Some Further Thoughts on Theatre Crowdfunding

My last blog post on Crowdfunding generated a bunch of retweets and shares, but very little commentary. Perhaps I touched a raw nerve or perhaps I didn’t offer up anything worth commenting on. Either way is a good reason to keep hammering away at this Crowdfunding trend. So here’s another few observations, and – in a spirit of constructive criticism – some examples of interesting campaigns that may be doing it just right.

WHO ARE WE REACHING OUT TO?

When setting up a crowdfunding campaign, groups are encouraged to create “rewards” systems to encourage people to donate. Often, these rewards escalate as the individual donations get larger. And as noted by The Onion, these rewards are often kinda shitty and out of all proportion with the market value of the product being offered – like everyone took their cue from the old PBS tote bag pleas.

But the types of rewards offered are often telling of who the organisation believes it’s reaching out to with its fundraising campaign. For example, someone offering tickets to a show plus a dining experience might be targeting people who are wealthy and willing to pay for an enhanced experience. A group offering a signed copy of a script or poster is targeting people it thinks might be indie theatre memorabilia collectors (or they might just be unimaginative and thinking “WTF am I going to do with all these posters I ordered and am too lazy to put up?”).

One of the interesting – by which I mean “baffling” – trends I’ve seen on a number of crowdfunding campaigns is rewards that are clearly targeted at other theatre artists. These people offer rewards like a headshot session (typically by a cast member who dabbles in photography), dramaturgical assistance on someone’s play, an hour of acting coaching with our director.

At first blush, it might make sense to ask people who have a vested interest in the acting world since we are the people most interested in the scene. But actors are also your direct competitors, and, more to the point – actors usually don’t have any money. In other words, if I have $100 to drop, it’s probably going into my own show before it goes into yours.

[SIDENOTE: This has always been the flaw in Ten Foot Pole Theatre’s production services business model. We directly target startup indie theatre creators who have no budget to pay us…sigh…]

One of the tricks with rewards is that you’re disguising the donation by asking people to pay well above market rates for an unrelated product or service. If that’s what you’re offering, you’ve got to have just as good an idea of who your target market is and how you’ll reach them with your campaign.

WHAT IF WE DON’T ASK PEOPLE TO DONATE TO THEATRE AT ALL?

One of the interesting – by which I mean “clever” – trends I’m seeing recently, is asking people to donate to a company’s production budget for reasons that have nothing to do with theatre whatsoever.

Praxis Theatre is currently running an Indiegogo campaign hoping to raise $10,000 to help finance their five-city tour of Tommy Taylor’s show You Should Have Stayed At Home, which chronicles his abuse at the hands of police during the 2010 G20 protests in Toronto. Their campaign implicitly positions the show as a campaign against state abuse of power – one that will take its message across the country. The campaign also includes an explicit note of cooperation with the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, who will receive 10% of all donations if Praxis meets its $10,000 goal (It’s about 90% away from that goal at current writing). This campaign seems to target members of the protest movement (or, if I’m being cynical; the people who think writing a $10 cheque to a theatre company is akin to revolution). Indeed, the various levels of support are named for types of activist (from “Supportive Bystander” to “Game Changer”).

Oddly, this campaign doesn’t explain at all what that $10,000 is for, other than noting that it’s the “largest production ever” that Praxis has undertaken (actually, the campaign ask is closer to $8,000, given the 10% to CCLA and 9% to Indiegogo). Having not seen the original Toronto productions, I have no idea of the scale of the show. Given that it claims that it was invited to perform at the five presenting companies, I wonder why the presenters aren’t covering the necessary costs and salaries. The company claims the show will go on even if it doesn’t reach its goal, which makes me wonder how that’s possible and if it is, why they need my money at all? Perhaps this is unimportant, given the market being targeted here – the campaign is being pitched not as a plea to donate toward the production of a great show, but to send Praxis Theatre your cash as a statement about the abuses at the G20. I’ll be interested how this campaign works out for them.

