breedingground Crawls For Cash

So, I thought I’d start the new blog out with a talk about that most vexing of indie theater subjects: money. I know I’m always thinking about it, and I imagine you are, too. Indie theater companies certainly are. In an attempt to keep their coffers full, more and more companies are coming up with new and inventive ways to raise funds.

Take, for instance, breedingground productions, an interdisciplinary multi-arts company that is gearing up for its Spring Fever Festival, which they describe as “a 3-week festival of work by self-producing artists, anchored by breedingground’s own theatre production. SFF is produced every 2 years, and categories are Performance, Video, Installation, and Groundwork: works in progress.”

Pretty ambitious and financially demanding. How does one even begin to think about paying for something like this? Well, my friend and colleague Tomi Tsunoda, the founder of breedingground, has come up with quite a unique solution – the Crawl for Art, in which company members crawl a certain distance on their hands on knees through the streets of Park Slope for every dollar pledged. I asked her how she came up with this idea, and here’s what she told me:

It’s always been one of breedingground’s major goals to decrease our dependency on private donations and grant funding. As much as possible, we try to manage our work to be self-sustaining. Usually, we’re able to do that — the only exception remains our largest budget project, the Spring Fever Festival. When we were gearing up for SFF 2005, we knew that we wouldn’t be able to put together enough in private funding to make it happen, so we threw a big benefit party in June of 2004 to kick off a fundraising campaign. It was good fun — we had great bands, at a great bar, with schwag and really fun activities. At the end of the night, when I sat down to count up our money, we were $300 in the hole. It was one of the most deflating and helpless producer experiences I’ve ever had. The second I finished counting, I decided that we’d just thrown our last benefit party.That summer, we brainstormed our little hearts out to think of ways to get people to give us money. We went through a lot of options, most of them involving us doing something horrible or humiliating that people would pay to see us do — drink or eat disgusting things, let people throw things at us, etc.

The people most likely to give us money are our audience and peers, the people who already love us and our work, who want to support us. Unfortunately for fundraising purposes, most of those people can’t donate more than a few bucks at a time. However, they’re all people willing to toss out a buck or two for a really good cause if it’s also a really good idea, or a really good joke, or both.

So a pledge drive seemed to make the most sense. But we couldn’t imagine anyone giving us money to walk or run or anything normal like that. So we decided to crawl — aside from being sort of ridiculous, the idea of getting down on our hands and knees to earn the money to do our art was just too good of a metaphor to pass over. We mapped out a route through our neighborhood in Brooklyn that hit most high traffic areas and that ended at a bar. The week beforehand, we went out with sidewalk chalk and advertised The Crawl all over the streets.

The whole thing costs us about $200 in postcards and chalk. We got kneepads, gloves, and bottled water donated from local businesses, whose names we chalked on the sidewalk all along the route. We took in about $2,000 in pledges, $300 of which we collected as we were crawling from people we passed on the street, $1-3 at a time — it’s amazing how far a sense of humor will go. We would chalk out how many feet someone had paid for, then Crawl it for them. Little kids would ask their parents for another dollar bill, so they could make us Crawl again.

The effort was successful enough that we decided to do it every year. We realized that it has several things going for it — 1) The overhead is so low, it’s almost impossible not to make money doing it, 2) It’s a hell of a lot more fun — you spend the day outside acting ridiculous with your friends and meeting people 3) It’s excellent publicity — it attracts attention, and it’s an opportunity to hand out postcards to everyone you pass who asks what the hell you’re doing, even if they don’t give you any cash. 4) It’s weird, and we become a unique public spectacle — people laugh when they hear about it, they want to know who we are when they see us coming, and we become “those Crawling people” to our neighbors. It’s good branding that keeps us in the public eye as a creative team at the same time that it raises money, and 5) People can donate as little as a dollar and still feel like they helped out, and they don’t even have to leave their apartments to do it.

The best part of it for us, I think, is that it feels good to be able to go out and make the money ourselves by being ourselves, and by doing something that is as much a creative project as everything else we do — rather than sitting in front of a computer composing a grant application or an ask letter.

Pretty clever, huh?

breedingground’s next Crawl for Art is coming up on Saturday, April 21st at 11am. Tomi and her colleagues will crawl 3 feet for every $1 they raise. Their goal this year is to crawl 8,750 feet. For more information, including the route they’ll be taking, click here.

I would love to hear more stories about the many different ways indie theater companies raise money. Do you have a story to share? Let me hear it.

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