Category Archives: Producer

Things I Didn’t Know I Didn’t Know

I’ve recently set up a Patreon campaign where you can support my work “per epiphany.” Patreon is a new model for funding artists, based on a very old model for funding artists: patronage. Many of us currently work project-to-project, and it’s difficult to maintain a reliable income that way. So Patreon allows supporters to pay small amounts for small milestones along the way to those big projects. I’ve chosen the “epiphany” as my unit of measurement for progress towards my goals.

So here’s my first Patreon-supported epiphany:

I went to a course yesterday offered by the Independent Theatre Council, on starting a performing arts company. It’s only been a couple of months since I decided “Okay Okay, I’m Starting a Theatre Company” and now I’m getting into the nitty-gritty of it. The morning was a bit scary, a three-hour deluge of things I hadn’t thought of yet, that I would now have to deal with, learn more about, and fill out forms for.

lost in woodsWhen I first moved to London, I made peace with the idea that I was starting again in a new theatre world, with a new network to build and new systems to figure out. It’s been a while since I’ve felt as lost as when I first arrived. I’m not normally apprehensive about legal and financial best practices, having served for 3 years as general manager for the Cutting Ball Theater in San Francisco. I know my way around a spreadsheet and a contract. But the systems of a 501(c)3 non-profit organisation in the United States and the systems of various company structures here in the UK are not the same. At all. The funding landscape is totally different. Employment law is totally different. Even the names for things are totally different.

Around 12:30 I was starting to think: ooh. I didn’t know I didn’t know this stuff. Maybe I’m not ready for this. Everyone said it was not that big a deal to set up a company. But there seems to be a lot to get my head around. There’s already so much work to do, to create and direct a piece of theatre, and now all this about employment law and company accounts? And I can get funding from the Arts Council as an individual (in theory) so maybe I should just…not do this?

And then I had another cup of coffee, chatted with a fellow performance maker over lunch, and we realised that actually the scary things were to do with being responsible for other artists, employing people, treating our collaborators well. Which actually, whether I’m making my work as an individual or as a company, I need to sort that stuff out. And actually, the company paperwork is the easiest part of all this.

So I pulled myself together and turned a new page in my notebook. The afternoon was full of more helpful advice and greater detail about what we’d covered in the morning. There’s still a lot more to work out, but how will I learn until I do it? This is the journey from unfunded individual artist to professional performance company. I’m sure there will be a lot of epiphanies along the way. Not least: don’t do it alone.

If anyone else out there is thinking of starting a theatre company, I’m happy to share my notes and impressions from the course. ITC offers the course 2-3 times a year – keep an eye on their website for the upcoming sessions in August (Edinburgh) or later in the autumn (London). Or you can become a member and get advice year-round.

Okay Okay I’m Starting a Theatre Company

This is what the magic of Open Space looks like. Photo by Paul Whitlock

This is what the magic of Open Space looks like. Photo by Paul Whitlock

Every January for the last eleven years, Improbable Theatre has invited theatre makers to an open space event called Devoted & Disgruntled. Each year, they ask, “What are we going to do about theatre and the performing arts?” and 300 people gather to work on that question. Since my first London January, in 2014, I have kicked off my new year there, in a huge room full of new friends and some inspiring, challenging, electric conversations.

In 2014, it’s where I first met my current collaborators Guleraana Mir and Sharlit Deyzac, along with about a dozen others who shared their Third Culture stories and got involved in what has become Home is Where… a verbatim/movement/music performance by and about Third Culture Kids.

(More on that project here.)

It’s a great place if you have a specific question or issue you want to work on. It’s a great place if you don’t quite know what to do next. It’s a great place to meet new people and learn about what’s going on beyond your immediate network. This year, it was a great reason to visit Birmingham!

As always, I had some really interesting, abstract, socially-engaged, politically-charged, inspiring, mind-expanding conversations. (You can read the whole report, of what 250 people talked about over 3 days on the D&D website here.) And this year, I had a specific question that I asked my colleagues/friends/strangers for help with: do I need to start a company to make my work and pay my collaborators?

