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January 28, 2010, by

How do you get a grant?

theatre glow

Okay so you know you want to make theatre and you know it will be cool and awesome like nothing anyone's ever seen. Now what?

by Michael Wheeler

Theatre Centre Managing Director Cathy Gordon and I are speaking at University of Toronto tomorrow. There is an official post about it on the University College website (note the not-so-subtle use of ivy in their web identity), and a facebook event page as well.

Ostensibly we are talking about how to approach public funding for theatre projects and companies. We have some handouts and concrete ideas about that part. What arts councils, what granting programs, what deadlines, etc.

The real story – as most Canadian arts practitioners will tell you – is not one of knowing how to fill out the right form, at the right time, with the right words. It’s my theory (having never been on a granting jury) that the single biggest factor in the success of a grant application is whether or not the applicant had demonstrated a history of excellence. Are you someone who has a history of making compelling art?

So the most immediate question for all of these soon-to-be-graduates is how to approach these sorts of questions: How can you establish a track record and a good one? Should you start a theatre company? How do you pay for things without grants in the beginning? What sorts of projects should you pursue? Are you doing it to leverage your identity as a performer or to create a cohesive ensemble? Why?!?

I’m pretty sure coming up with good answers to these sorts of questions is what leads to grant applications eventually being successful. There aren’t any singular right answers to any of them, but they all require conscious and considered answers.

What do you think readership? What other questions should fresh graduates be asking themselves as they prepare to embark on a theatre career in 2010? Also, please tell me if you think I’m wrong about the excellence thing. What else is important to consider?

Image by Lionoche under a Creative Commons license

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  1. ben says:

    I’ll take a stab at this one because I have some potentially delusional-seeming ideas that I think need to get thrown into this conversation. And that is, why not create a show that will make money? Why ask for a portion of funds raised from the public taxes to put on a small show, when you can take a good long look at what is successful theatre that makes money, and go about putting on a show that will make actual profit. Now I can hear the drones of witty comments that might think this naive, or only based on chance, or not a viable option, and I’d like to say that, sure, if you think it’s impossible, it is impossible. But it’s not and people do it, and it shouldn’t be thrown aside as an option. And if everything isn’t set up that way right now, make it. You can fill out forms over a weekend and get three grand next year, or you can spend some real time figuring out a way to make a run last long enough to be feasible, go out and use your communication skills to round up some start-up money, or credit cards, or investors, whatever it takes. Sorry if this sounds like ugly capitalism but I think the theatre industry could be a) a lot more interesting, b) a lot more productive and c) be able to hold it’s head up again as a self-sustaining art form if it was more competitive, more driven for success (and yes that means financial success), and more in touch with it’s audience, or any audience for that matter, as that really is the hurdle for financial success, to get the audience interested.

    Grants pants.

  2. Michael says:

    Ben! The reason I disagree with this line of thinking is that it presupposes a “pure” form of capitalism that theatre hasn’t found a way to thrive in. This is a platonic theoretical form that doesn’t actually exist anywhere. Everybody is getting a leg up from the gov’t in one way or another.

    Corporations don’t say Tax Break Schmack Break.
    The banking and auto industries don’t say Bailout Schmailout.
    Farmers don’t say Subsidy Schmubsidy.

    Governments around the world make the decisions to encourage activities that will benefit their citizens and quality of life in any number of ways. Grants to artists and arts organizations are one of those ways. If you elect a government that considers culture a priority….

    Personally I also think they serve an important social good by ensuring that participation in arts and culture isn’t limited to the upper class. Because the revenue from these pursuits is low and unreliable, without subsidization the whole thing can become an elitist parlour game. Which is bad for the art too.

  3. ben says:

    I hear your concerns, but I still think the drive to make theatre successful on it’s own terms (financially) could be taken up a huge number of notches. Tax breaks are fine. Earn a profit and try and keep it. I’m just saying grants are like planning your career on the lottery. Don’t wait for the odds of receiving money, or someone else’s approval when you can take the bull by nuts and build something where you don’t have to ask to have your existence approved. That may sound harsh or unrealistic, but imagine having to apply for a work permit every six months knowing that they only give 6 out of 50 applications, and then imagine all the problems that come with success: people wanting a larger share of the money, more taxes and expenses to deal with, the uncertainty of future success… Which would you rather have? The safe way or the potentially dangerous complicated exciting way?

    I sound like a drug dealer…

  4. Aaron Talbot says:

    Hey Michael:
    The gist of what I’m getting from your post is that “in order to get some experience, first you need some experience.”
    Which may be correct. But I think that spending your own money is a recipe for disaster. Why?
    #1. You’re already spending your own money via the unbelievable amount of hours of unpaid work that you will dedicate to this project.
    #2. You need to be accountable to someone.
    The best thing about grants (aside from the funding) is that it forces you create a business case for your idea. It forces you think clearly about what you want to achieve, how you are going to achieve it, and how to measure that achievement.
    If you want to get a grant, you have to write an application that’s both exciting and feasible. Your previous work experience may be important, but only in relation to the feasibility of your project. Thus, if you are a recent theatre grad, and you want to write, direct, produce and star in a new 3-act musical with a cast of 28… well, you’re probably not going to get that grant because common sense would tell the jury that this kid has no idea of what it takes to produce a show.
    But take that same grad, who has written a one-act musical with a cast of three. S/he has the support of a small theatre organization who’s willing to workshop the piece, and has a cast, director and dramaturg already in place. The grad has a specific intention to work the text and music with the performers, test it in front of an invited audience, and explore the possibility of expanding it into a full length piece. S/he has the creative process mapped out, a timeline, and a venue that the group can use. S/he has written budget that is not fully reliant on just the one grant – s/he has identified other sources of revenue. And, most importantly, the piece is exciting and full of potential
    This person, recent grad, little work experience and a tiny C.V., has a real shot at getting the grant.

