A Declaration of Independence

Five years ago I helped found the League of Independent Theater, the only advocacy group for Off-Off Broadway in New York City. I’m now the Executive Director of the League and we have over 200 members, (both individual artists and companies). The League has drafted a Performing Arts Platform for political candidates to endorse, we’ve launched a subsidized rehearsal space program, our spin-off The LIT Fund is up and running and we’ve been working since we incorporated to create a 21st century, real-world code or contract for the Actors’ Equity actors and stage managers working in our territory.

Independence, California

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This is all good and positive and due to the desire, time and effort of hundreds of people who have joined our cause over the last five years. But over the last few months, I’ve grown increasingly bothered by something.

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We are the League of Independent Theater and we call ourselves independent theater artists. You can read about the origin of this designation “independent”, (coined by Kirk Bromley as a replacement for “Off-Off”) here. Essentially, we create and promote artist-driven theater as opposed to producer-driven work.

So far, so clear. However, much like “fringe” and “alternative”, “independent” is a relational adjective, dependent on its antithesis for meaning, and it answers nothing, raising only the question “independent from what, exactly?”

To clarify this, at least for myself, here’s the beginning of an answer; my own declaration of independence, such as it is. It’s a declaration of strength, freedom and self-reliance; a positive thing, not a rejection or condemnation of anything else. The values, systems and practices I am independent of are not inherently flawed and I may make use of them and engage in them in the course of my days, but I am not dependent upon them to do my work. To do my work, I only need time, strength, courage, a quiet place and some good collaborators.

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A DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE

For over twenty years I have worked in the theater in New York City and I have had the great good fortunate to help build a new arts sector in the city: the independent theater community. We share some of the geography and a great deal of the attitude and ethos of the traditional Off-Off Broadway community, but we have grown into something different and new. Our community is still marked by experimentation, innovation and the cultivation of new voices and visions, but we have also developed a maturity and a common commitment to the long-term economic health and security of our sector. What was once a starting place has become a destination. We have our own advocacy organizations, anchor venues, foundations, festivals, award ceremonies and dedicated critical outlets. Recognizing that the larger theatrical system still views our sector as the third rung on a ladder that leads to Broadway, we take the double “Off” label off and declare ourselves “independent” theater artists, self-defined in the ways below:

Hancock's DefianceI am an independent theater artist.

I am constantly developing new work, my own and others’. This development work is done in living rooms, diners and rehearsal studios and theaters which I rent or get free from friends. I am independent of the development wing of the American commercial and nonprofit theater.

The creation and production of my work is not dependent upon either Labor or Management, as those terms are generally understood. I am myself both labor and management and neither at the same time. This workplace division is meaningless to me. I am something else, an “artrepreneur”: an artist who creates the opportunities for my work and actively manages and produces the work. I am an artist and a producer, often at the same moment. I see no conflict or struggle with this dual reality. Because I work independently of the Management/Labor division of the American workplace and mindset, I am actively engaged in public and private discussion to change the operational models currently utilized by unions and guilds that operate in my territory. I am independent of the existing union definitions and decrees.

My work is not dependent on grants, foundations or funders. I put in my own money, raise money or do without. I am grateful for the occasional financial and material support I receive from foundations and arts agencies, but I choose to spend the vast majority of my time making the work and not figuring out how to fund it. I am independent of the granting universe.

The success of my work is not dependent on reviews. I have built an audience and a reputation and it is more important and rewarding to me that a smaller group of people who understands and appreciates my work sees it than a larger group of people who may not get it do. At the same time, I work to increase my audience and welcome newcomers enthusiastically. I grow my audience through social media and word of mouth. I look to the theatrical blogosphere for the support, discussion and informed critical reaction to my work. I am independent of the established, review-driven critical universe.

My ability to produce my work is not dependent on the approval or endorsement of any artistic director, literary manager or other gatekeeper of the American regional theater system, which includes the established nonprofit Off-Broadway companies. If my work finds its way to their stages, I am happy, but I am independent of the regional theater universe.

I create my own opportunities and market my own work. I get myself gigs. I am not dependent on any American literary, theatrical agency or management company to find me work. I am independent of agents and managers.

I am an independent theater artist.