I’ve long suspected that in order to realise the ambitious pieces of work that I am dreaming of, I need the kind of support that individual artists just don’t have, certainly not “emerging” or even “mid-career” artists, or artists whose vision lies outside of the mainstream. I need a company. But I’ve also long held a deep resistance to that idea. I really wish there was another model, something in between being a precarious freelance individual artist and an artistic director bogged down with all the administration of a company.

I started a company in San Francisco, called Inkblot Ensemble, so I could make my work and not be dependent on anyone else to give me permission to be an artist. Four core members explored big ideas for three years, made two work-in-progress shows, and grew tremendously as artists. We grew in different directions, so by the time I was moving to London, we agreed to let the company dissolve.

Listening intently to some wisdom at D&D. Still wearing my Christmas jumper in January. Photo by Paul Whitlock

Listening intently to some wisdom at D&D. Still wearing my Christmas jumper in January. Photo by Paul Whitlock

I’m wary of starting up another company in that sense. I’m working with a wonderful team now, on Home is Where… but I don’t know if we’ll be the right collaborators for the next project, and the next, and the next. They each have other projects and ambitions they’re pursuing, too.

I’m wary of creating an artistic entity that’s separate from myself. It’s so much work to establish a name, a website, recognition among peers and potential collaborators. And what would be the identity of a company that is creating a verbatim Third Culture project, a reimagined Helen of Troy performance installation with accompanying solo show, AND a (still very nebulous in its early stages) neuroscience/astronomy theatre piece?

I’ve also been clinging to the idea that if I could “just find a producer” then I could be a precarious freelance individual artist, and it would be fine. But I’m not about to wait around for someone to come and save me from the hard work of getting a piece to the stage. I do need a producer, but until the right collaborator comes along, I’m going to keep making things happen my own way.

So, thank goodness for D&D, where I asked for help and people answered. It turns out that setting up a company in the UK is very different from the US models I’m familiar with. It turns out it’s a very good idea to separate myself as an individual legal entity from the legal entity responsible for the financial health of a production. It turns out that it’s a lot simpler than I thought, with a lot less heavyweight infrastructure. And it turns out that there’s a one-day course in how to get started, run by the Independent Theatre Council. I’ve booked on.

Okay, okay, I’m starting a theatre company.

Declaring my intentions for action at the end of the final day. Photo by Paul Whitlock

Declaring my intentions for action at the end of the final day. Oozing gratitude for the generosity of my fellows. Photo by Paul Whitlock

The next step: what is it going to be? I don’t want to separate myself as an artist from the identity of the company – its purpose is to facilitate my work. I’m getting over my feelings of arrogance, selfishness, and guilt around wanting to create something so focused on ME. It feels so antithetical to the collaborative nature of my work. But I’m looking at artists like Bryony Kimmings, Young Jean Lee, and Pina Bausch, who lead companies which facilitate their collaborative work. Why NOT Amy Clare Tasker Theatre Company? Hmm. Something’s not quite right about that. What if I want to make something that’s not “theatre”?

Why not Amy Clare Tasker Performance Lab Ltd? A fluid collective of artists led by Amy Clare Tasker, telling stories to change the world. Third Culture Kids, Helen of Troy, and Brains & Space are first up, then who knows?

Right now, this could mean I can apply for more funding from more varied sources, pay my collaborators, hire a producer, make things happen faster. In the future, it could mean anything; I’d love to set up regular Lab time, to get together with other artists interested in the beginnings of an idea, to facilitate one-off workshops, peer-to-peer mentoring and skill sharing sessions, and to work towards the big, ambitious productions I’m dreaming of. Watch this space.

Thank goodness for D&D. Watch that space, too. If you’ve never been, do check them out. There are events throughout the year, as well as the annual 3-day brain-melting wonder-fest each January.

I’m Moving to London!

It’s official! The secret’s out!

On July 1, 2013, I will land at Heathrow Airport at the end of a one-way journey. Why? You may well ask.