  5. Michael says:

    Aaron I totally agree -although I think it would be difficult to put that kind of application and team together without some sort of track record. In principle you are right on though.

    Just to clarify – I’m not advocating spending your own money. I went to a TAC workshop early in my career that posited the 3 legged stool model: Grants, private fundraising, and box office. I think that still holds true. Just in the beginning your stool is likely to have only two legs so you may have to prop it up with some of your own unpaid labour.

  6. Simon says:

    we need to look at the history to bring clarity to this thing. theatre has never been a money making venture. if you want to make money, go into the money making business. grants make sense. there are always going to be important ventures in society that are not entirely supported by the market place, theatre is one, churches are another, making books for blind people etc.

    if the market place was the test for societal worth, the world would be bleaker than it already is.

  7. Brendan Gall says:

    In 2005 I formed my own one-man company, single threat, and was lucky enough to have about $1500 to mount a play that I wrote in the Toronto Fringe. The play required a chair and a lightbulb. And it still cost $1500. Huh. It really adds up fast. Anyway. It made no money. In fact, it lost money. Also, Andy McKim from Tarragon saw it and got me a meeting with Richard Rose who offered me a spot in the 2006 Tarragon Playwrights Unit where I wrote another play that got produced by Tarragon and also translated and produced in Florence, Italy. I had never been to Europe and it was a hell of a way to get a first trip. Hannah Moscovitch was also developing a play in the unit that year which I ended up being a reader for and subsequently got cast in and have now been touring for the last three years, where many other people in the industry country-wide have been able to see me and now have a very good sense of me as a performer. I now share an office with Hannah at Tarragon as a playwright in residence where I am working on a new play for them. These opportunities all happened because I spent and lost $1500 to produce my own show in 2005 that featured 2 actors, a chair and a light bulb.

    If you can afford it, invest in yourself – be smart, be economic and creative so that you don’t have to invest any more than absolutely necessary, but if you can afford it, invest in yourself. If you can’t, apply for a grant. Or do a little of both. Whatever you have to to get the job done. Bottom line: make your own work, however you can. Get it where people can see it, and make every effort to ensure that it is exactly what you intend it to be. Then see where the spiderweb takes you…

    That’s the best advice I can give. I can’t convince people who are anti-arts funding not to be, any more than I can convince people who are anti-abortion not to be, or people who are pro-war not to be. And I’m not inferring that if you’re one of these you have to be all three. I just think that all 3 issues have 2 sides that are similarly dug-in and will never be convinced to un-dig, not with a billion monkeys on a billion laptops blogging for or against for a million-billion years. That’s all. And I completely get your points. I do. I just think you’re completely 100% dead wrong.

    Maybe someday there will not be arts funding in this country. Maybe even probably. But there is right now, and while there is, those who have things they want to make should go after them. All I ask is that those who get them use them to make something they truly love.


  8. jenna turk says:

    thanks for the little bubble of hope, Brendan Gall.
    and for the kick in the pants.
    and thanks again, Michael, for this forum.

  9. Brandon Moore says:

    David Pay, the Artistic Director of Vancouver’s Music on Main, once made a comment that I’ve kept and frequently quoted to others because I really like the sentiment behind it: “Donors, patrons and governments invest in the arts organizations and artists they believe in much the same way that venture capitalists and stockholders invest in commercial companies they believe in. The goals of the investments are only slightly different: social profit versus financial profit.”

  10. […] nonviable and unsustainable. (There’s actually a discussion about this going on at the Praxis Theatre blog right now.) I hate how much emphasis theatre companies and individuals (myself included) place […]

  11. Rick Roberts says:

    I was on a granting jury once. I would recommend that. First of all, you realize that the people reading the applications (I think there were close to a hundred, maybe more) were other artists like myself. Some had been on juries before. I think most of us hadn’t. I hadn’t. It was really educational reading the applications and seeing which grants excited me. Often they weren’t ones that excited the other jurors. The most relaxing thing about being on the jury was realizing that different people were on it every time. So each jury has it’s own character. Not getting a grant one year does not indicate that you will never get a grant. The best advice that I would give in writing a grant would be: the most important thing is to relax the jurors. These are people learning on the job. A track record is very relaxing. But so is being very clear and excited about your project. Also having an realistic plan, something that seems like it could possibly happen. A clear budget. A good back-up plan. I think jurors want to give money to people who will use it, and use it for something interesting. When I write a grant application now, I make sure to keep in mind that the person who is reading it has no idea what I have in mind, so I’m very explicit about everything I want to do, why I want to do it, and what plan I have to carry it forward. Also, I was shocked at how many people didn’t get grants. People who all the jurors spoke well of, but fell below the cut-off line. It’s very competitive. I would agree that you should just do it anyway. But grant or no grant, you’ll either be putting in some of your own money (or money from a relative) and you will also probably working for free. I don’t agree that grants make artists lazy or uninterested in an audience. Everyone I’ve ever worked with wants a big juicy audience.

  12. Michael says:

    This is awesome feedback. Thanks everyone. I also heard from two people who are currently on juries who gave me basically the same note:

    “Yes a history of excellence is helpful – but a great project is still a great project. The absence of an impressive track record does not preclude funding.”

    The lecture and workshop at U of T went great. They’ve already invited Cathy and I back do do it again next year, and they suggest Cathy and I should also have a talk show. Which could work if one of us died our hair – because a talk show hosted by two blondes would be weird.

  13. […] the great discussion happening in the comment thread of Praxis Theatre’s blog post entitled How Do You Get A Grant. I find Brendan Gall’s words pretty […]