Curtain rises on crowd-funding
Small theaters' ability to raise money on Indiegogo and Kickstarter may mean edgier shows find an audience and a stage.
By Simi Horwitz , August 1, 2012
The prospect of organizing a fundraising gala was downright off-putting to Jessica Grindstaff, artistic director of the Phantom Limb Company. Ms. Grindstaff felt a gala would take time away from her creative endeavors and cost lots of money in overhead for the theater, known for its puppetry, bold movie projections, and evocative music. Instead, she suggested the theater use Kickstarter, a crowd-funding website where artists ask the world for money. Contributors—mostly friends, relatives and other grassroots supporters—dole out as little as one dollar in return for a sense of satisfaction and perks such as access to cast parties. Thanks to Kickstarter, the Phantom Limb Company raised $46,022 for its latest production, 69S, a piece about the early 20th-century explorer Ernest Shackleton's ill-fated expedition to Antarctica. Using three-foottall marionettes manipulated by stilt-walking performers, 69S draws analogies between Shackleton's crisis and global warming. It was performed last fall at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Over the past few years, crowd-funding websites such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo have become increasingly popular among cutting-edge theaters that have had little access to mainstream donors. Some say crowd funding may alter the theater scene permanently, enabling smaller, more experimental shows to be produced, and helping them
build audiences. Dozens of backers have a stake in the show. Phantom Limb, for example, boasted 244 angels. Consider some recent successes: The creators of The Groove Factory Musical, centering on the demise of the club scene at the turn of the 21st century, raised $10,251 on Indiegogo. Similarly, Ping Chong & Company generated $23,065 (also on Indiegogo) to fund the filming of Secret Survivors, written and performed by adult survivors of sexual abuse. At the opposite end of the aesthetic spectrum, The Floating Theater rolled up $20,811 on Kickstarter for The Magical History Tour: Theater! On a Boat! With Pirates! The musical recounts the adventures of legendary pirates; it raised enough money for several performances on a 158-foot-long tall ship as it sailed around New York Harbor. There are different guidelines for joining Kickstarter and Indiegogo, but both insist artists establish financial goals and time frames within which to achieve them. Social media is the key to success. "This turned out to be a full-time job," said Ms. Grindstaff. "Every time someone made a contribution, I'd go to their Facebook page and thank them and add a link to my Kickstarter page. Then their friends would see it and could link to our page." It helps if the artists have track records or their projects have already generated some buzz. The Groove Factory Musical, has been in development for 10 years and was recently accepted as part of the highly competitive New York Musical Theatre Festival, often a precursor to a commercial run.
Still, for co-writer Chad Kessler, who has been the primary producer up until this point, going online posed some new conflicts. He needed $45,000 to $50,000 to pay Equity actors and present a high-quality production that might appeal to serious investors at the festival. But he was afraid a $50,000 online campaign would turn off potential contributors who might only have $25 to throw into the pot. He settled on an initial $10,000 campaign. "We felt if we succeeded, we'd ignite the fire for future campaigns," he said. He hated the public display of his fundraising. "I was afraid [Equity actors would] see we had made $4,000 and decide we couldn't pay them." Soliciting monies from friends and relatives can be awkward. Mr. Kessler was grateful to his Aunt Harriet, who made a modest contribution, but he felt slightly uncomfortable. By contrast, Ms. Grindstaff didn't mind. "I never asked my friends and relatives for anything," she said. "When I did, they understood how much we needed it." Crowd funding is not unlike telethons, creating a sense of community among contributors and observers, especially as deadlines loom. "When we had $37,000, people started panicking for us and felt they had to give money so that we'd make our [goal of] $45,000," said Ms. Grindstaff. Crowd funding may make it easier for small theaters in the long run. Sara Zatz, associate director of Ping Chong, said the Ms. Foundation renewed its financial commitment for Secret Survivors, and 272 new contributors can now be tapped for funding endeavors.
Some believe crowd funding will attract new young investors, who will change theater's aesthetic. "Each crowd-funding campaign is almost like a narrative in itself," said Slava Rubin, founder of Indiegogo. "There's a beginning, middle and end, and all the participants are actors in a production. I wouldn't be surprised if, in the near future, [funding] campaigns become the actual theater itself."