To bring ready-made productions of new works to regional theatres
To present and produce new works as tours
What Needs Work
Managing time and expectations
Planning the 2018-19 tour circuit
New theatre works that call for big casts and big creative teams usually require big budgets. One way to defray these costs, both for creators and the theatres presenting, is the touring route. That’s where Mainspring Arts Cooperative (MAC) comes in, bringing together troupes with high aspirations and limited resources and regional theatres who would otherwise not be able to afford to produce these new plays and musicals in their own season lineups.
Founded in 2015, MAC is spearheaded by three theatre veterans who saw a need: Trish Santini and Frank Butler, former senior producer and former production director at Minneapolis’s Guthrie Theater, respectively, and Peter Flynn, former artistic director of the Hangar Theatre in Ithaca, N.Y. Santini and Butler started brainstorming the project in 2010 when they learned that the Guthrie’s artistic director, Joe Dowling, would be departing the theatre five years later.
“After working in an organization as extraordinary as that, and also being part of a number of conversations with colleagues and at conferences, we started to hear some similar themes within our organization and elsewhere,” says Santini.
One recurring conversation across the field was the challenge of producing new work with limited financial resources. As their new project post-Guthrie, Santini and Butler wanted to create an organization to serve the nationwide theatre community.
“We started noodling on ideas that would be in good service to the field,” says Santini. “I think we all collectively were interested in doing something that was bigger-picture. And out of those conversations came a discussion about touring.”
Santini notes that while some theatres opt for coproductions of new works with other theatres to cut costs, there are challenges in that too. For one, production costs can be hard to maintain when multiple companies are involved. “Also, there is no real ownership in taking care of the physical production once it goes from one theatre to another,” says Santini. “Organizations need to move on to their next production, and most organizations don’t have the bandwidth to take care of what’s happening in their own houses and also be able to help support and maintain a physical production that’s going on somewhere else.”
That’s where MAC comes in. The organization acts as a producer and manager all in one, from mapping out a show’s tour route to managing it on the road. “We view ourselves as being in service to the artists and the work, and we also view ourselves as being in service to our colleagues who will be our clients,” Santini says.
The projects come to MAC in a variety of ways. “I think that’s actually the exciting part, because it makes the project at the center as opposed to the process,” says Santini. Tectonic Theater Project approached MAC with its newest work, Uncommon Sense, after learning about the organization at the 2015 TCG Conference. MAC served as executive producer of Uncommon Sense at New York City’s Sheen Center Oct. 25-Nov. 26, and is working on setting up a tour for the 2018-19 season.
Tectonic was a good fit, Santini notes, because they’re “really a development organization and not a producing organization, so the minute they’re ready to produce, they’re always looking for an outside partner.”
MAC is also shepherding the musical Anne of Green Gables, a project that came to them through a commercial producer who was already attached to the project. “We shared a philosophy that the best trajectory for that show may be more than just one or two engagements outside of New York, but actually looking at it as a tour first,” she says. Its first stop was at the Finger Lakes Musical Theatre Festival in July.
Another show in the pipeline is the musical Wait Wait…Don’t Kill Me, which came to MAC by way of the author’s agent. The musical, with music and lyrics by Alan Schmuckler and book by Dave Holstein, is a satire inspired by the National Public Radio podcast Serial. The musical had a reading in NYC last month.
“There are a lot of different ways for the shows to come together, but ultimately once it pivots into touring, we’re there to support it from a general management standpoint, production management, booking, and management of the show on the road,” says Santini. That means that MAC is doing it all, from arranging the presenting theatres to fielding calls about load-ins.
Santini concedes that the 14-month-old organization still has a lot to learn. While they want to take on lots of projects, part of the job is finding works that are a good fit for their touring model and for theatres.
“It’s about the matchmaking between the project and the theatre,” says Santini. “Some of the shows that we do could be a really great fit for 10 theatres, and some might be a really great fit for six, and we just don’t really know that because you can’t genuinely represent what the needs of each of these organizations are.”
The biggest challenge, she adds, is taking the time. “We’re all really motivated to make sure that the choices that get made are always in best service to the process and the work—and that means you have to invest a lot of time in those conversations. We’re all resistant to creating an organization where it would at any time feel like the project needs to service the model, versus the model being in service to the project.”
Moving forward, Santini says the organization will be addressing feedback they’ve received from clients. “You have to stay open and flexible, and collaborative,” she says. “We’re going to learn so much in 2018-19, and we’re going to learn a lot from our peers and colleagues,” she says. “I think part of the job when you start something brand new is to not get too attached to result.”