Why create a worker-owned cooperative theatre company?

This is what I mean by a worker-owned Cooperative Theatre Company: “A cooperative is an autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social, and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly-owned and democratically-controlled enterprise.”

In the typical hierarchical system led by an artistic director and a board, artists defer responsibility for their economic needs in order to focus on the artistic or cultural ones. Actors just want to act. Directors just want to direct. Technical staff simply want to do their jobs, get paid, and like the actors and directors, go on to the next job with little or no connection to the whole process that is involved in producing a show beyond the scope of their individual role and the tasks assigned to them.

While this “top-down” structure and compartmentalization of labor might seem efficient, even cost effective (the boss—in this case the artistic director—bears most of the burdens of labor and reaps most of the benefits), it depends upon a set of strengths and fosters certain weakness that are now glaringly evident in our economic system: the many are ruled by the few.

If a business fails—it’s the boss’ fault: we fire him or her and get another. If a business is successful—we reward the boss with bonuses and tell the workers they’ve done a great job!

But what if our business as a theatre company were a level playing field? What if everyone had the opportunity to meet his or her common needs voluntarily and democratically?

I want to be a part of and co-create a company where a core group of professional have the opportunity to make decisions about their economic, social and cultural needs and aspirations democratically. A company where artists who want to hire on as employees may do so, but if they wish to be more intimately and democratically involved in the day-to-day operations and processes of the theatre, they may also do so. And I intend to design and organize this theatre company—with the help of like-minded individuals—around these ideals and principles.

Why, you might ask, try to change a model of organization that has been around for a long time and seems to work?

Well, the answer is both personal and professional. After decades of working with theatre companies as an artistic director and a consultant, an actor and a director, I have come to believe that what we create as a company is exactly what the audience gets—all of it—in our performances. That these two phenomena are inextricably linked: how we interact backstage and how we interact on stage.

If we are to be true to our mission statements, we must practice what we preach not only in the professional side of our lives, for example: the shows we chose to present, but also in the personal side of our lives, by how we relate to one another and the ways in which we organize ourselves as a company.

The old model that says “I have an idea and I’m going to find a group of workers to carry out my idea” is no longer interesting to me, nor do I think it’s viable in a truly democratic society. It ultimately leads to factionalism and a division of labor, which is divisive and destructive.

The old model is egocentric and pits one person in competition with another for our basic human needs. Everyday—in the current system—there are thousands of unemployed artists forced to compete with each other for a small portion of the available resources in order to meet these needs. By working cooperatively, we can not only change that situation, we can also teach (through modeling) our audiences how to live in a world where all humans have the right to meet their basic needs. And isn’t that one of the central roles of artists in any society?

We come to a theatre, a darkened room specifically designed to foster a fantastical reality, to tell stories. That is essentially what we are doing as professionals and that is what our audiences come to experience: stories about people who either get along or don’t get along and why. I want to deepen our storytelling to include new and re-visioned ways of being together. And I want to start from the inside out. From how we relate as individuals in a company to how we relate professionally to our audiences. It’s an organic process—this organization I’m envisioning—and therefore has a life of its own. I’m looking for a place to plant the seeds of this company and some folks who want to be a part of it and help it grow. In order for it to take root and grow, it has to be shared by, nurtured by a group of like-minded individuals who feel the same calling. I trust that if this is something you’re interested in, you’ll respond.



One thought on “Why create a worker-owned cooperative theatre company?

  1. Awesome! I have a very similar dream, and am working on a model for a cooperative community musical theatre group. I’d love to hear more about how this all came together for you.

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