Tip #1: Consider Forming an Occupational Guild

Tip #0 used as its center Peter Brook’s famous lines, “I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man can walk across this empty space whilst someone else is watching, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged.” That’s the starting point: a bare space and two people, one to act and one to watch.

And while artists from Homer to Spalding Gray have used that model as the basis for creating marvelous art, sometime you need more, right? The problem is that all too often we jump from that simplicity to all the bells and whistles of the contemporary theater with no stops in between. We’re sitting around with friends exchanging dreams, and pretty soon we’re talking about a company and a season comprised of the plays we’ve always wanted to do or be in, and pretty soon we’re hunting down spaces and building sets and… well, it gets a wee bit expensive.

So let’s build this thing a step at a time so that we can experience the thrill of creation as often as possible.

Strangely enough, when I look for another way of doing things, I have been known to stop at Daniel Quinn, author of the cult classic novel Ishmael and leader of a movement that has been called the New Tribalism. His book Beyond Civilization: Humanity’s Next Great Adventure explores the idea of tribes — specifically occupational tribes — and it to him we turn our attention.

Before we start, let’s ditch the “tribe” moniker. While he explains the anthropological meaning of this word and his reasons for choosing it, the fact is that it comes fraught with too much baggage to not be a barrier to open-minded consideration. For the purposes of future use, I am going to substitute the word “guild” which means “an organization of persons with related interests, goals.And that goal is to spend as much time as possible making cool stuff for people who appreciate it.

So what is an “occupational guild”? Quinn says that, at a minimum, it is “a group of people (1) who among them, have all the competencies needed to start and run a given business, (2) who are content with a modest standard of living, and (3) who are willing to … take what they need out of the business rather than expect set wages.” It is “nothing morusually e than a coalition of people working together as equals to make a living” who, in order to be self-sustaining, “needs to perform all the functions that will make it successful. A [guild] of cabinet makers is not going to succeed without a member who knows how to sell cabinets.”

To me, this sounds like it could get out of control very quickly, especially if you are forming a guild with a bunch of people who consider themselves “specialists”: “I’m an actor,” “I’m a director,” “I’m a designer,” and so on. You need people who can do multiple things, because here’s the rub: the rule of thumb of an occupational guild is, “Can you extend the living to include yourself?” In other words, if you want to join the guild “you’ll have to extend the group’s earning power to the point where it covers you.” If the guild was sustaining one person just fine, and you want to join, your contribution needs to increase the income to cover your presence.

So if you start with Brook’s single actor, the next person to join has to bring something to the table that will extend the group’s earning power. So maybe Person #2 directs (good — that may help), but they also have the ability to act (increasing the options for the league’s offerings) AND the ability and willingness to sell advertising (ding ding ding! added income!). Person #3 is a playwright (excellent — no more royalties) who also acts or directs, and who is great at marketing and social media, and writes a mean grant (ding ding ding!). The key is that each additional person doesn’t draw a salary until they extend the earning power of the league.

Now, Quinn doesn’t mention this, but I am going to add something to his ideas that I have stolen from probably the most famous theatrical guild of them all: The Lord Chamberlain’s Men. Yes, Shakespeare’s theater.

Why did Shakespeare retire a wealthy man? Theatre companies were not paying a great deal of money for plays at the time, and many of the well-known playwrights of the time ended their lives penniless. But the Lord Chamberlain’s Men was set up as a guild, and in order to become a member you had to buy a share of the business. And that share didn’t come cheap — Shakespeare had to get a family member to loan him money so he could buy in. There were a limited number of shares in the Lord Admiral’s Men — usually around eight — and the members of the group were all responsible for making decisions regarding company business. The shareholders were multi-talented and so brought a great deal to the table. Shakespeare not only provided many of the company’s most popular plays, but he also acted in them and helped manage the company.

The financial arrangements were simple: each night, the shareholders gave 50% of the box office to the “householders” (the men who owned The Globe, of which Shakespeare was also one — another investment on his part), paid the salaries of the “hired men” (actors hired to play the smaller roles), and then split the remaining ticket income between them. They did this each day. Not monthly, not annually, but after each performance. So each of them knew exactly how they were doing, because if revenue was slipping they weren’t eating that night. They certainly weren’t pulling a regular salary – their personal success was tied inextricably to the company’s success. Shakespeare had skin in the game.

So in 1599, when the Lord Chamberlain’s Men were in danger of going belly up, Shakespeare cranked out four brand new plays — and not schlock, either: Henry V, Julius Caesar, As You Like It, and — get this — Hamlet. He was probably exhausted, but he knew if the company failed his investment would be gone and he’d be back living in Stratford in no time flat!

So in summary: (1) you need to be careful with expanding your guild, so that each additional person extends the living of the company, and (2) make sure that everybody in the company has skin in the game. Lots of skin in the game. An amount that makes them reluctant to bail out. For the members of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, if you wanted to leave the company (like comedian Will Kemp did), you had to sell your share to someone else that was approved by the rest of the company (welcome Robert Armin!). It’s a commitment not to be made lightly, but one that creates stability and creative opportunities.

Is this the only way to do it? Of course not. It’s one way — one way that has lot’s going for it.

Let’s make something!

 

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