The work I do has created and continues to create a positive economic impact on the neighborhoods in which I work and the larger, city-wide economic impact that all independent theater artists create is significant. But my economic impact is not, finally, important.

It is my cultural impact that means everything, both now and in the long run. I am part of a vital, civic treasure, one member of a vast, powerful and untapped army: the independent working artists of New York City. This treasure has been discounted and squandered for generations, in large part by the artists themselves. I am declaring an end to this misguided and short-sighted personal and civic behavior.

I call on all artists of New York City to join me, not just my theatrical colleagues. Painters, poets, photographers, dancers, novelists, sculptors, new media artists, all artists. We are many.

And we are, collectively, the only hope New York City has to remain a great and vital city. New York has been known and celebrated throughout its history for two things: finance and the arts. The financial sector makes money. We make art. If the city is focused on making money, it will be a bank. And no one hangs out at a bank. If it focuses on making art, it will be a gallery, a performance space, a studio, a rehearsal hall, a salon. This is about civic policy, which we can draft and get implemented.

Join me.

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  • There is an invigoration inherent in reading your words, John. Much as our countries Declaration gave us something to rally around, something to codify our goal, your Declaration seems to me to be a touchstone for the independent artist. I’m only speaking for myself here, -but I believe many would echo the thoughts- but life in the world of OOB/Indie theatre can seem very loosey-goosey, and vague sometimes (And rightly so, this looseness is our strength as well as our challenge). But something about the act of dropping half of that “slashie” title and declaring oneself as simply “independent” seems to gig me on – to encourage the answer of “yes I can” rather than “maybe.” Thanks for that.

  • Jake Hooker

    Hey John,

    I think this is great, as I do all of your writing on theatre and independence.

    I’m just wondering — are their plans or any energy at all to expand LIT’s are of interest outside of NYC? As an artist that just made the very difficult choice to continue my New York-steeped arts practice (pretty far) outside of the city, I’m (admittedly newly) interested in what the independent theater landscape means from a vantage point other than New York.

    It’s natural for you and your thinking to be concerned with only New York City. But, as you know, there’s a wide world out there. A wide, wide world.

    Just wondering…

  • Most folks who know me from the theatre community don’t know this, but fully half of my career in the professional theatre involved way-off-Broadway projects that very few people saw, but which comprised some of the, if not the, most significant and fulfilling theatrical work of my life. Thank you for your remarks, which are both provocative and inspiring.

  • Thanks, Cat and Mirla. And Jake, yes, in early League discussions four years ago we talked about LIT chapters nationwide. I think many of the challenges and solutions to the success and strength of independent theater are local. Every city is different. We’re getting organized in NYC, no reason why it shouldn’t be happening in Philly, Austin, Chicago, Los Angeles, etc. It would be very helpful for us to start learning strategies and tactics from each other that we could tweak and put into practice in our own towns.

  • Erich J

    John – as always, your words are thoughtful and resound beyond the bounds of the world that we live, work and create in. What you’ve written here is something that should inspire creative artists no matter what their field, and help them to define themselves better through their work and not just their commercial or financial success.
    This may well be the treatise by which the movement you have been a part of for over 20 years defines itself for generations to come.
    I’m not sure it’s necessary, but would you consider distilling this into some sort of pledge, or song, or I don’t know what…, that artists could turn into a refrain as they run up against the challenges they will inevitably face in their careers?

  • Erich,
    Someone else suggested some kind of stripped-down version of the Declaration. I like the idea. I’ll work on something.

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  • Jake,

    I know there are city- or region-specific theatre leagues with at least majority independent theatre members. For example, I worked for the Baltimore Theatre Alliance (now sadly reduced in scope), which, when I worked there, had about 75 theatre members in central Maryland, only 6 of which were Equity, and the majority of which I would categorise as independent theatre. I know Boston has an alliance as well. There’s also the Association of Performing Arts Service Organizations (http://apaso.wordpress.com/), which helps to collect these alliances.

    If you can’t find it, found it.

    Cole

  • TerryC.

    oh for chissakes — stop with the narcissistic blabbering and go make some theatre.

  • Heh.
    Sorry, Terry, I’ll be backstage.