Treehouse Shakers

Treehouse Shakers
Hatched, BAM Fisher, Hillman Studio

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Successful Player

I have never wanted to write about failure. It has been written about so many times before. Intellectually I know, it is the much needed process we go through to find our success. Failure builds our prototypes, which leads to our successful product. Failure helps change us for the better. Right? Lately, there doesn't feel like there is room for failure. With jobs at all time low, the economy a sad mess, and the world's seams ripping apart from all corners, it seems that success is the only player who needs to be in the room.

So who is to say when you have succeeded. Especially in the arts. Especially a non-profit company in the arts? How can success be measured? Is it measured by income growth? Is it measured on notoriety? Or is it feeling satisfied by the individual project, seeing the creative process reach new levels?

Treehouse Company on Tour in Arizona 2005
Right before the big recession, I felt successful. Treehouse Shakers was growing every year by a large percentage, we were rapidly adding board members, touring dates, and company members. We were creating, increasing, and striving for new development. When the recession hit we kept growing, but not in the way we had hoped or projected. Our biggest company change has been that we haven't created a new piece in two years (before the recession we created an original piece every year). It takes a great deal of funding to create a new dance-play, and in the time that we are creating, we have to slow down on development and touring schedules. This is challenging when you want to grow. Of course there are ways around this dilemma. Send out a second company, in which case you need to pay a company manager to help keep everything afloat. This can be doable, but it is costly. And feels extremely costly when you have just been through two years of rough waters watching every dollar, and cutting expenses whenever possible, just to keep on the life jacket.


Success today looks very differently than it did two years ago. Now the idea of success seems that we need to not only increase our board members, our audience members, but also the salaries of the company. Success for us would be to create the new piece with the first company, while letting a second company continue to tour. Success is finding funding in new places, partnering with other non-profits in new ways, collaborating with new creative partners to bring in new ways of making, funding, and audiences.

Mara Post-Show Greeting Students from Brooklyn Kindergarten Society's Tompkins Center 2010
At this point I wake up daily and say, what is it we need to do to to make this company successful. I never use the, "I'm going to fail" mantra. It just isn't my way. Success, I believe will come. The recession will end, people will again feel generous about the arts, and the world will open its door to the importance of kids and the power of the arts. The world's seams, we can only hope, will be mended. After thirteen years, Treehouse Shakers is still striving for our version of success.

Monday, November 8, 2010

How to Measure Need

I feel that I am always deep in thought about the creative culture of our society and how to improve upon it, but also how to improve upon those we reach and serve.

Funders, it seems, primarily want the non-profits in this country to serve the poorest of the poor, the kids who are forgotten, lost, in need. I absolutely agree. These kids need all of us, to make sure they aren't left behind. Treehouse Shakers gives free tickets every year to these low-income communities. We believe in these kids, in helping these communities. The needs in these areas are endless.
Mara with Students from Brooklyn Kindergarten Society Post Show
But, the more I have been contemplating these kids, the more I have been thinking about the kids in the middle class. No one, it seems wants to fund kids in the middle-class. The majority of donors, funders, and corporations, don't want to simply help kids in the middle-class. It doesn't sound desperate, critical, or hopeless enough. The funding is for the very poor and the under served, while the richest can and will, buy the tickets out right, or fund the schools to make sure there are arts. So where does this truly leave the working middle class? The middle class these days, primarily means both parents are working, kids have baby-sitters, extended after school activities, or are going home alone. These kids also need the arts to comfort, nurture, care, and help to create their community. I was one of these kids.

