Choose yourself: tips on starting a producing playwrights collective

The industry
Emma Goidel

In October of 2014, five artists and I publicly launched Orbiter 3, Philadelphia’s first producing playwrights collective.

Orbiter 3 is an experiment that reimagines the 13P model for our particular Philly context. Our mission is to embrace artistic risk, empower local artists, and chase the playwright’s vision. In three years, we’ll produce six plays, and then transform into an online resource. We’re a theatrical startup, inspired by collectives like the Welders, Applied Mechanics, and Workhaus, modeling out a new way of producing we hope will catch on and scale up.

It’s a fertile time for ruckus-makers, post-recession, as online platforms put fundraising, marketing, and distribution into the hands of artists. If you’re thinking of launching your own producing experiment, here is what I can tell you about building Orbiter 3 as we step into our second production.

Choose yourself.

We playwrights are accustomed to institutional permission to share our art with an audience. We wait to be picked. We may secretly hold on to the idea that Someone is Coming To Get Us, to offer financial or artistic freedom and a big platform for our powerful voices.

Orbiter 3 is about realizing that someone is you. That freedom exists. And so does the platform.

For more on this, see Andrew Simonet’s (excellent! free!) book Making Your Life as an Artist.

HOWEVER: if the idea of starting a producing playwrights collective excites you SOLELY because you’re ready for production and you’ve decided you don’t have to wait for someone else to come choose you for it, HOLD PLEASE. Producing in a collective is, for Orbiter 3, one part producing your play and five parts producing other people’s plays. If you’re down for a production opportunity but not down to be a producer, that’s okay! But you probably should reconsider starting a producing collective.

Assemble your team.

These attributes drew the Orbiter 3 founding members together:

  • each of us had at least one slammin’ play we collectively want to produce tomorrow
  • excitement and ideas about radically shaking up new play production in Philly
  • complimentary administrative skills and interests
  • respect for and belief in a collective working structure
  • commitment to treating the company as an almost part-time job for three years
  • a shared vision of Philadelphia as an emerging home for new plays and playwrights
  • a healthy mix of overlapping and differeng aesthetics, backgrounds, and perspectives.
  • true synergy. Our simpatico is easy and strong.

Don’t let other people’s fears stop you.

When you set out to shake things up with your forward-thinking company, others may react with negative, fear-based beliefs about how you don’t know what you’re doing and you’re going to fail.

“That play with three Senegalese characters will be extremely difficult to cast.”
“People won’t invest money before you produce anything.”
“Grant-makers won’t fund a three-year company.”

None of these things turned out to be true!

Absolutely do solicit advice, but don’t let other people’s fears determine the size and shape of your goals. Go big, dude. You’re building your dream artmaking sunshine abundance situation! So think like you are, and disregard those who don’t.

The patriarchy runs deep.

Many theaters operate with the director as lead artist on a production. Orbiter 3 names the playwright in production as lead artist, final decision-maker, and co-artistic director of the company. This shift in roles and power distribution is new for many artists; it may require real effort on your collaborators’ part, and compassionate vigilance on yours. Many of us are so used to minimizing the playwright’s role in production we don’t even realize when we’re doing it. The patriarchy runs deep.

To facilitate positive relationships and the playwright’s empowerment, in addition to talking to collaborators about what we mean by “playwright at the helm,” we now put very clear language in production contracts clarifying the playwright’s role and the importance of her voice. Put your guiding beliefs front and center, and don’t freak out when people react defensively. But do adhere to them; otherwise, what’s the point?

Forgive yourself. Forgive your friends, who are now your co-workers.

People are different, so work gets distributed differently and sometimes unevenly across a work-sharing collective. Though we mostly delight each other in our deft and mischevious administration of this company, we also overcommit, screw up, and disappoint. Keep the love you have for your co-conspirators front and center, and make time for emergency meetings to resolve conflict immediately. Conflict can be awesome. It points at what you don’t know how to do yet, and then you can learn how to do it.

Lead with your beliefs

People respond to beliefs. People will rally around beliefs. Get really specific about why you’re doing this work, and don’t lose that driving belief in your marketing or your social media presence or your production.

This is an experiment, not an institution.

What if we offer a one night discount for anyone who as ever identified as a woman to bring attention to the gender wage gap? What if we only market this show digitally? What if we bring on a design advisor to visually dramaturg all our productions? The point of these experiments is not to succeed. The point is to see what happens. We don’t have a 10-year lease on a building, or a long-standing subscription base, or a board of directors to satisfy. So we experiment relentlessly. We keep pushing.

Don’t operate like an insitution if you don’t want to be one. As Seth Godin says, she who fails most, wins.

Put your money where your heart is.

When you make your budget, align it with your mission. If the playwright comes first, pay her that way (that’s radical!). Where and how you spend your money is a reflection of what you really care about.

Assemble a team of advisors.

Imagine what kind of sticky situations you might get into with your company, determine who you already know who loves you and holds the knowledge you need to navigate those times, and ask those people to be on call for advice once in a while. This is called your advisory board! It will save you time when you’re in crisis, and it will invest other smart people in your company’s success. (Definitely include a lawyer.)

Don’t wait to be ready.

Don’t wait to have enough advice, resources, expertise, or approval to launch. You will never have enough of these things, and once you’ve put yourself out there, you’ll be surprised how willingly a community can rally to provide what you lack. It’s okay to be a little reckless. Entrepreneurial playwrights are revolutionaries. Set a deadline to launch, and GO!


Photo of Orbiter 3 by Lindsay Ladd


Back to Playwriting Toolkit »

About the author

Emma Goidel

Emma Goidel is a playwright working in Philadelphia and New York City. She is a founding member of the producing playwrights collective Orbiter 3 and was a 2013-14 Core Apprentice at the Playwrights' Center.