your work so people get an immediate sense of what they’re funding (which can be tricky in fundraising for theater.)

In fundraising, it’s said that people don’t fund projects - people fund people. By showing your audience why this project means something to you, it can mean something to them too. My artistic director and I opted for an interview style approach to introduce our company. We kept it light but passionate, and divided the content into three sections: Our personal introduction, what the company is about, and what help we need and the perks we’re offering in exchange.

We edited our video

Normally, it’s recommended to keep the video short (less then 4 minutes.) For our video, we opted to make it a little longer, but used a lot of jump cuts in the editing which made the video feel a little shorter. We hope that people who watch the video will feel like they’ve gotten to know us and what is special about our company.

First our first campaign (Sept 2011) we suffered a hiccup - our editor was fully booked and couldn’t edit our video, so I ended up having to do it. Considering that I’m not an editor by trade, it was a coup even getting it completed. The fun part was that I got to choose what parts I felt were best for the video. In that initial video, we kept a lot of our mess-ups and errors in the final version, because that’s when we laughed the most and showed our personality. You can see that video and campaign by clicking here (outtakes are at the end!)

For the second campaign (July 2012) we had a professional editor and one major change we made was to include production photos in the video itself so potential donors could see some of the fruits of our labor. We tried to keep all of the whimsy from the first video as well. You can see that video and campaign by clicking here (outtakes are at the end!)

We wrote the supporting material to the campaign

On the campaign page beneath the video there is a section where we can write information about our campaign and why we think it should be funded. I included a brief description of our company, some press quotes about the impact our work has had on audiences, and what they can expect from our season.

For campaign one, we came up with a theme for the season, which would tie everything together - “Crimes of the Heart, and the Politics of Sex.” This helped to give our campaign an identity.

For campaign two, we included artwork for the upcoming shows and further detailed what makes us different from other companies.

We chose our perks

I did a poll on Facebook and Google+, as well as in person, to find out what kind of perks people might like. I pulled some of the best ideas and slapped on some sexy perk names that matched each campaigns’ theme. You can see them here and here.

We launched it!

This has always been the scariest part of the campaign. Once we clicked “Go Live” the campaign was set in stone and we were committed to seeing it through. Yikes!

We promoted it

Now comes the hard part -- jumping behind the campaign and promoting it as heavily as possible without annoying people. Good friend, John Trigonis, writes in his blog, “The Tao of Crowd-Funding: Three Ps for a Successful Campaign”:
“CROWD-FUNDING IS A FULL-TIME JOB. Anyone who tells you otherwise must not have had a very successful campaign. A successful crowdfunding campaign demands around-the-clock promotion. In today’s technocracy, that translates to constant tweets, relentless Facebook status updates, email blasts up the wazoo, sleep strikes, the occasional hunger strike, and any other means by which to keep your project on the minds of your friends, family, and supporters. It also means having some fun with your promotion, keeping your audience engaged with things like contests, giveaways, fun videos, and the like.”

We mobilized our team

One of the toughest parts of this kind of campaign is to get all members on board as strongly as I am. It’s hard to convince your colleagues to raise money, even if they’ll directly benefit from those efforts. So, I tried to make it as easy as possible to spread the word to their friends & family by giving them tools to do so. I’ve guided them through the process of how to market online, and given them tips and tricks on making meaningful connections in cyberspace. I also created request letters on official letterhead to give them the support of the organization behind their efforts, to give their requests more institutional legitimacy.

We Acknowledged Our Donors

Most of my time was actually spent making sure I thanked our donors. I personally acknowledged everyone on Facebook & Twitter, and our theater company also thanked them personally on both networks. We also posted updates throughout the campaign so people would know how things were progressing. (Check out this Behind the Scenes/Backstage Tour I posted for donors - though, next time I’ll remember to turn my iPhone to landscape mode - the video is probably best viewed full screen for that reason!) And we have our newsletter which allows us to keep in touch moving forward, so that they can see how we’re spending the money we raised and understand how much their donation has made an impact.

We also offered a last minute perk: After a successful 3-week run of The Lover and Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, we were fortunate enough to receive a limited Off-Broadway extension of “Danny” which led to our eligibility for Drama Desk Award consideration, plus earned us rave reviews from Off-Broadway critics. We decided to invite donors to the Off-Broadway extension for only $10, and when they arrived at the box office they received a voucher to receive a free glass of wine or any other beverage of their choosing. This was one small way we could say thank you for their support.

We continued to develop our network

Last but definitely not least - an important part of a successful campaign is making sure that you are building/maintaining relationships in a meaningful way: before, during, and after the campaign. You have to make sure you are supporting others’ endeavors before asking for support of your own. I spent a vast amount of time and personal money donating to other campaigns and helping them get the word out. Our team went to shows, retweeted and shared content on Facebook, and offered support in any way we could so that we could prove to our networks that we weren’t just looking for a hand out - we were looking to engage in a supportive community. This was especially true once the campaign was done - I paid special attention to balancing out my social networking presence so it was back to offering value & support full time, rather than using a huge chunk of time promoting my own endeavors.

So, that’s it! If you’ve read this far and feel empowered by what I’ve written, perhaps a crowdfunding campaign is for you. It’s been incredibly rewarding experience - one benefit of crowdfunding is the strengthening of a community behind your project and ideals. If done authentically it’s a wonderful way to develop an audience that believes in you. You have to be willing to work harder than you’ve ever worked, but the rewards can be plentiful.

Thanks for letting me share our efforts with you -- if you have any questions about fundraising or our process, please leave a comment on this blog and I'll response as soon as possible. Happy crowdfunding!