Another interesting campaign is being run by the gents behind the Gay Heritage Project Collective. Just like the Of A Monstrous Child campaign I discussed in my last post, these guys have been resident at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre for a while and are now getting a chance to put on their show (bluntly titled, The Gay Heritage Project) in a co-pro as part of Buddies’ season. GHPC is now appealing for $5,000 of their portion of the production costs.

The show – which I saw a short workshop of at the Rhubarb Festival last year – presents three of Toronto’s preeminent gay theatre artists as they explore the nature of gay heritage: what it means to inherit a gay identity, how it’s passed on (or not), what stories have been buried and need to be exhumed. The workshop I saw was smart, funny, and fun, and frankly, I’m really excited to see what these guys do with it in a full production.

What’s really interesting about their campaign is the rationale they’ve described for why you should donate, which I’m quoting verbatim below:

Your donations will help us communally affirm the importance of manifesting, preserving, and passing on the ghosts, the stories, and the challenges of queer people that have walked before us. You will help us investigate, question, and celebrate aspects of the contemporary queer experience. You will help us illuminate our own particular strand of history and culture – not in order to emphasize it above other strands, but weave it into the human fabric with as much vitality and honesty as it demands and deserves. Your support will help create an engaging, entertaining and affirming piece of art.

The GHPC isn’t just asking for your help in order to produce a piece of theatre. They’re asking you to help them preserve history. Your donation will help “communally affirm” the idea of gay heritage. They’ve identified as their target donors LGBT community builders.

But the GPHC goes a step further to acknowledge exactly what the donations are needed for. The campaign page includes a rough breakdown of what the funds will be used for and the implications of what not collecting that money will mean for the production. It also includes an “impact” statement indicating a broader vision for the show, which includes national and international touring to indicate that your donation may someday help to spread the message of gay heritage even further.

Even though the page includes a section explaining who the creators involved are and their reputation of being excellent artists, the campaign comes across as remarkably selfless – it’s not about achieving Paul Dunn, Damien Atkins, and Andrew Kushnir’s little dream or grand vision and paying them for it; it’s about building up a defined community through a creative process that will serve a vital and ignored need.

At current writing, the GHPC have received just over $3000 of their $5000 goal with twenty days remaining. I wish them well on their endeavour.

Finally – and I’m only bringing up this campaign because I got a message about it as I was writing this article – South African performer Erik de Waal, best known to Canadians for his annual appearances at Edmonton and Winnipeg Fringes, has an Indiegogo campaign to finance a tour of his kids show African Folk Tales to disadvantaged communities in South Africa.

De Waal is a talented and engaging performer who’s had much success touring his performances internationally, as well as to thousands of kids in his home country. But, as he explains:

However, this … represents only those children whose families can afford to pay for the show. In South Africa, school is not free – parents must pay school fees and other costs like uniforms or extra books and supplies. Schools are not fully funded by the government and depend on these fees to keep the doors open and the lights on. In the poorer areas of the country fees can be waived for families who demonstrate severe need, however this means that the schools themselves struggle to make ends meet.

Families cannot afford to pay for extras like educational theatre performances. Theatre is an educational strategy that engages on many levels – children’s minds and bodies are stimulated through active participation – they count, recite, clap, and comment on the action.

We believe that quality children’s theatre is as important to a child’s development as basic literacy. Theatre, through the power of story, opens young eyes to the world around them. The ability to dream and imagine, to see a new future opens possibilities and awakens hope.

This is an ask that targets donors from many angles. It’s about providing something fun for underprivileged children, it’s about childhood development/education, it’s about international development. In short, it’s targeting do-gooders.

