Trickling Up: The Theater Community Uplifts its Own
Theaters have been shuttered for a record number of days: with Broadway venues currently closed through at least June 7—and many Off-Broadway theaters following suit—we are quickly approaching our 100th day without communing together. It has had a devastating effect on the industry, and none have felt this seismic shift more acutely than its artists.
Some Off-Broadway theaters have come forward and generously announced they will pay their artists through the end of their seasons. This is a vital effort, but what about the theater-makers who are not affiliated with a sturdy institution—the fledgling ones or those on the rise who are not only unemployed by leading theaters but have also lost their gigs as teaching artists, bartenders, or waiters?
“We were really alarmed when we started hearing from many of our friends that all their work for months had been canceled,” said Kristin Marting, theater-maker and founding artistic director of HERE, the downtown performing arts stronghold. “We felt like we needed to do something immediately to address this need.”
Thus was born The Trickle Up (A NYC Artists Network), a program that “helps freelance artists without resources or a safety net,” said Marting, who is a co-founder along with theater-maker Taylor Mac, dramaturg Morgan Jenness, New Dramatists Artistic Director Emily Morse, and The Flea Theater Artistic Director Niegel Smith.
Over 50 theater artists have joined them to collaborate on this “new grassroots subscription video platform” that enlists “artists who are suffering from lost income [to share] work on the platform,” per Trickle Up’s website. The illustrious roster of Tony, MacArthur, Pulitzer, and Obie award-winning playwrights, actors, designers, and comedians who have signed on to donate their time and creativity to the effort includes Annie Baker, Andre De Shields, Diana Oh, Clint Ramos, and Paula Vogel, among others. The artists will contribute three videos to the subscription series and also select the recipients of the commissions. In addition to these creatives, 20 promotional partners have joined the cause, including HowlRound in Boston, The Arts Center at NYU Abu Dhabi, and a number of New York organizations such as the Brooklyn Arts Exchange, Ma-Yi Theater Company, The Lark, Clubbed Thumb, and New Georges.
Seeking a $10 monthly donation from the public, Trickle Up aims to clinch 10,000 subscribers so that every month 10 artists in need will receive a $10,000 commission to create video content during this period of social distancing. The program launched on March 23; one week later, it gave out its first $10,000 commission. “No grant applications, no panel committees,” Marting said. “Grass roots: person to person. Each time we earn $10,000 in subscriptions, we pay out a $10,000 commission to one of the artists.”
The initiative’s subversive name, which seems to play on the toxicity of trickle-down economics, came from Mac—a playwright, performer, and Pulitzer Prize finalist who is well-acquainted with the downtown theater scene and COVID-19’s effect on that community.
“It’s something I’ve been saying in my shows for years as I’ve noticed the culture tends to trickle up from the queer basement bar or the activist meeting house or the tiny Off-Off Broadway theater into the larger culture over and over and over again,” Mac shared. “It rarely trickles down (economically but also creatively). So, I think, if we really want a strong culture, we have to support the people who are at the ground level, or below. Or as my drag mother would say, ‘Ya gotta get in the soil to grow the flower, darling.’”
On Trickle Up’s video subscription series, a commissioned, unknown artist has the opportunity to share a platform with a world-renowned one. The egalitarian endeavor has quickly bubbled, in many ways thanks to the immense outreach its organizers have spearheaded. “I have sent out probably a thousand emails,” Mac said. “So many emails. I’ve really discovered a great love and appreciation for arts administrators. I’ve always seen arts administration as an art form, but this is a whole ’nother level of understanding.”
Information is its own form of currency during these confusing times. Over at Playwrights Horizons, Literary Manager Lizzie Stern curated an artist resource page on the theater’s website that features a robust list of remote work opportunities, emergency grants, and—for those who can—organizations to donate to that will fund artists.
“I want to equip our community with necessary information in an accessible and digestible way,” Stern said. “During this crisis, there is a clear need to support artists whose productions and workshops were postponed or canceled, but many people don’t have a tether to an institution committed to protecting them. I hope to reach as many people as possible.”
Stern’s efforts are indeed reaching a vast number of creatives. The artist resources webpage quickly caught fire and was passed around on social media. Theater-maker Young Jean Lee commended the endeavor on Twitter, and hundreds of users went on to share her and others’ posts about the available resources.
