My mother once referred to a show she had seen in New York City as “Off-Off-Off Broadway.” Her emphasis on the third “off,” along with a well-placed finger wag, amused her audience, but made me think about the sometimes unfortunate words we use to describe our art form.
“I love the term Off-Off Broadway,” says playwright and director John Clancy. Still, Clancy, who co-founded the New York International Fringe Festival and serves as executive director of the League of Independent Theater, believes “Off-Off Broadway” implies a certain hierarchy. “When you use that term for your own work, you are putting yourself on the third rung of a ladder that you may not be climbing,” he says. Clancy prefers the term “independent theatre,” likening it to independent film or music, because it is a more artist-driven phrase. (The term “indie theatre,” on the other hand, is a whole other kettle of fish.)
“The way I have experienced theatre in New York is as a circle, not a ladder,” says Clancy, for whom the idea of a collective community chest had been floating around for a while. “I don’t get a lot of funding, and I was curious about introducing radical transparency into the funding process.” Clancy brought up the idea of organizing small companies to pony up cash for a collective fund with Brad Burgess, executive producer and associate artistic director at the Living Theatre, and Randi Berry. Within a few months, in August 2012, the LIT Fund was born. “We wanted the LIT Fund to be a straight-up charity, separate from the League of Independent Theater, which can technically endorse political candidates,” says Clancy.
The idea behind the LIT Fund is simple: Participating theatres donate a nickel per every ticket sold to the collective pool. That money then gets divided three ways. Five percent goes to an endowment, 15 percent goes to an emergency fund available to LIT Fund members, and the remaining 80 percent goes back to independent theatre artists and the organizations at which they work. The nickel is a suggestion. Tithing, according to Clancy, is totally voluntary. Individuals, as well as companies, can become members of the LIT Fund. (For a list of LIT participants see www.litfund.org/who-we-are/.)
In the first year of its existence, the LIT Fund’s 80-percent allocation was $5,000, which the group decided should go toward a community resource grant. “We knew that this wasn’t enough money for project grants to individual companies, like the building of a set, for example, so we figured this first grant should be a community resource,” reasons Susan Bernfield, founding artistic director of New Georges and a LIT Fund board member. “Impacting the community as a whole is kind of the über-goal,” she says. It turns out that LIT Fund participants who were polled agreed that a community resource grant was the best course of action.
LIT Fund members were invited to post short video proposals that would benefit the theatre community at large to YouTube. “When I first went to the link and saw the videos, I started sobbing,” recalls Bernfield. “They were so amazing! We’d been sitting in a conference room dreaming this thing up, not knowing if anyone would bite, and here our community had made these amazing things.” Two rounds of voting followed suit—one in which anyone (LIT member or not) could vote, and a second in which LIT Fund members voted on the top three proposals in the running for a grant. (A total of 12,000 votes in the initial polling rolled in for the 14 proposals.)
The winning idea was submitted by Gideon Productions and Flux Theatre Ensemble for their proposal to create the Shared Independent Theatre or Sh.I.T. List, a web-based database that independent theatre companies in and around Gotham can use to sell, rent, borrow or swap set pieces, props, furniture and costumes—a theatre-specific Craigslist, if you will. (The group’s video submission explains the idea in a lively and joke-filled manner.) But even groups that didn’t receive the grant received attention: Fantastic Experimental Latino Theater (FELT), for example, is now in talks with a French funding organization that took interest in its work.
Actor/playwright Shaun Bennet Fauntleroy was part of the team that developed the Sh.I.T. List idea. Fauntleroy says she was attracted to the values of interdependence, empowerment and activism that are at the core of the LIT Fund, and was already a member. “I feel like we’re truly a part of the future of independent theatre, as most of our funds are now coming from independent donors and crowdfunding efforts like Indiegogo and Kickstarter. Former resources like the NEA have all but dried up,” she figures.
Fauntleroy says the moment of inspiration for the Sh.I.T. List came when she was chatting with designer Sandy Yaklin of Bad Sandy Productions and Heather Cohn, co-founder and producing director of Flux, during intermission at the Public Theater’s The Designated Mourner and admiring the set. “Sandy told us her dream for a ‘green’ storage facility where people could post used set and costume pieces on a Craigslist-type database,” Fauntleroy recalls. “This would save companies the money and time of building everything from scratch and would also reduce our carbon footprint a bit.” Meanwhile, Cohn had been ruminating on starting a shared rehearsal space that small companies could use to cut down on the cost of rehearsal-space rentals. “The three of us realized that the two ideas could easily be merged,” says Fauntleroy.
This month the Sh.I.T. List launches its beta testing version, and a call for the next round of proposals will come this summer. But the LIT Fund is already at work on some other fundraising techniques. “The Nickel Bucket is one of our core fundraising strategies,” says Clancy. It is a bucket in which audience members are invited to throw in a nickel, or more, during performances, in the same way that Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS solicits funds. Buckets were made last month, and participating venues include P.S. 122, HERE Arts Center, the Brick and the Clemente Soto Velez Cultural and Educational Center, among others. “Our goal is to expand to Off Broadway next year and then Broadway,” says Clancy, adding that the LIT Fund could not have happened without the preexisting structure of the League of Independent Theater.
“It’s the logic of collective action and the trust that the League built,” says Clancy. “It’s believing that if everyone puts in a little, then it can turn into a great deal. I don’t see much of a future in public funding for the arts. I don’t think it’s sustainable. We as an industry have to generate our own funding.”
He admits that the group’s pro bono-made website needs a serious redesign and that an intern will be hired full-time.
Playwright Greg Kotis, whose Urinetown started at the New York Fringe and eventually moved to Broadway, is a fan of the LIT Fund. “I cheer them on from the sidelines and give a little bit of money once a year,” Kotis says. “This New York theatre living can be difficult, and what John offers is a community and purpose beyond the all-too-human ambition that drives us all. The more people John is able to bring into the circle he describes, the better off everyone will be.”