Out East it is clearer to see and feel the class lines. In the West, in Wyoming, we were all heaped together. Small towns have divisions, ours did in many ways, but we didn't have the same kind of divisions. We didn't have private schools to create a bigger divide between the haves and have nots. Sure if you lived closer to the railroad, you may have had a smaller home, but I don't remember thinking of a divide. Could have been the way I was raised, or it could have been the culture of Wyoming. Everything seemed hard growing up. The cold, the work; most people work in mines, construction, pipe fitting, oil rigging, ranching. Wyomingites, by force of nature, are hard workers, they know, for the most part, how to fix their own cars, their roofs, their dinners, their land. But I am getting off on a dirt road. If the arts hadn't been laid out before me, I am not sure where I would have ended up.
Mara and Emily in Southwest Wyoming half-way between the towns where we grew up (2000)
I have often wondered if I wouldn't have met one incredible teacher, if my life would have ended up somewhere else. Of course many people helped me to stand on their shoulders; my parents, my aunt and uncle, my friends, their families. But it was Mr. Stemle who became my cheerleader. He changed everything for me. In Middle School I struggled. I guess everyone struggles in Middle School, but I was a kid in true turmoil. I had been a good kid up to that point. And then I started doing things that changed me. I smoked my first cigarette, I drank too much, and often, I snuck out at night. My mother was beside herself. I was creating a quick life to no where. I often ended up in the principals' office, I skipped school, my mother was called, and I was hurting for attention. Mr. Stemle gave me reading materials in detention, great books, writing assignments. He was always full of inspiration, laughter, support. He encouraged me to enter the young author's contests, and I won. He pulled me aside when I was in another class, and encouraged me to try out for the High School Speech Team, led by another amazing teacher, Mr. Levitt. The way he kindly pushed me along, helping me as a writer, believed in me, well, his encouragement, that is what changed me. He pushed me into the arms of writing. These arms led to a body that included acting, speech, and eventually directing, playwriting, and storytelling. That first big writing embrace, was the embrace that shaped me forever.

The arts speak beyond our differences. They are for all of us, they keep us alive, connect us, encourage free thinking, and help us to become imaginators. If we leave the middle class behind, who will be the advocates for these kids; the ones whose parents are gone to work, who come back from school to an empty home, who struggle for attention? So should non-profits in the arts also be funded to serve those in the middle class? My vote is a resounding YES! The arts shouldn't have a class divider.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Creative Collaboration


Some of the Treehouse Shakers'  company backstage after Let's Talk About IT!, NYC  2010
Theater is about collaboration. So is dance. Having a dance and theater company means a lot of collaboration. Over the past thirteen years, Emily and I have created all of our eleven shows together. I write, she choreographs. I direct, she directs, sometimes both of us direct. At times she has written ideas, thoughts, and I have reworked those thoughts into the script. We have built on how we work over the years. Sometimes it has been hard, I don't always get to write the story I originally intended. With the choreography, she has to make the dancers look good, but also the actors. She has to weave dance into the script. I give suggestions about where I think the dance should play out between the words, woven within the rhythm of the speech. She may tell me she doesn't understand a character, or questions a structure. We talk it out. We are always trying to improve our working habits, our style, and our communication with each other. Our performance company has a lot of input in our creative process as well. They throw out ideas when we are building the piece. For all of our young audiences dance-plays, our amazing percussionist, Roderick Jackson, blends the art forms together. Perfectly communicating the writing, the movement, and the acting, through music. We meld what works. We created this process together, the way we work, the way we collaborate.


Mara and Emily at a Treehouse Shakers' Gathering, Brooklyn, 2008
In many ways Emily and I collaborate because we have similar reference points. When I was little I was surrounded by artists. Emily was too. My mother is a painter, I used to joke that as an only child of an artist, her canvases were my other siblings. Her friends were other artists. We went camping with musicians, on picnics with sculptors, dinners with writers. My father, a pipe fitter by day, is a notorious storyteller. He can turn any incident into a tale that is captivating, interesting, and mesmerizing. He used to dabble in acting at the community playhouses. Emily's dad is a sculptor, and her grandmother was a modern dancer, she danced in NYC. Her great-aunt Susie was a painter. Susie was my mother's mentor, and in many ways my surrogate grandmother. Emily and I were raised to live creative lives.
Mara and Emily NYC, 2002 The year we premiered "Outside of Kissing Rock." about our lives growing up in Wyoming.
As Treehouse Shakers grows, changes, expands, explores our boundaries, so will our collaboration process. I am positive we won't be the only collaborators in the Treehouse Shakers of the future. Recently, I have been meditating on how to expand our creative process. Change directions with the company, slightly. Build a company that can sustain without us controlling every string. Perhaps we will bring in a new choreographer, a new director, take submissions for scripts. No matter what changes we implement, I will always want to be a part of the creative process. I see the collaboration as my paintings. My children. I don't want to give this making part, up. I love it too much. It is my breath. After all I was raised to create. I would be going against my own nature if I didn't write, dream, make, collaborate.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Fundraising, The Other Artistic Plight

Anyone who has ever raised money for a film, a play, or a new album, knows that the artist must wear two shoes. Shoes of different colors, shoes of different sizes. A shoe for their art, and a just-right shoe for fundraising.


