On Friday, December 26, a mystery donor presented Washington theatre with a gift. It wasn’t the usual holiday card or end-of-year donation. Instead, an anonymous theatre patron developed the idea – and corresponding web presence – to give our region’s smaller theatre companies their own space, voice, and conversation.
We first learned of this idea – an Independent Theatre Coalition of Washington – through a letter sent to DC Theatre Scene by the mystery creator. Trusting in the holiday spirit and good intentions of our community, DC Theatre Scene posted the letter, allowing its author to remain anonymous.
Artistic leaders of theatres of all sizes and locations were caught off-guard by news of the forthcoming coalition, as were DC Theatre Scene readers. Within the professional theatre community, a flurry of hushed speculation tried to discern who could be behind this, and why.
By the next day, more than a thousand readers had viewed the letter. DC Theatre Scene editor Lorraine Treanor came under attack from readers for posting the letter without attribution, and responded on Facebook.
Today, the truth has emerged, We now know that the letter was a true gesture of goodwill. We can disclose that the author of the letter, self-identified as a “long-time Washington theatre patron,” was fueled by a desire to help small theatre companies “coordinate, promote, and advocate for [their] scene together in unified voice, [so that] the general public will be more aware and energized about the exciting work that [they] are doing.”
The Coalition’s announcement letter, which emerged shortly after theatreWashington revealed new minimum compensation guidelines for eligibility in their Helen Hayes Awards, neither critiqued theatreWashington nor offered up the Coalition as a competing organization. Indeed, the purpose behind the Independent Theatre Coalition appeared to be to offer an alternative for the groups whose productions may not meet the new Helen Hayes Awards eligibility guidelines. “Our goal is to support and develop DC’s rich indie theatre scene,” the anonymous Coalition creator wrote.
The anonymous author also made it clear that the Coalition would be governed by its members, and ownership of the web presence would be turned over as soon as a leader was identified. “I’ll leave this to the pros,” the author stated.
As of Dec. 28, Andrew Baughman, Producing Artistic Director of The Landless Theatre Company, assumed the leadership role of this fledgling coalition.
“I’m just a point person to loop additional companies into the discussion,” said Baughman. “It was clear that many in the community were hung up on the anonymous nature of the letter that kickstarted the Coalition and I didn’t want to see a good idea die on the vine. Someone needed to step up to assure everyone that this wasn’t a joke and that real people were talking about a Coalition.”
Thus far, Baughman wrote, the theatre leaders who have expressed interest in the Independent Theatre Coalition are just beginning to talk and exchange ideas.
“The website appeared to be an open call for collaboration among like-minded thinkers, and that’s what it turned out to be,” he said. “We tend to network with the companies within our theatrical genre or geography, and this unusual experiment has already connected me with some really interesting and inspiring leaders from companies I wasn’t previously familiar with.”
These companies will be announced formally after the beginning of the new year. What they all have in common, as they set forth, is an interest in connecting with audiences and gaining exposure for the diverse independent theatre scene.
Present guidelines for membership to the Coalition include 501(c)(3) nonprofit status, a presence within a 30-mile radius of Washington, DC, and a ticket price of no more than $50. The majority of artists working with member theatres must be non-union; however, all artists must be compensated.
Continuing the discussion:
This recent turn of events has illuminated our community’s desire to see its theatres of all sizes supported and thriving. But it also suggests that in order to do this, we cannot put all of our proverbial eggs in the Helen Hayes basket.
The Helen Hayes Awards has carved out a space within our community from where it is able to administer and oversee a well-honed and complex adjudication process. Just as we cannot expect Theater J to serve the same artistic purpose as Molotov Theatre (can you imagine?!), we cannot expect that theatreWashington can manage universal inclusivity within its Awards structure. Our artistic landscape has grown far too large to expect any one organization to meet all possible needs – and that applies to the organizations working in support of theatres, as well as the theatres themselves.
In the past few weeks, several respected Washington theatre artists have voiced their opinions about the new Helen Hayes Awards minimum artist payment guidelines and how the effects of this change will be felt – for good, bad, or otherwise – throughout the larger community. The timing of the Coalition’s announcement, just days after this news, was no coincidence.
Notwithstanding the change in criteria for the Helen Hayes Awards, theatreWashington’s requirements for membership remain the same. Companies which produce no Helen Hayes-eligible productions may still be theatreWashington members and benefit from the parent organization’s marketing efforts, as long as they fulfill theatreWashington’s other membership requirements.
And, from the look of things, it may be possible for theatre companies to benefit from presence in both theatreWashington and the Independent Theatre Coalition.
But that remains to be seen. At this stage, all that has been posited is the idea. The beginning of a conversation.
“There is a very positive tone,” Baughman said. “We’re looking to enhance the community, not engage in criticism or create conflict with any other group. We all support theatreWashington and the Helen Hayes Awards and appreciate the enormous task they take on. I think we’d all just like the public to know there is a professional ‘indie’ community that exists for the purpose of being ‘indie,’ not just as a stepping stone to becoming big budget theatres.”
And so we move into 2015 with a new indie theatre coalition forming, meant to enrich and enhance the vibrancy and vitality of live theatre in Washington, DC.