For the Adventure

Because I can. Because I’m 28 and have a British passport. Because I’m old enough to do whatever I want and too young to know better. Because I want to be the kind of artist, the kind of person, who would just up sticks and move to London. Because apparently there are 101 reasons you need to live in London once. Because it’s so close to the rest of Europe! I’ve already got plans to catch the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this August. Paris is just a few hours away on the train. And Berlin is right there. And theatre festivals all over the place, all closer to London than San Francisco is to New York.

For the Challenge

I’ve spent the last five years in San Francisco figuring things out, refining my aesthetic, gathering new skills, building some wonderful relationships. I’ve learned a lot. And while there is certainly more I could learn here, from an amazing and inspiring community of artists, I’m ready to go and see what else is out there, what else I can learn. The San Francisco scene is going to continue to be robust and vibrant without me – and who knows, maybe I’ll rejoin you all in a few years.

For the New Plays

A few months ago, I tuned into a Howlround Twitter conversation about the UK vs US new play development models. The British theatre is not without its challenges – indeed, they are many of the same challenges we face here in the US. But, as detailed in this American Theatre Magazine article, there are key cultural differences in the UK that create an environment more conducive to my work as a director of new plays and a devised theatremaker. New plays are produced in London, rather than developed as they are in the US. Two thirds of all productions (excluding Shakespeare) in the UK are new plays – and 40% of those are by women. That’s a very different story than we’re telling here.

But I know, it’s not all roses. Major cut are proposed to the budget of the Arts Council of England (similar to our National Endowment for the Arts). But in the UK, we’re talking about billions of pounds in arts funding (£2.4 billion from 2011 – 2015), compared to millions in the US ($139 million in 2010 –  the agency has awarded $4 billion total since its founding in 1965) – and those are total grants, not funding per capita. It goes without saying that in the US we are stretching that smaller number of dollars among larger numbers of artists, organizations, and communities. This article even uses the US donor-reliant funding model as a cautionary tale of how cutting government support can dull theatre’s impact and discourage risk-taking.

Also, theatres in England have bars! That sounds like I’m being glib, but it’s actually a huge cultural difference in how we welcome audience members and the general public into a creative space. You can eat dinner in the cafe at the National Theatre, and stay for a drink after the show, rather than being ushered out by underpaid house staff who have been there all day and night and want to go home. I’m sure I’ll be blogging many more new shiny revelations when I get there.

For the One-Year Master of Arts Programs

Right now I don’t have any specific intention of pursuing higher education. Like many young artists, though, of course I’ve considered whether I need to go get an MFA to succeed in my field. Whether I “need to” or not, I am interested in more training after my BA – I spent those four years figuring out that I wanted to be a maker of new experimental plays rather than a musical theatre actor. Very valuable information! But having now figured that out, maybe I’m ready for some formal training. There are some pretty intriguing masters programs and approaches to directing in the UK that I am excited to check out. Plus, one year in academia in London sounds way more appealing (and cheaper) than three years somewhere in New England.

For the Family

It’s true, it will be really hard to leave my family here in California. I’ll especially miss Kate, who has been my roommate for nearly 3 years as well as my big sister for my whole life. And even though I see my Portland sister and my East-Bay family pretty infrequently, it will still be very different living 8 timezones away. But I also have grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins in England whom I’ve mostly seen at funerals these last few years. It will be so nice just to go round for lunch or celebrate a birthday.

For Some Answers About National Identity

Am I repatriating, “moving back to England,” going home? I was born in England and grew up with an English family, drinking tea at home and visiting grandparents in Yorkshire and Staffordshire. So I’m “really” English, right? But my family moved to California a couple of months before my fifth birthday. I went to Elementary School here, where I quickly lost my accent to avoid being asked by my classmates to “say something in English.” I grew up in the Bay Area, played softball, took Spanish in school, learned to drive on the right side of the road, went to the University of California, and in my 23 years in America, absorbed the culture, the language, the regional idioms. I say “awesome” instead of “smashing” and I don’t really know how long a kilometer is – or is it kilometre? They use kilometres over there, right? I think big and make ambitious plans because I can do anything, right, that’s what my 4th grade teacher said? So am I expatriating, “moving to London,” going on an adventure to a foreign place?

