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.