The page continues to be an ever-evolving list of economic opportunities for artists, but Stern’s work stretches beyond just the website. “Shortly after the government announced the stimulus, we hosted a live Q&A webinar with financial planner Ari M. Teplitz (CFP®, ChFC®, Partner at The Teplitz Financial Group) who generously offered his time and expertise,” she said. “We recorded the session and compiled Ari’s answers to everyone’s questions about qualifying for unemployment, collecting stimulus checks, managing debt, and more, and made all the information available on the Playwrights Horizons website. Over the past two years, Ari and I have been building a cost-free financial literacy program for theater artists at Playwrights. These resources are vital, but normally prohibitively expensive for most artists.”
Summing up her efforts’ motives, Stern said, “Information and compassion are two wells that don’t run dry.”
Kindred to Trickle Up, yet also serving the spirit of Playwrights Horizons’s artists resource page, a new Instagram account, @theatrewithouttheater, tries to fill the void we’ve all been experiencing: At curtain times each night, the account shares performances from a range of theater performers, raising money for artists along the way.
“My partner Fedor Sokolov runs the online education company ELK Academy, and so we’re constantly hanging around a lot of the tech crowd, which had prompted me to be thinking about how theater can work online,” said actress Ali Stoner, a co-creator of the account. “I’d honestly been holding it in the back of my mind for a while and had subconsciously marked the question as ‘important’ but not ‘urgent.’ As soon as I heard about the Broadway closures, it all of a sudden felt very urgent.”
The Instagram page has garnered an audience, gaining 7,000 followers in under a month’s time. A public account, it offers free snippets of theater to its followers, often of actors sharing monologues, scenes, and songs from shows. Featured works have included mainstream smashes like Harry Potter and the Cursed Child to previews from smaller festivals showcasing research or clips from their works-in-progress. While the account casts a wide net in terms of the content it serves, preference is given to shows whose runs have been stalled or stopped altogether.
“Between Ali [Stoner], Lily [Houghton, a playwright], and I we had a lovely and lucky, broad range of colleagues in the theater community who we knew had been directly affected by the initial wave of closures, so we reached out to them to see if our idea would be a balm for them, rather than a ‘hey do this thing for us’ situation,” said writer, actor, and director Matthew Minnicino, another of @theatrewithouttheater’s founders.
“We were wary that the moment was a tender one, but almost universally we received interest and buoyant support, which emboldened us to start reaching out to individuals and institutions we didn’t know directly. Once we expanded our team to include the wonderful Dina Vovsi [a director/theater-maker], Emily Juliette Murphy [an actor], and Shannon Buhler [general management associate at The Flea], our scope grew even wider, and by then we were cross-checking lists of closures, reaching out internationally, and dealing with submissions from total strangers to us.”
While the content is free, viewers are invited to donate to the Artist Relief Tree, the link for that organization living in the account’s bio. Houghton heard about the Artist Relief Tree from Rachel Sussman, a Tony-nominated producer who champions and mentors women entering the producing field. Houghton called the organization “a fund where artists in need can apply for $250 in emergency funds. The entire organization is trust-based, so artists that apply are given funds not by their resume but by their need. So far, the organization has raised over $275,000 and has been giving funds straight into artists’ pockets.”
Running an Instagram account is no frivolous job, however. “It is more work than I imagined it would be,” Stoner said, but noted that “the response has been tremendous” and a source of encouragement as the team behind the account looks to keep audiences satiated and artists funded with potential Zoom readings, digital vignettes, and more.
Meagerness can elicit creativity; even while confined to their homes, theater-makers are finding innovative methods to generate new work while supporting others—and in many ways, it’s working.
“We have enough Trickle Up subscribers that, if they stay subscribed for the next year, we’ll be able to give out a $10,000 commission every month,” Mac said. “But that is not enough for us. We want to help hundreds of artists. The more subscribers we get the more people we can commission to make content. So please, sign up.”
For more information on organizations and resources, visit:
Trickle Up NYC Artists Network
Playwrights Horizons’ Artist Resource page
YoungJean Lee’s Twitter account