How Philly theater groups are revolutionizing traditional models to survive…and thrive

Orbiter 3, Almanac and Ninth Planet are not your standard production companies.

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Courtesy Almanac Dance Circus Theater
jess-conda

Updated 3:30 p.m.

The plethora of productions in Philly’s theater scene means that scarcity abounds.

Along with established organizations producing high-budget shows season-round, the city is home to a host of intrepid self producers, who independently make work in a variety of locations, often in a rhythm different from the older model of consistent, subscription-based programming.

Ticket sales alone rarely pay the bills. As the number of people vying for the same limited funding opportunities continues to grow, these artists are facing existential questions. Is there enough money to go around? Should the work even be made at all?

Some artists are creating their own answers — and developing entirely new models of how theater works.

These hungry innovators are building doors around, alongside and through traditional gatekeeping organizations. Their art is fueled by an aggressive commitment to community. Their business plans form a root system of interconnectivity. They measure success in maintaining ideologies — not accumulating profit.

Most importantly, their work is excellent. It’s unapologetic, bold and boundary-breaking. In a climate that’s just begun to celebrate independent voices over establishments, survival has become a vibrant form of revolution. And the act of art-making has become an art itself.

Three prominent voices of this “revolution of interconnectivity” are Orbiter 3, Ninth Planet and Almanac Dance Circus Theatre, and each group takes a unique approach to creative survival.

Survival through a set expiration date: Orbiter 3

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Courtesy Orbiter 3

Playwriting collective Orbiter 3 began knowing its expiration date — and that was always part of the point.

The company is an eight person collective, made of seven playwrights and an artistic director. Each gets a turn having their play produced, while everyone shares rotating administrative duties to support the production.

The company’s lifespan is the core of its brilliance. After each member has had their play produced, Orbiter 3 will dissolve completely, leaving behind only a record of online producing resources for future artists to access.

“We knew we wanted to make something temporary from the beginning. We didn’t want to become career administrators,” explained cofounder Mary Tuomanen.

Tuomanen has emerged as a major artistic voice in Philadelphia, winning the F Otto Haas Award for Emerging Theater Artist at this year’s Barrymore Awards, and appearing on area stages in regular rotation as a performer and playwright. Yet she’s not focused on reputation, as her role in this unique collective shows.

“This runs contrary to the idea of ‘legacy’ or ‘growing your business,’” she said about the group’s short lifespan, “and sort of flies in the face of the traditional model of trying to create something that will continue in perpetuity.”

Orbiter 3 was also a launchpad for James Ijames, another Haas winner Award winner, who recently earned national recognition as a playwright by winning a prestigious Whiting Award.

Their approach has had a payoff, not just in earning awards and accolades, but in invigorating and keeping playwrights in Philly.

“We want our city to be an American hub for new plays,” Tuomanen said. “When we created the company, not many institutions were taking a risk on promising local writers. So we took that risk on ourselves. It really worked out for us, and (we hope) for the city. Institutions seem a lot more ready to take a chance on local writers now, and we’re starting to attract great playwrights to Philly! We hope they will stay!”

Up next: The final Orbiter 3 Production, A People, May 16 to June 2

Survival through tiers of interconnectivity: Almanac Dance Circus Theatre

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Courtesy Almanad

Almanac is a performance collective whose members blend acrobatic feats of amazement with emotionally driven physical narratives.

In their five-year existence, the group has earned a reputation as a local and international stunner, creating educational programming, short spectacles and and full-length theatrical works that tour everywhere from festivals to classrooms.

In order to do all of this, they think of their company structure, “in shifting concentric circles,” said cofounder Ben Grinberg. He and the other Almanac founders were “tired of figureheads and top-down models of artistic creation,” he said, so the company created a three-tiered system of involvement.

“Table Members” are the producers of the work — company members who invest the most administrative time and do big picture philosophy. Other “Company Members” commit to training for six hours twice a week and attending monthly company meetings. “Associate Artists” train but don’t come to company meetings and not expected to do any administrative work.

Company members can shift up or down the tier system, depending on the project or the time they have available

Table members are not compensated with income, but rather with artistic decision making power, which is viewed as a kind of compensation in and of itself. Any profits are distributed equally to performers first,

“That said,” Grinberg noted, “after five years, we are facing the question of how do we begin to pay our administrators.

Money aside, the flexibility of the tiered structure allows more people to participate under the Almanac flag.

“People can step away when they need to; there’s more flow,” he said, “Our people don’t worry that if they have to step away to take other work, that things won’t happen. Almanac as an entity can still do it.”

Up Next: Xoxomoongirl, June 26 to 28

Sustainability through mission-motivated consensus: Ninth Planet

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Courtesy Ninth Planet

Feminist collective Ninth Planet creates work that lives in the collision of dance, poetry, music and nonlinear storytelling.

The ensemble heard a distinct lack of voices in the theatrescape: voices of womxn and especially womxn of color. Yes, Ninth Planet uses the “womxn” spelling, and celebrates it as a liberation from a patriarchal binary.

Indeed, their work shatters patriarchal notions by putting womxn at the center of the company structure and creative content.

Sam Tower and Nia Benjamin, co-artistic directors, explained that, “[the current] hierarchical system generally does not empower anyone to question the decision-making of the gatekeeper. We studied a lot of data describing barriers facing womxn and people of color who operate in middle management of traditional theaters. They can see the top but often cannot reach it.”

With a clear mission to produce work by and with womxn at the front, Ninth Planet is able to make decisions that serve a practice of “feminism in action.”

Operations are administered horizontally by two co-artistic directors, a creative advisor and a narrative developer, who use consensus-based decision making, meaning everyone has to agree in order to move forward.

“Equity takes work and sacrifice,” Benjamin said. “It means that sometimes you will be uncomfortable. Long-term development costs more money than a traditional rehearsal process. Consensus-based decision making can take a long time”.

Planning each project’s individual timeline based on the needs of the production makes lives of the collective sustainable.

“We are working-class people with other full-time jobs and no physical space to produce inside of,” Tower noted, “xo we mount our shows ourselves in partnership with venues around the city.”

Those venues include garages, basements, libraries, churches, galleries, and other unconventional spaces. By working this way, Ninth Planet has the freedom to use long-term development timelines to create work that is thoughtful and fully realized, Benjamin said.

“Our structure is not just helping us to survive, it’s allowing us to exist in the first place.”

Up Next: HOMEWORLD, an immersive performance installation for babies and their caregivers that will premiere in October 2018.

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