During my senior year of college, I “studied abroad” at the University of Manchester, my dad’s alma mater, about 20 minutes from where I was born. I started writing a play, Hyphenated, for my senior thesis project. I started trying to find my own answers to these questions. I got as far as, “well, yes, both, neither…” but I didn’t get as far as feeling comfortable in that in-between state. I’m ready to dive into the divide once again. On the one hand, it’s fascinating. On the other hand, it’s frustrating as hell not knowing what your voice really sounds like and what accent it uses.

For Some Silly Reasons that Actually Really Matter

For the bars in the theatres (it’s worth repeating). For the tea. For the bank holidays. For the socialized health care. For the London Underground. For the markets. For the British Library and the Tate Modern. For the BBC. For the puns. For the jammy dodgers.

For All the Other Reasons I’ll Discover When I Get There

Because how can I really know if it’s the right move until I make it?

TACTICS: gettin’ intersectional

I have learned so much this week from curating an interview series on the Works by Women San Francisco site, TACTICS: Theatre Artists’ Collected Thoughts Insights Challenges and Strategies for gender parity advocacy.

I expected to learn a lot about what individual advocates have been doing for decades, what the idea of gender equity has been doing for centuries, and what new initiatives are popping up now in the age of technology and constant connection. I did not expect to learn how easy it is to be blind to your own biases, even when you think you’re aware of them.

The first eight TACTICS profiles we posted are stellar. I am very proud of the series so far, and very excited about the pieces that are still in the pipeline. The interviews feature a mix of longtime advocates, artistic directors, and individual artists. I was pleased to notice that they feature women from different generations and a couple of LGBT voices. I also noticed that these wonderful, intelligent, articulate, passionate women all happen to be white.

Happen to be. This is the phrase that artistic leaders use when they’re excusing their season of plays that happen to be written by, directed by, designed by, and starring mostly white men over 40. This is the phrase they use when they want to say “I don’t want gender and race to interfere with my artistic choices.” This is the phrase that suggests that women and people of color just aren’t making the kind of work that the artistic director wants to do at his/her theatre – it won’t resonate with their subscribers, or it’s not good enough.

I didn’t intend to interview mostly white advocates for gender parity. Going in, I was even consciously aware of this long-standing bias in the feminist movement. I deliberately brainstormed women of color to ask for interviews. I emailed many incredible women of diverse backgrounds. I followed up on leads from friends saying, “Have you talked to so and so yet?” As responses started to come in, my focus shifted to the logistics of getting the features up on the site. This has been a busy week for gender parity on Howlround’s blog and weekly Twitter conversation – as well as being my first week of rehearsal for The Helen Project. I stopped thinking specifically about artists of color. The diversity of the TACTICS profiles was still in my mind, but no longer at the front of my mind.

And then today, a good friend emailed me with congratulations on the interview series, and the question, “Will we see an artist of color soon?”

The easy answer is YES, in fact, the very next interview is from an artist of color. But the real answer is yes, I can do better. I can look harder. I can reach out to people I already know and I can educate myself on the organizations that are specifically serving female artists of color. I found some really inspiring companies around the country that focus on Asian American, Black, and Latina playwrights. I’m now following them on Twitter so I can continue to keep them in my field of vision and help stop the blindness coming back.

Let me be clear: I don’t want a cookie for making a little extra effort. I was missing something, got a nudge from a friend, and took some simple steps to self-correct. It remains to be seen how successful I can be at improving diversity in the interview series. It remains to be seen how I will keep diversity in the front of my mind, vying for attention with my conscious and unconscious biases. This is the effort I always need to be making, to counterbalance the input I am getting from the whitewashed world around me.

This is the effort I am asking artistic directors to make when they’re choosing their seasons. If their seasons just happen to be filled with middle-aged white men, then questions of gender and racial diversity are not getting enough space at the front of their minds.

I know many artistic directors who are consciously trying to improve representation for women and people of color in their seasons. Sometimes they make it, sometimes they don’t. I know that season planning is insanely complex, and that gender and racial representation are intertwined with a whole host of other challenges, too. Lack of parity is a symptom of a white-male-dominated national culture, not a deliberate intention of any theatre to program more men than women in their season, or more white artists than artists of color.  No individual is responsible for our white-male-dominated culture, and no individual theatre’s season can fix that culture. So why shouldn’t your local theatre do Eugene O’Neill instead of Maria Irene Fornes? What difference does that production make?