The play can be good, but if the theater is too small, the audience too sparse, the publicity narrow to nil, then the show might not matter in the long run. Without a backer, without a publicist, without the finances for the theater of choice, without being able to pay the actors, the dancers, the videographers, the technical director, the lighting designer, the stage manager, the sound designer, without an audience,without the ability to keep the company in rehearsals, creating, performing on stage, the Artistic Director has nothing.
Coyotes Dance at The Ailey Citigroup Theater, NYC Photo by Mercedes McAndrew
It all comes back to knowing how to ask for money, when to ask for money, the never-ending cycle of asking for money, building the board, building a network, building the audience, build, build, build, and then asking for money again. Even after one raises the finances, someone will say, it is not enough. They will say, why can't we raise money like Lincoln Center (seriously, someone in our company once asked me this). I didn't get my MBA, and on some meager days I think I should have. Our society loves the people who make money. If you make money, we are told, then you have succeeded.

I have stayed and made this company, even when my fundraising shoe was too small, and pinched my toes. I stayed when I wasn't being paid, but my company was. I stayed after starting a family (most people at this stage in life, on my income, keep it only as a hobby). I do it because I believe in the work. I believe in what will come. I believe in the art. I believe in the audiences who see the work.

Students post-show Animal Rhythms with Treehouse Shakers' dancer, Malinda Crump, NYC
Sometimes I am asked to add something desperate to our mission; we could raise more money if we helped starving children in Africa, cured cancer, or ended wars. All those things I wish Treehouse Shakers' could do. Our mission though, is to strengthen imaginations. Envision a society without art, without dance, without play, without music, without creativity, without thought, without reflections, without joy. What Treehouse Shakers makes is important. We give actors jobs, dancers jobs, musicians jobs, technical jobs, publicists jobs. I am in the business of making people explore, think, reflect. Imagine. Play. That is important.

Care to donate?
Treehouse Shakers Virtual Auction
Treehouse Shakers Tax-Deductible Donation

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Beginning

In 1997, I created Treehouse Shakers with collaborator, Emily Bunning, in NYC. I remember the moment I knew I wanted to have a company. I was in my junior year of college. I went to my theater advisor and asked if I could have an independent class in theater production. I wanted to know how did one own a thriving and professional theater company?  I never did get an independent study in the subject (I think we needed three willing students to put the study together). I had the dream. I knew it could be done, but there weren't any classes, and there weren't any textbooks. The only thing I had read was on the creation of Provincetown Playhouse (which made me want to reach my dream all the more more). I knew I wanted to write, act, direct, create, and produce. I wanted to have my own company.

After college I spent a year in Santa Fe working for Southwest Children's Theater Company. That's where I began to learn the ropes of owning a company, so generously guided by Artistic Director, Rebecca Morgan. A year later, under Rebecca's gentle urgings, I moved to New York City. The city was unlike anywhere I had lived before. It felt raw, unkempt, and I felt like I was standing on the edge of an urban cliff. The more productions I saw, the more my dreams began to blow up in size. After nearly a year pounding the pavement as an actor, with my headshot in permanent tow, being in performances where my friends were the only people in the audience, being cast by directors who reused identical blocking from previous shows (okay, only one director in particular, but boy was I scarred when she even made us do the Macarena to fill up the stage time), I knew that I wanted my own company. I had a vision. I had written a play while living in Santa Fe called, "Dance of My Daughter" and I began to envision it with dance. Dance-theater wasn't even a buzz word yet. It was 1997.

I remember the coffee shop, I remember the feeling on the city streets, and I remember thinking this is the moment. I was sitting across the table from one of my oldest acquaintances. Emily and I grew up together in Southwest Wyoming. We used to take art classes every Saturday with Emily's great aunt Susie. We were friends, had gone to college together, and had collaborated a few times mixing modern dance with poetry. Emily was seeking her life as a dancer and choreographer, and I was seeking life as an actor and writer. Surely, we could meld these forms together. And so without knowing what a backer was, without a business plan, with our newly acquired B.F.A's, we put our creative brains together and named our new dance and theater company, Treehouse Shakers. "Dance of My Daughter" premiered that same November at Ensemble Studio Theatre. We dove off the cliff together; head first, arms spread, and our hearts thumping so loud, we were sure the whole city could hear us.