THE BIRTH OF A THEATRE COMMONS

Can the idea of "the commons" help encourage a more inclusive and democratic theatre field?

INTRODUCTION

In 2018, Helicon collaborated with HowlRound to help it tell its story.

HowlRound was founded in 2009 in response to a crisis of equity, sustainability, and relevance in the nonprofit theatre sector, which had succumbed to the neoliberal market values that had come to dominate the rest of society.

It was an experiment in building a new kind of commons-based infrastructure for the theatre field—one that intentionally sought to nurture and support openness, collaboration, and community over maximizing profit, hierarchy, and competition. HowlRound’s founders embraced Buckminster Fuller’s advice: “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

Emerging at the time of the Occupy Movement, HowlRound’s founders sought to “address the 99 percent problem in [the theatre] field” by “opening the fire hose” of voices at the grassroots.

So, what happened? And has the field changed, as a result of HowlRound’s intervention? Read our essay here, or the full case study. For more on what the commons is and why it matters to culture and creativity, see David Bollier’s work here.

  • Clients

  • PROJECT

  • WHAT WE DID

In 2018, Helicon collaborated with HowlRound to help it tell its story.

HowlRound was founded in 2009 in response to a crisis of equity, sustainability, and relevance in the nonprofit theatre sector, which had succumbed to the neoliberal market values that had come to dominate the rest of society.

It was an experiment in building a new kind of commons-based infrastructure for the theatre field—one that intentionally sought to nurture and support openness, collaboration, and community over maximizing profit, hierarchy, and competition. HowlRound’s founders embraced Buckminster Fuller’s advice: “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

Emerging at the time of the Occupy Movement, HowlRound’s founders sought to “address the 99 percent problem in [the theatre] field” by “opening the fire hose” of voices at the grassroots.

So, what happened? And has the field changed, as a result of HowlRound’s intervention? Read our essay here, or the full case study. For more on what the commons is and why it matters to culture and creativity, see David Bollier’s work here.

  • Clients

  • PROJECT

  • WHAT WE DID

The Work

In 2009, when HowlRound was founded:

  • The majority of philanthropic money was going to the largest and wealthiest theatres, despite the fact that their audiences were not reflective of the American population.
  • These institutions functioned in a way that was increasingly indistinguishable from commercial theatres, programming blockbuster shows with star casts for which they could charge top ticket prices.
  • Meanwhile, a tremendous amount of vibrant artistic creation and engagement was happening in small nonprofits or in community settings across the country.
  • Overall, theatre was fueled by the “sweat equity” of artists, who, even when artistically successful, were rarely able to make a living off their work. With the rising cost of living in many places, this was becoming increasingly untenable, especially for artists without other sources of wealth or income.
  • Access to the financial resources, information, and platforms to create and share work was closely guarded by a small number of “gatekeepers” at major institutions and were inaccessible to the majority of artists.

HowlRound’s founders—P. Carl, David Dower, Jamie Gahlon, and Vijay Mathew—knew that the issues facing nonprofit theatre weren’t just “theatre issues.” Our current era is characterized by concentration of power and wealth in the hands of a few; exploitation of workers for low wages; systemic barriers to opportunity and resources, magnified along class and racial lines; underfunded public and social goods and services; and commodification of everything for corporate profit.

HowlRound sought to create a democratic platform for theatremakers of all kinds to communicate, share work, and exchange ideas. In their words, the goal was to “address the 99 percent problem in our field” by “opening the fire hose” of voices at the grassroots, thereby making the full scope of the field visible. They believed that was the prerequisite for other, bigger changes, as well as the foundation for a new kind of democratic organizing in the field.

Field leaders we spoke with agree that HowlRound has been a remarkable success in its short lifetime, and has transformed much of the way the field understands itself and communicates. HowlRound has helped reveal issues and perspectives that were formerly marginalized or invisible, and allowed like-minded people to connect and organize. It has democratized access to knowledge, becoming one of the nation’s largest archives of theatre-related material, freely accessible to anyone with an internet connection. This has influenced how
and where theatre is taught and studied, opening up possibilities for artists outside of traditional “theatre centers.” The long-term impacts of this are yet to be seen, but systems experts note that changing who has access to information and enabling people to self-organize are two of the most important leverage points for creating transformative change in any system.

In 2009, when HowlRound was founded:

  • The majority of philanthropic money was going to the largest and wealthiest theatres, despite the fact that their audiences were not reflective of the American population.
  • These institutions functioned in a way that was increasingly indistinguishable from commercial theatres, programming blockbuster shows with star casts for which they could charge top ticket prices.
  • Meanwhile, a tremendous amount of vibrant artistic creation and engagement was happening in small nonprofits or in community settings across the country.
  • Overall, theatre was fueled by the “sweat equity” of artists, who, even when artistically successful, were rarely able to make a living off their work. With the rising cost of living in many places, this was becoming increasingly untenable, especially for artists without other sources of wealth or income.
  • Access to the financial resources, information, and platforms to create and share work was closely guarded by a small number of “gatekeepers” at major institutions and were inaccessible to the majority of artists.

HowlRound’s founders—P. Carl, David Dower, Jamie Gahlon, and Vijay Mathew—knew that the issues facing nonprofit theatre weren’t just “theatre issues.” Our current era is characterized by concentration of power and wealth in the hands of a few; exploitation of workers for low wages; systemic barriers to opportunity and resources, magnified along class and racial lines; underfunded public and social goods and services; and commodification of everything for corporate profit.

HowlRound sought to create a democratic platform for theatremakers of all kinds to communicate, share work, and exchange ideas. In their words, the goal was to “address the 99 percent problem in our field” by “opening the fire hose” of voices at the grassroots, thereby making the full scope of the field visible. They believed that was the prerequisite for other, bigger changes, as well as the foundation for a new kind of democratic organizing in the field.

Conclusion

We may still be a long way from manifesting a nonprofit theatre system that, overall, values and supports diversity, cooperation, and participation over competition and profit. There is greater awareness of structural inequities than ten or fifteen years ago, but this has not yet translated into a significant redistribution of money and power, which are still highly concentrated in the hands of very few institutions and individuals and directed towards supporting a limited range of content.

We are left with the question of whether it is possible to change conditions in the theatre field without addressing the inequities and dysfunctions in the larger socioeconomic system within which theatre is embedded—including institutionalized racism, structural wealth inequality, extractive economic models, widespread privatization of and profiteering from commons resources. This is a hefty challenge, but we believe theatre and culture makers have a role to play in moving society toward a more equitable, just, and sustainable future, in partnership with the many other new economy changemakers working toward these ends.

The fact that daunting challenges remain does not imply that HowlRound has fallen short in its work to date. On the contrary, it is because of the profound reach and impact that HowlRound has had in a relatively short amount of time that many in the field believe HowlRound can be a catalyst, organizer, and host for the difficult conversations that need to happen to bring about larger structural shifts in theatre and our society as a whole.