Friday, April 4, 2014

Working as a Professional Storyteller - tl;dr

 Second  in a series of unpublished blog posts from this insanely busy past few months... Definitely one of my tl;dr rants. Written in DEC 2013.

Working as a Professional Storyteller,  Working for Free And Performing for Reduced Fees If you love inquiring minds and creatives with a voice, please check out the website of the amazing author of this poster. You will love Jessica Hische's site If you need less profanity there is a clean language version at this link.

Dear Storytellers of the Late Twentieth Century Revival (SofLTCR) -
1st Person storytelling filled the rooms beyond capacity
Back in the day when I was a visual artist, we paid entry fees to have our paintings vetted for any show worth being in. Sometimes there was an additional hanging fee, the cost to make and mail slides (this was a loooong time ago) and we had always materials and mounting/framing fees too. The "surcharge" to be a professional artist was hefty. This was in my formative years so I have always been aware that professionals need to invest in their art and that is why visual artists are often "starving".  If one does not have a patron or a private trust fund, more of your time is required. For example, to afford to be in shows and buy materials I either lived on espresso and ramen or had a second job. Washing pots and then working my way up to dishwasher at a posh restaurant was my favorite because we were given free food. When I invited you all to perform at First Night this month, I understood that, many of you would not be available especially given the lateness of the invite. While the money was not great, it was more than we ever have had to share for Traditional Storytelling. You see, massmouth sometimes breaks even at our 1st person story slams, but traditional storytelling shows have been a money-losing venture.

Believe me, no one is more aware that the budget for our First Night family show is not top dollar for what we were asked to do. Still, it represented a sizable portion of our cash operating budget so we were excited to have $2K for a total of 10 hours of programming in two rooms. The fact that we were invited as traditional storytellers, based on the rooms we have filled in the past made us feel that this budget and invitation were hugely positive.

We had SRO for both 1st Person Storytelling shows
We (massmouth organizers) have worked hard, without remuneration, investing in our art form to realize this important chance to show off traditional storytelling.  Since drawing an audience is essential to our art, I thought it best to spread the opportunity wide, not deep. Why didn't Andrea Lovett and I just keep $500 each for ourselves for all the work we would need to do to pull this off, never mind all the unpaid work it took to get to this opportunity? Then we could have given anyone with the foresight to join us as performers $25-$50 stipends for the chance to showcase their art and reach a wide and general audience. It would still be money trickling into the pockets of artists. Why didn't we just take care of ourselves? Because we want to build the art of storytelling.

Every September I am asked to do a Showcase for Young Audiences of MA.  They are my main booking agent and working with them is my actual "day job" -  in the sense that this is how I make money.  I do not get paid at all for my Showcase performance each year. Not even a travel allowance. Instead, I realize that a Showcase event is like fertilizer; you have to put something in the soil if you want to sow and reap later.

 So, each year I invest my time, which is also my and everyone's most precious resource, into my art.

It is true that a few lucky Storytellers of the Late Twentieth Century Revival (SofLTCR) in the notoriously cheap Boston area have commanded much heftier fees, even from First Night. Because of this history,  there may be storytellers who believe, that First Night, which went belly-up earlier this year, is holding out on us. Other storytellers believe that First Night is trying to low-ball all storytellers at the negotiating table. Other storytellers believe that massmouth is making money on the deal and not sharing fairly.  As if! All of these are equally mistaken beliefs.

Historically, from a producer's point of view, storytelling does not sell.

In the good-old days of the Late Twentieth Century Storytelling Revival, all a storyteller had to do was show up, tell a few tales and collect their check. A storyteller's pay was not based on the number of butts in seats or media recognition. Even so, 30 or even 15 years ago, things were different and seats were often butt-filled and media attention easier to attract. BUT even when tickets went unsold, decades ago there was three (3Xs) as much funding for the arts in Massachusetts alone. So a series or a venue did not need to depend on ticket sales for their solvency.  As one small example, just 15 years ago, the Mass Cultural Council  had a $27 million dollar budget. Yes, we went from $27 million down to $9 million and that is indeed 18 millions of $$$ shortfall, even before adjusting for inflation.

At massmouth we are trying our best to give storytelling the come-back we think it deserves. Not through a rising "star" system. Nor are we working on a "revival" of formerly risen stars.  There is not one storyteller in our area who has enough of a following or name recognition or audience draw that can be counted on to sell tickets and or fill a room large enough to make producing their performance financially viable. Just ask someone who books family entertainment and you'll learn that even the biggest names can have trouble selling tickets.  Or ask someone who witnessed the demise of the Three Apples Storytelling Festival if you need to know more about this phenomenon.

In New England, storytellers are known in some quarters as "box-office poison".  As one librarian from the North Shore told me,

"If I advertise a visit from Ronald McDonald in costume, I'll have over 100 people signing up for it and a room that is filled to standing room only. If I have a storyteller we may see a few sign-ups and be lucky if a dozen people eventually come to the show."

She concluded that with limited budgets for programs, many libraries could not afford performers like storytellers, who typically draw such small audiences. Meanwhile, LANES storytellers vie for a slot at the annual OLIO,  give workshops and perform at Sharing the Fire, for free, every year.  Storytellers sometimes do balk at the lack of remuneration by LANES but they keep coming back. The unpaid performances at Sharing the Fire are for a dwindling group of some 200-300 storytellers and a few people new to storytelling. In contrast, the paid performances we are producing this year at First Night are for a general public who are looking for quality entertainment. We will potentially reach an demographic who, once they hear some really good storytelling might well be won over as loyal audiences who bring others to our shows. All of this history is not meant to depress you but rather to support the notion that we storytellers need to do things differently if we want our art form to thrive, not just survive.

Here was a chance to show the world just how deep, wide and beautiful the traditional art of storytelling is.

First Night, 2014 represented a chance to show people how great storytelling can be and, be paid to do it. 

 It is fine if SofLTCR  do not want to perform on First Night. I am not trying to guilt trip you.

Hey, I am often mistaken. Maybe some of you who declined have great paying gigs on New Year's Eve? Maybe there is a whole economy of storytellers getting bookings in 4 figures, all over Boston and New England.? If so, I apologize for my ignorance.  If I am leading people astray here, please - correct me. 

But I will be "show me the money" doubtful. The harsh realities of 21st century professional performers are well documented and I am pretty certain that no one is on easy street when it comes to paying audiences. 
 We, all the SofLTCR, should acknowledge that the times have changed and to paraphrase Bob Dylan that our old road has rapidly changed. We'll need to " ...get out of the new one,  if we can't lend our hand For the times they are a-changin'..."

Don't go on any extended guilt trips on my account.

The art of storytelling will go forward.

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