Crowdfunding the arts: Can grassroots support help revitalise theatre?

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I recently came across this crowdfunded arts project, headed by Stuart Murdoch from indie pop band Belle & Sebastian, aiming to raise enough money to fund his musical feature film God Help The Girl. This concept interested me firstly because I love Belle & Sebastian, and secondly because the idea of a musical funded by its future audience is a pretty exciting one. The premise is this: a sum of money is required (in this case, $100,000) to be raised by a certain date (12 February), and people who believe the project is worthwhile can donate to the cause. Big donations come with the promise of rewards, such as a chance to visit the set, but if the money isn’t raised the project is called off. Essentially: a musical is brought to life by those most eager to see its creation.

Community funded arts projects are not a new concept. With the repercussions of governmental cuts being increasingly felt, more and more potentially brilliant ideas are falling by the wayside with no conceivable way for artists to bring their work to audience. New writing is given a back seat whilst tried and tested favourites (I’m thinking about all those jukebox musicals…) are rolled out to bring in the crowds. Group funded arts projects are a way to combat this stagnation and give a voice to those underrepresented in the world of theatre, and are realised on such popular funding sites as WeFund, Sponsume, IndieGoGo, and Stuart Murdoch’s choice, Kickstarter.

There are numerous advantages to approaching creativity in this manner. Apart from the aforementioned benefit – that opportunities are provided to those otherwise unable to get a foot in the metaphorical stage door – crowdfunded projects also provide a ready-made fan base in the event of the project’s completion, giving the audience exactly what they want as they are the ones choosing what deserves support. I imagine it’s a great feeling to watch a performance knowing that you were involved from the very start, and can claim to have paid for, say, one thousandth of the creation. It builds links between the audience and arts organisations that are stronger and more intertwined than ever before, introducing arts patronage that extends beyond the seventeenth-century aristocracy supporting an up-and-coming playwright to include a diverse range of theatregoers with a vested interest in the outcome of a particular piece. Patronage, but in plurality.

A site that is of particular use to theatregoers is WeDidThis, a crowdfunding platform specifically dedicated to UK arts organisations. The success stories listed online are encouraging: from Brighton-based theatre company Witness Theatre managing to raise enough money to set up camp at the Brighton Fringe for five days with its production of The Importance of Being Earnest, to the inspirational story of Catalyst Rwanda raising over £2,000 to set up sustainable arts programmes for genocide victims – there is evidently scope to achieve amazing results. This kind of platform is especially useful for young theatre makers who are just establishing their identity – with Witness Theatre being run by two recent graduates, WeDidThis provided an opportunity for their talent to be recognised by the public. As WeDidThis founder Ed Whiting commented in a Guardian culture blog: “We believe that relationships that start with a very small donation and a relatively simple reward can grow to enrich both the creative and financial resilience of the arts sector, and the cultural lives and experiences of those who give to it.” This is the essence of crowdfunding: giving a little to make a huge difference to both struggling theatre creators and the people their art will one day affect.

Community funding doesn’t have to stop at producing theatre, but can stretch as far as literally building theatre, as touring theatre company Paines Plough is currently attempting to prove. The company has decided to produce a stage that is a little more permanent than grassy fields and historical sites in the form of a touring mini-amphitheatre, dubbed The Roundabout Auditorium, giving people across the UK the chance to experience its work in a theatre-in-the-round. The possibilities are endless – if Plaines Plough can flat-pack the theatrical experience, Ikea-style, even the most outlandish idea has a chance of becoming a reality.

As with most concepts, there are downsides to this type of collaboration. With anyone being able to post their ideas, there are an awful lot of projects requiring funding and not enough donations to go around. As Liverpool-based artist Emily Speed notes: “Kickstarter claim that around half the projects they feature make their funding goal”, which leaves half the projects having to be abandoned or rethought – appealing to the masses doesn’t always guarantee a response. However, as Speed concedes, this 50% figure is “comparable to, or higher than some UK regions in the Arts Council England ‘Grants for the Arts’ success rates”, meaning companies have an equal chance of gaining funding without having to fill out copious forms and wait around for a decision. As this categorical breakdown of Kickstarter’s stats illuminates, over $4m were pledged by 50,144 people to 931 successful theatre projects in 2011. Although these were mostly US-based, this still illustrates the level of interest in crowdfunding, with nearly 1,000 theatre projects coming into existence due to grassroots support.

Part of the beauty of crowdfunding is that creators can influence the progress of their project by interacting with supporters and promoting the idea online. In this sense, Stuart Murdoch’s God Help the Girl has a bit of a head start – they can appeal to Belle & Sebastian’s established fan base, and have the support in tweet-form from celebrity fans such as Zooey Deschanel and Matt Lucas, meaning their project has the potential to reach millions of Twitter users in a matter of clicks. For those without this kind of advantage, crowdfunding requires marketing the project directly to the crowds. Social networking sites are a great platform for this; with a thriving theatre community willing to lend a promotional hand, simply getting the project retweeted is a way to drum up support. Some other good ideas to maximise exposure include posting videos and photos to give donators an insight into the project’s progress, offering rewards to supporters and gaining press coverage to allow the project to reach more audiences. There are also the business aspects to consider – dedicated commitment is required from creators, a detailed and compelling pitch must be written, and an accurate budget needs to be produced to make sure what is promised can actually be followed through. Community funding might be a great way to give creativity a chance, but it takes a little more effort than simply posting your idea online and waiting for the money to flood in.

On the positive side, even if crowdfunding doesn’t result in the target being achieved, getting feedback from the online community is a bit like having a ready-made focus group – a way to present your ideas to both fans and new supporters, network with the arts community, hear the audience’s reaction, and adjust your project to include the suggestions of others. An idea that perhaps doesn’t initiate the desired response first time round may lead to contacts being made and long-term fans being procured for future proposals.

Funding the arts collaboratively is a way to meld ideas and generate new ones, fuelling creativity in the most imaginative way possible. I’m hoping that the Belle & Sebastian-esque film musical manages to make it off the ground, in order to, as stated by producer Barry Mendel, “show the powers that be that there’s grassroots support for our project”. But whatever happens, there are thousands of brilliant arts projects floating around the internet that need the support of the public, proving that even in the face of government cuts, the world of theatre remains resilient and creativity remains abundant.