We’re asking our artistic leaders to have faith that their actions will help to change the tide, even if it takes a long time, and even if it takes extra effort. We’re looking to theatres to break the self-perpetuating cycle by deliberately programming greater diversity into their season, even when it’s hard. It requires not just awareness but active commitment and constant vigilance.

Directors Lab West: Day 4

Day 4 of Directors Lab, for me, was all about embracing my own intensity. After the Theatre Bay Area conference last week (I think it was last week – I’m not really sure what day it is anymore), I was “feeling like a crazy person.” After four days of the Lab with 36 of my peers and some incredible guest artists, I’m coming around to the idea that “feeling like a crazy person” might just be the only way I’ll know that I’m doing it right. Ah! Two big reliefs in one revelation: 1) that it’s OK to feel crazy and 2) oh my goodness, can you believe it, there is a way to know that I’m doing it right!

Yesterday began with Anastasia Coon’s movement workshop, an eclectic mix of exercises ranging from running from an “enemy” and getting close to a “beloved” (an exercise we’ve actually done three times now at the lab, but Anastasia was the first to endow it with emotional stakes) to neutral mask work. Oh man, mask work! I have only ever put a mask on one other time, in Eli Simon’s clowning class at UCI. Both times I was astonished by the immediate and powerful emotional response, and the inventive physicality the mask can produce (when you can’t use your face, you use your body). I’m seriously considering getting a set of masks for training and rehearsal to explore more. Let’s see how long it takes me to work that expense into a grant request…

Later in the afternoon, we visited A Noise Within at their beautiful, brand new theater. The building is incredible, sleek and modern, outfitted with a spacious and inviting lobby, rehearsal rooms, administrative offices and library all with a lovely picture-window views of the hills, a costume and scenic shop, kitchen and dressing rooms, as well as the theater itself, a 280-seat thrust stage. We had two and a half inspiring hours with the artistic directors of A Noise Within, husband-and-wife team Julia Rodrigues-Elliott and Geoff Elliott. Our session with them was entitled “What Doesn’t Kill You,” after Geoff’s assertion that “what doesn’t kill you just didn’t kill you.” A few fantastic nuggets from our conversation:

  • “Starting a theater is real estate.” You’re always figuring out where you are going to be. A Noise Within started out in a Masonic Temple and recently completed a $13.5 million building in time for their 20th season.
  • “We didn’t mean to do this.” This sentiment is one that I have heard echoed throughout the Lab, and elsewhere in my conversations with people who have started their own theaters. As someone who has set out to create her own company, I wonder if my experience will be easier/faster/better because of my deliberate intention, or if “whoops, I started a theater” is an essential element for success!
  • “Everything is hard. You might as well do something you want to do, that you think will make a difference. You’re probably going to knock your brains out either way. Being a banker is hard, too.”
  • On repertory acting company: “You want both the energy of new people challenging the status quo, but there are things that happen with an ensemble of people who trust each other that could never happen in a 5-week rehearsal period.” And “any longterm relationship is hard work. You have to continually reinvest in those relationships.”
  • On audiences: “When they have opinions on the type of toilet paper we should have in our new bathrooms, you could get upset – or you could realize how great it is that they feel like the theater is their home.” With a repertory company, some of whom worked the box office in the earlier days, the audience has a long-term relationship with the actors. They have seen them onstage again and again.
  • On growth: “It’s easy to get into a desperate mentality and make bad decisions. You have to step back and invest in the long-term infrastructure.” As in Hamlet, “readiness is all.” “It’s all about hard work, and then faith.” (There’s that idea again, faith.)

I’m not sure that my journey will lead me to a $13.5 million dollar brand new facility. Who knows what the next 15 years will bring for me and for Inkblot Ensemble. The possibilities are endless – and all possible. I have faith. I have drive. I have vision and taste and compassion and leadership. I embrace my intensity. I am high on the future.