As funding questions loom larger in post-Harvey Houston than perhaps ever before, small theater companies and independent artists are entrenched in a financial climate that is largely unfamiliar territory. Even though Houston still very much lives up to its moniker of Boomtown, this hasn’t always rung true in terms of arts funding.
Add in the financial strain of rebuilding after a catastrophe and suddenly producing theater becomes an even more difficult endeavor. For even smaller companies, fundraising becomes increasingly difficult. As the rebuilding process continues, I check in with local theater-makers to see how the storm has affected fundraising efforts, if at all.
Since emerging onto the Houston theater scene in 2009, Horse Head Theatre Co. has consistently pushed the art form—and audiences—forward. The company has seen considerable growth financially, administratively, artistically in the last four years. Horse Head wants to continue growing, but without increased or at least stabilized funding, things become more tricky and uncertain.
The company’s staged reading of Bernardo Cubría’s Neighbors: A Fair Trade Agreement on September 18 was a success by any measure. A co-production with MECA, the house was packed to see long-time friends Cubría and Philip Hayes take on the titular characters. While the reading offered a brief escape from Harvey recovery efforts—and the opportunity to laugh a bit—one thing was clear: Horse Head has a supportive following.
Yet, a supportive following is just one piece of the puzzle. After the 2016 election, Horse Head noticed a decline in ticket sales, attendance, and engagement. “It seems the city is depressed,” suggests artistic director Jacey Little. “When you add Harvey into that mix it’s a two-fold problem.” In terms of fundraising,
Horse Head has used crowdfunding in the past, but they don’t rely on it as heavily as other smaller companies. Nevertheless, finding the funds to continue the work remains a challenge as the city continues rebuilding. “It feels almost I bad taste when the city is hurting. However, it’s something that we need,” admits Little, adding, “We need community support in order to produce our art, especially when you combine it with the decrease in ticket sales. Those are two sources of income for us that are destabilized.”
Going forward, Horse Head is looking at cost-effective productions that will be artistically meaningful, but will require less funding than normal. As always, the company continues to challenge audiences intellectually while throwing the kitchen sink of performance spaces at spectators. Their summer production of Church took place in an actual church and their current production of The Sonic Life of a Giant Tortoise is in a bare-bones photography studio in Near Northside. Even with funding setbacks, Horse Head is optimistic that they can continue this level of art-making even in difficult times.
New company Rogue Productions was forced to cancel their August 31 fundraiser for their production of I Love You Because, which was postponed to an indefinite date in 2018 when the DeLuxe Theater flooded. Now, Rogue is waiting for funds to come back. Notably, when the writers of I Love You Because caught wind of a Houston production of their musical, they waived the rights to the show, giving the company an unexpected return of more than $2,000.
Aside from lost funds, Rogue lost considerable momentum. The company just celebrated its one-year anniversary in October and is still trying to establish itself in the local theater environment. “Like many local companies, we are having to reformat our future based on everything that is going on,” says co-artistic directors Rachael Logue and Chelsea Ryan McCurdy.
To stay relevant in the theater community and gain some much-needed momentum, Rogue teamed up with 50 Playwrights Project to present a staged-reading of Karen Zacarías’s Just Like Us on November 6. All proceeds from the event went to support DACA defense efforts through United We Dream and Harvey first responders through Assist the Officer. Logue and McCurdy hope the reading gave back to the community and put Rogue back on the map. With the Just Like Us reading a success, the duo is exploring how to revisit ways to successfully fundraise post-Harvey. “Although the hit we took was massive, we won’t be bested by a storm” admits Logue and McCurdy.
Local independent artist Josh Inocéncio was in the middle of preparations to launch the fundraising campaign for his March 2018 production of The Little Edelweiss, or An Immigrant’s Fairytale when the storm complicated his plans. When Harvey hit, Inocéncio was on holiday in Cambodia, where he wondered if the production would be able to continue. While the production’s space—MATCH—was unaffected, Inocéncio was unsure about how the storm affected actors and designers who might be displaced. In addition, he was hesitant to begin fundraising and soliciting funds for the March performance.
“As I saw the resilience of companies like Stages Repertory and Rec Room and how they acknowledged the community’s need for theater in this time, I knew my collaborative team and I could continue,” admits Inocéncio. “People are still hungry for theater and other arts—and I’m confident we can deliver a powerful production. I’ve pushed everything back on the timeline as far as fundraising, but we’re set to crowd fund a portion of the budget this November.”
Harvey forced Firecracker Productions to cancel four performances of Crooked because of Harvey. The company relies heavily on ticket sales so canceling nearly half of the show’s run was a major hit to the company’s financial situation. Even so, the reality of asking for money in post-Harvey Houston has its added challenges. “We are not grant funded right now, so our annual fundraiser is crucial for our season,” admits artistic director Sammy McManus.
“We were gearing up to start pushing it, but it doesn't feel right to ask people for money with everything that has happened in the last couple weeks.” The company was intending to launch its annual crowdfunding campaign, but didn’t’ think it was the right approach after Harvey. Firecracker is now looking into grassroots fundraising methods. The company intends to use its Friendsgiving event to raise funds through a silent auction. In addition, Firecracker is part of Big Give Houston on November 28 and is doing profit shares with Cottonwood on December 11 and Axelrad on February 8.
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Even at the best of times, asking people for money is tough. Add in a large-scale natural disaster and it becomes even more of an obstacle. For Cone Man Running Founder Christine Weems, asking people for money has become more difficult.
“Physical damage aside, Harvey is killing all of us in terms of how we almost all depend on fundraising to survive,” admits Weems. “Nobody feels right about asking for any money except to help with disaster relief.”
While each local company faces a unique path to recovery, they all face the similar challenge of finding funds at a time when donation dollars are tight. Understandably, people want—and should—continue to support Harvey relief efforts. But, if the Houston theater community is to remain strong, we must find ways to support our local companies. Now, more than ever, small companies need locals to support the work. Sometimes this means buying a ticket. Other times it means spreading word-of-mouth about a great production you saw. And, whenever possible, it means donating. Even the smallest donation can go a long way at many companies.
If we united as a community, to recall Logue and McCurdy’s words, we won’t be bested by a storm. We simply won’t.