Walking the Dog Theatre tries new model: Gifts fund free shows

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CHATHAM, N.Y. -- What if you could get a share of plays, like a share of greens and strawberries at a CSA farm?

Walking the Dog Theater is trying to make it happen.

While the theater is dedicated to producing unique work, its real mission is to make theater available to as wide an audience as possible. The theater's artistic director, David Anderson, said a big part of Walking the Dog Theater's mission is to make going to the theater a more democratic experience -- to open it to everyone.

To do that, the company experimented last year with an unusual admission policy inspired by the community-supported agriculture model, in which subscribers pledge to support local farming ventures at the beginning of the growing season and then receive weekly shares of produce. This system allows for more people to have access to locally grown produce at an affordable price.

Anderson said his theater has tried to employ a similar model with the Free Culture initiative, in which subscribers pay a certain amount over the course of the calendar year to fund the season, and if the theater has enough funding to exist then, in theory, people can show up to performances for free.

It is an even more altruistic model than the typical CSA. Through this initiative, donors are essentially funding the theater experiences of others, along with their own.

Anderson experimented with this for the first time in December with Walking the Dog's annual production of "A Christmas Carol."

Contribution amounts varied widely. Admission to a Walking the Dog production is typically $15 to $20, and Anderson said the theater received, on average, monthly contributions of $15 and one-time donations of $30. In a pay-what-you can policy, some people gave less or more than those amounts, but the results were significant -- Walking the Dog received $338.33 in monthly pledges and $12,494 in one-time gifts, giving the small theater company $16,553.96 in funding for the 2013 season. While that amount was helpful, Walking the Dog's total yearly budget is $67,195.

The funding also contributes to the theater's educational programs, which include in-school residencies and after-school programs.

Last year, as funding trickled in, the theater was able to add additional free performances of their Charles Dickens adaptation within 24 hours notice, spreading the word through Facebook and email. As a result, audiences were treated to 10 free performances.

The current production of "Long Ago and Far Away," a collection of David Ives plays, does not fall under this model, because of Walking the Dog's separate financial arrangement with PS21, its summer venue. But Anderson said his theater is accepting contributions to the campaign. The company plans to apply this initiative again to this year's upcoming "A Christmas Carol," and Anderson added that he is considering funding the theater's fall production in the same way.

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Anderson said the generosity of his theater's patrons is truly unique, describing them as "forward thinking" and passionate about finding new models to provide broader access to the arts.

"I would even say a spirit of renewal lives in our community -- an interest in renewing our relationship to the arts and culture," he said.

It is this strong sense of community fostered by Walking the Dog that actor Gabriel Rodriguez, who appears this summer in "Long Ago and Far Away," said has been inspiring for him as an artist.

"The players and the audience are very synched together at Walking the Dog," Rodriguez said. "It's a kind of atmosphere that creates a sense of community."

Walking the Dog Theater was founded in 1997 as a theater dedicated to the avante-garde with a decided focus on community-building between artists and audiences. Anderson was living in Australia at the time when and three of his friends -- two Australians and one other American -- formed the theater as a touring company. The theater's unusual title came from a poem that Anderson wrote himself.

"I wrote this kind of narrative poem called ‘Walking the Dog,' and one of my colleagues said, ‘this might make a really great theater piece,' " Anderson said.

The piece became the group's first full production, and they brought it around the world, he said, touring three continents. Each member of the group brought his or her sensibilities to the piece. One came from a dance background and incorporated a lot of movement into the theater's productions, while others brought with them acting, directing and music backgrounds. Performing everywhere from schools to prisons, Walking the Dog Theater eventually settled in Columbia County about 14 years ago.

Anderson said the company decided to settle down in New York state after one of his colleagues moved to the area.

For Anderson, it all goes back to making sure that culture remains something that can be experienced by everyone.

"Culture can be free," Anderson said. "That gesture of making art available is so powerful. You can't underestimate the power of that generosity. Last year, we could tell people ‘you are sitting here because people that you may not know and never meet were able to pay for this to happen for you."

"This is instead of making theater feel entitled or commodifying art," Anderson said. "It's a real gift -- the gift of art."


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