Raising capital for theatre ventures has always been hard work. Rafts of paperwork must be filed to qualify for federal and state funding. Grant applications need to be filled out. Fundraising events have to be organized. Playwrights are compelled to solicit solvent theatre companies to produce their works, and vocal artists require a record company's monetary muscle to make an album happen. It's a time-consuming pursuit that calls for an army of personnel and nearly as much energy and as many hours as it takes to mount a production.
Lately, however, theatre artists have been streamlining the fund-raising process by turning to Kickstarter.com, the popular Internet site that allows any individual with a worthy project, and a drive to make it happen, to petition complete strangers to donate dollars to their cause. In recent months, thespians have used Kickstarter to back everything from albums to productions to an entire theatre company.
"We had initially come together to start a company because a benefactor-type person had offered us the opportunity to work with him and start a theatre company, but with his money," said Fisher Neal, a member of Old Sound Room, the theatre company in question. "When we went to work with him artistically, it didn't work out well. But we had already decided we wanted to start a company. At that point, one person in the group had done a successful Kickstarter campaign for making an album as a musician. So we resolved that we would launch a Kickstarter campaign to raise money."
Kickstarter requires that applicants set a specific monetary goal, and a time limit in which they must reach that ambition. For the 12 Yale School of Drama students who formed Old Sound Room, that goal was $20,000. Kickstarter recommends a month as an ideal time span to raise funds. Old Sound Room, however, chose to do it in less time. "We had to make it 25 days, because it all happened in a very short period of time," said Neal. The dozen artists—half of whom were Yale graduates, the other half still in school—decided to form the troupe in March. The only time window that worked for all 12 was in May. Time was of the essence. But the company exceeded its goal by a few thousand dollars.
"We were able to acquire a donated rehearsal and performance space, which took out a big chunk of what we had to raise," explained Neal. "So really all we had to do was to raise enough to quit our day jobs, so we could work on the thing, and to buy whatever props we might end up needing." The production—an adaptation of King Lear—went on as scheduled.
"Since we had a free space, and spent very little on props and costumes—between that and the box office, we were left with a few thousand dollars left over," explained Neal. "We don't have enough to mount a production of that size again, but we do have enough to file applications to become a 501c3 [nonprofit] and hire a lawyer and an accountant, and also maybe do some smaller productions in the meantime."
Some Kickstarter theatre projects are even more ambitious. Jesse Singer set out to raise a whopping $150,000 for an upcoming stage musical he was producing based on Bret Easton Ellis' controversial novel "American Psycho."
"I thinks it's the highest amount raised for a live stage project on the Kickstarter project," said Singer. The project is a high-profile one, with music by Duncan Sheik and direction by Rupert Goold. The cash raised will function as enhancement money for the Almeida Theatre in London, which plans to stage the musical. (Goold is artistic director of the Almeida.) "It's not enough to put up the show on its own," said Singer, "but it's definitely a huge help toward our ultimate goal."
Amusingly enough, Singer got the idea of using Kickstarter from Ellis himself. The novelist had used the site to scare up funds for a film he made called "The Canyons." Singer and company just barely achieved their end, crossing the $150,000 mark on the final day of the drive. "The ticking clock is a big motivating tool for people," he said.
Actress Judy Kuhn agreed. "The advice I had gotten was you really need the last few days to kind of finish it off," she said. "There's a lot of enthusiasm at the beginning and there's a lot of enthusiasm at the end, and in the middle it's a bit of a slog. I wanted those days at the end to give a push at the finish line. What I found out was that turned out to be totally true." Kuhn, a theatre and cabaret veteran, employed Kickstarter to collect monies to finance her more recent album "All This Happiness."
"I was inspired by a couple other people who had used Kickstarter," she said. "At that moment, I wasn't sure who was going to pay for the album. I knew I wanted to make it fast. I didn't want to wait and I knew I couldn't pay for it myself. It seemed like a faster way to do it than to shop the idea around to labels and try to get investors."
To prepare for his inaugural Kickstarter expedition, she spent some time studying other people's efforts. "I looked at all the different kinds of projects other theatre people like myself had done, and started exploring how people went about doing it," she recalled. "And it seemed doable. It seemed the worst that could happen is I wouldn't raise the money."
That's a big "if." Kickstarter rules state that if you don't reach your target amount in the time allotted, you receive none of the funds. "You can be a dollar short of your goal and you don't get any of the money," said Kuhn.
To get people to contribute, you must first entice them with a video explaining your project and why they should throw some money your way.
"I went to the main Kickstarter office and went through a whole seminar with them about how to use it, the do's and the don't's," said actor Robert Cuccioli, who also used the site to underwrite an album, "The Look of Love." "It was a learning process. You have to make a video to present yourself to your possible backers, and have to come up with incentives that backers would be interested in, be it a t-shirt or a dinner out. It took a lot of creativity."
The incentives are called "rewards," and they go to the donors should the Kickstarter campaign be successful. Small donations are rewarded with small prizes, while larger contributions can result in fairly lavish awards. The "thanks yous," however, must pertain in some way to the project and the talents of the applicant. For instance, Kuhn, who was a vocal artist in the animated Disney film "Pocahontas," offered to sing the song "Colors of the Wind" on the phone to excited child fans of the film. She also proffered signed copies of the album, and tickets to the record's release party.
Old Sound Room's incentives included tickets to the show, t-shirts, and—for particularly high rollers—a private performance of the play. (The one person who bid enough to win that prize was a family member of one of the company members and did not hold the troupe to that obligation.) Donors to American Psycho could collect an MP3 download for one of Sheik's songs, signed copies of Ellis' book, and even a dinner out with Ellis himself.
One must be careful when formulating incentives, however, cautioned Cuccioli. "I still owe people," said Cuccioli, whose album came out in October. "That can go for a while. Your project, even though it's finished, is not fully finished if you come up with incentives that take time to do." For instance, some donors have not yet collected on the Cuccioli concert tickets they received by donating. "It still hangs over your head," said the actor.
|Photo by Denise Winters|
According to Fisher, the mere fact that someone creates a Kickstarter campaign can give weight to a creative project in the eyes of an otherwise skeptical world.
"The way Kickstarter can be most useful is if you can appeal to total strangers all over the county or even the world," he said. "With a theatre company, at least with ours, the majority of our donations were people who knew us very well. So we might have been able to raise the money without going on Kickstarter. But that's not necessarily true. By going on Kickstarter, and having to make the video and put ourselves out there, it legitimizes our efforts, even if it's your family you're hoping to raise money from."
Despite all the labor involved—both on the front end of the Kickstarter campaign and the aftermath of making good on incentives—for the theatre artists interviewed for this article, using the site proved a positive experience.
"It's a huge amount of work," said Kuhn. "You have to design your page, put a video on your page, you have to send emails, tweet about it. It's kind of a full time job. It surprised me how much work it really was. But it was worth it." Once Kuhn raised the money, record label PS Classics agreed to manufacture the album.
"I don't want to be a cynic about it," said Fisher. "But the arts are always hard to fund, and theatre happens to be harder than most. I think Kickstarter is a great platform. Unfortunately, it seems there's been a backlash against it recently. I definitely hope that the artists who truly need it as a means of support will continue to get to use it."