Challenge: To found a theatre company with a philanthropic purpose
Plan: Donate 25 percent of box-office profits per production to a charitable organization of choice
What Worked: $300,000 in donations over the past seven years have gone to some 11 beneficiaries
What Didn’t: Donating all profits is not a sustainable model for continued giving
What’s Next: Coproductions, growing to two productions per year; investment in youth
In 2008 Kristen van Ginhoven moved to Western Massachusetts to be with her British partner. A Canadian who’d been living in Belgium, where she taught theatre at a school and directed plays, van Ginhoven didn’t have a green card when she got to the U.S. and didn’t know many people in the Berkshires.
“I was having a hard time with the transition,” she recalls. But then she read Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, and something changed. “Here I was, a middle-class white woman, and I didn’t feel like I could create opportunity. But when I read the stories of how women all the over the world had turned dire circumstances into opportunities—I thought, ‘I need to buck up and put on a play!’”
Upon reading Half the Sky, van Ginhoven immediately wanted to be able to write checks to the women on the frontlines of issues such as gender violence, honor killings, girls’ education, and sex trafficking. But since van Ginhoven didn’t have deep pockets herself, she did the next best thing: producing plays with the express purpose of donating profits to charitable organizations that empower women.
“At first I thought I would raise $50,000 to put on a play and pay the artists,” van Ginhoven says. “Then I would be able to give all of the box-office proceeds—say, $50,000—to a beneficiary.” She pauses before adding with a laugh: “That is not a sustainable model!”
Still, her pie-in-the-sky vision of what a theatre could do helped hone the philanthropic mission of the company she would call WAM (which roughly stands for “Where Arts and Activism Meet”). Three years after the company’s founding in 2010, van Ginhoven and her board determined that WAM would donate 25 percent of its gross box-office proceeds to worthy beneficiaries. That percentage seemed to be the sweet spot that would allow WAM to pay its artists, make donations, and keep the organization going. And though it’s not strictly philanthropic, another benefit of creating a company of her own is van Ginhoven can address gender disparity in theatre in her hiring practices.
The company has grown quickly, and van Ginhoven believes that’s partly due to WAM’s socially conscious entrepreneurship model. In its first year WAM had an operating budget of $10,000. In 2017 that figure is projected to be more than $200,000.
Van Ginhoven also believes that WAM’s growth has something to do with savvy consumers. “Eighty-five to 90 percent of consumers will switch brands for a social-justice cause,” she says. “Why not eat the cereal that also gives part of its profits to saving elephants?” she reasons. “More and more people are understanding the value of doing two things with a dollar.”
Speaking of dollars: WAM has raised some $300,000 from the nine productions it’s mounted in the seven years since its start. This money has gone to 11 beneficiaries, 5 of them global, 6 local. Those nine productions also resulted in 200 contract jobs for artists, 75 percent of whom identify as women.
Recently WAM closed its 2016 season with The Bakelite Masterpiece by Kate Cayley. A coproduction with the Berkshire Theatre Group, Bakelite had a ticket price of $50—more than WAM’s usual $35 tickets. Raising the ticket prices was a conscious decision, as the two theatre groups would be splitting the proceeds, leaving aside $9,000 that went to the Berkshire Immigrant Center, a local organization that assists new arrivals to the area, and to artist/organizer Suzi Banks Baum, who empowers women through creative expression.
The connection between the production and its beneficiary can carry. The Bakelite Masterpiece is set at the end of WWII in a chaotic Holland. Explains van Ginhoven, “I am the daughter of immigrants, and choosing the Berkshire Immigrant Center, which helps women in tough spots figure out their green card situations, felt appropriate. We try to connect the dots, but we also stick to the main issues in Half the Sky and make sure our beneficiaries can put the money toward short-term and long-term impacts.”
WAM’s next production, a remount of Lauren Gunderson’s Emilie: La Marquise Du Chatelet Defends Her Life Tonight, makes another fine match of play and cause: Its subject is an unsung 18th-century female scientist, and proceeds will go to a local science organization for girls. It runs March 30-April 9, with van Ginhoven directing.
Some productions have multiplied the impact even more strikingly, such as Winter Miller’s In Darfur, a WAM production in 2014. “One of our beneficiaries was Mother of Peace orphanage in Illovo, South Africa. The money went directly to the 13 house mothers, who raise 84 orphaned children in mother-headed households. One of those moms built a room onto her house with her portion, which now provides a source of rental income. So we gave theatre professionals jobs, a female playwright the chance for her story to be told, we helped moms—and one of those moms now has a source of income because of it.”
WAM currently has eight part-time staffers. The company’s average supporter, according to van Ginhoven, gives $100. “I don’t come from means, I don’t know people with deep pockets—what we’re doing is very grassroots,” she emphasizes. She adds that even though her company exists to give money to women’s organizations, artists of all stripes can get onto the giving bandwagon.
“You know the billionaire pledge?” van Ginhoven asks, referring to the “Giving Pledge” campaign encouraging the world’s wealthiest individuals to up their philanthropic contributions. “I have an artist pledge. Even if other artists donated 5 percent of their profits to a charitable cause that makes a change. My passion is women’s issues. Maybe you’re interested in eradicating poverty, or animal rights. Find the organization that’s out there, and people will come.”
Taking a break from writing, I hop onto Facebook and catch a germane post by playwright Mariah MacCarthy, whose play Baby Mama: One Woman’s Quest to Give Her Child to Gay People was running at IRT in New York City at press time.
#BabyMamaGay nonprofit donations by the numbers:
Week 1, The Doula Project: $365
Week 2, Hour Children, Inc.: $436.80
Just from passing a hat immediately after the show. Theatre artists: We all can and should be doing this. Almost no extra effort required on your part.
This leads me down an Internet rabbit hole, where I see another Massachusetts-based company, Boston’s Garden Rose Theater, started by Sam Botsford, which raised $10,000 for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) from its first show, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and $5,000 for NAMI from its second production, I Am My Own Wife. Clearly it’s an idea whose time has come.
For its part, WAM plans to grow its productions each year and to support its Out of School Girls Ensemble, in which girls aged 13 to 18 create devised works around issues in their lives. “Their questions are amazing: How have we evolved? What is effective protest?” van Ginhoven says. WAM Theatre may be one answer to that last question.
Playwright/performer Eliza Bent is a former senior editor of this magazine.