Interestingly, the rewards on offer (free tickets to upcoming shows in Edmonton, Saskatoon, and Winnipeg Fringe next year; an offer to perform a show in a school anywhere in Canada) make it clear that Erik is targeting his Canadian fans with his campaign. I assume he’s also hitting up his audiences on his current tour, but it seems to reinforce the “international do-gooder” targeting scheme for this fundraiser.

The campaign also gives a rough breakdown of what it needs $5000 for – touring and production costs essentially. I have no idea what these costs are like in South Africa, I can only assume that they’re much cheaper than comparable expenses in Canada if $5000 will finance a tour. He also notes that everyone involved is working for half-wages, which seems to compounds the charitable and “do-gooder” nature of the project.

Any other thoughts on the crowdfunding trend? Please contribute to the comments below.

On a related note, next week SummerWorks is hosting a debate on the necessity of government funding of the arts. Arguing against government funding will be Postmedia columnist Andrew Coyne. Arguing for government funding will be Nadia Ross, who presents the opening part of her case on Praxis’ blog. All I can say is, I hope Ross can come forward with better arguments in favour of arts funding than the pseudo-Marxist claptrap she gave Praxis (at one point she seems to capitulate that government funding is bad, but on different grounds), or this is going to one heck of a boring debate and missed opportunity. [EDIT: I meant to attach this when I posted but forgot: I actually wrote a defense of government arts grants for Xtra in the wake of SummerWorks’ 2011 grants controversy, in case you’re interested in reading a statement by someone who actually cares.]

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4 thoughts on “Some Further Thoughts on Theatre Crowdfunding

  1. Hi Rob,

    Thanks for writing about our campaign. We’re interested to see how it works out for us too.

    With regards to what the money is for and why presenting companies can’t cover the costs, we’re actually only being presented fully in 2 of our cross-Canada stops. The majority of our locations we are self-producing. So we are going to need help from lots of folks to make this work.

    In terms of the scale of the show – the most important thing you need to know is that there are 4 of us: Producer, Director, SM and Performer that need a wage and transportation across the country over three months before we get into productions cost. If we are successful with the campaign, it will still be a fraction of overall revenue required to achieve the tour.

    For those reading along here’s the campaign link again.

    http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/you-should-have-stayed-home-national-tour/x/624211

    Happy opening of SummerWorks to all. It’s where You Should Have Stayed Home got it’s start 2 years ago.

    mw

  2. Hi Michael, thanks for your comment and explanation. I just want to be clear that what I’m writing above isn’t a comment on the value or merit of the project. My goal was just to examine the nature of the crowdfunding campaigns themselves (perhaps my language is cloudy, and I probably shouldn’t have muddied the discussion by saying how much I enjoyed the other two shows which I did actually see).
    It may be the journalist in me, but I’m always in favour of more information rather than less, although, like I said, from the way you’ve designed your campaign, it doesn’t look like you’re targetting people who are necessarily interested in the way your show works, so much as it seems to be appealing to people who want to make a statement. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. In fact, I think it ought to be self-evident that reaching out to people beyond the theatre community is a better way both to fundraise and develop an audience.

  3. Oh yeah, absolutely. What you’re describing is an approach we’ve taken to all communications about the show. Namely, trying to get “A Section” coverage, not just in the culture or entertainment section – as it is about the news.

    One of the reasons we included “activist” designations for donors is a problem we have had in communications: The media loves the line AND HE WASN’T EVEN AN ACTIVIST. Which is heavily problematic because it assumes that civil rights are not reserved for activists. So we’re doubling down on activism.

    That being said, the show is for everyone. There is basically zero editorializing in the piece, which is a pretty factual account of the events that transpired to Tommy over a weekend. The audience is left to draw whatever conclusions they like from this story.

  4. I don’t have anything to dispute here, I just want to salute you for aiming for “A-section” coverage. A lot of artists don’t aim for getting out of the arts page (heck, a lot have given up on the arts page too). But before one can do that, you need to have a show that newsworthy. I should hope we can all aim for that, but too often we don’t.

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