Theatre? Cooperative?

We love that in telling anyone that WTD is a theatre cooperative, it always invites a few questions. Hopefully, we can try to answer as many as we can below ……

What do you mean – a company owned by artists?

We mean that each member has a stake in the organisation – enabling them to make their own decisions, cooperatively, about the works put up!

How would you define cooperative/ly then?

For most people of a pre-90’s vintage, their first knowledge of the term co-op is encapsulated by either recollecting waking up to freshly delivered milk on the doorstep or awaiting the arrival of the twice-weekly bread-van. More commonly, it is a memory of a trip to the supermarket co-op. Some of us, even to this day, may remember our mothers’ ‘divvy’ (dividend) numbers imprinted on our minds as we patiently endured the packing up of the groceries and the adding up of the bill!

Food cooperatives have existed for centuries and were still part of daily life growing up in the seventies, eighties and nineties and some are still ongoing to this day all over the world.

Here in Singapore – NTUC’s Fairprice has stemmed into shiny bright supermarkets from its cooperative roots.

Aha, it’s about farmers and bakers?

No, not at all!  There are many other sorts of co-ops such as coffee shop co-ops, cycling co-ops, building co-ops and department store co-ops where the workers are also joint owners or partners in their business.

And then there are theatre cooperatives. Theatre cooperatives are already popular in the UK and Australia, and … Wag The Dog is proud to be marking its territory as Singapore’s first theatre cooperative!

So why would a theatre operate as a cooperative?

As well as being owned by the artists, a theatre cooperative is also run by them, independent of any parent company or actor-manager. Rather than working to a hierarchical model, it is the owners who decide everything democratically – usually in the form of a committee with voting rights for each owner member (or proxy). As well as bringing their talent, expertise and a commitment to thorough work, each owner also puts up an equal amount of financial stake.

Their independence means that the owners can collectively make the work that they want to create. Cooperative theatre companies mount stage productions which are selected, funded, produced and performed by the company owners. Co-op theatre is popular in many other countries because it gives artists much more control over their work.

OMG, with no hierarchy then it must all be anarchy?

Good heavens, no! Although it would quickly descend into chaos if any of the owners believed they had signed up to be an actor and nothing else!  Joining a cooperative with that sole aim in mind is not going to work because with theatre cooperatives, it’s all hands on deck!

Some may see this as a drawback, but all good actors regularly brave the chill and the thrills beyond their comfort zones in the way they go about their craft. In fact for actors,  being part of the bigger picture to produce theatre is considered a challenge to relish. The owners can find themselves using their talents in many different aspects of the business.  It means that as well as practising their forte, there are opportunities to hone and polish existing skills and to develop and embrace new ones. It’s all an exhilarating learning curve!

For example, one owner is using actor’s empathy in organising outreach with students. Some owners are stepping up and proving themselves to be efficient organisers. Several owners are showing their considerable business and negotiating skills as they deal with venues and tech matters.  Another owner is dipping their toe into the fast changing world of managing social media. However, all of them are discovering that actors are also enthusiastic salespeople with an unshakable belief in the production!

As well as telling stories on stage, the owners are out there making it their business to sell tickets. They know that any tickets unsold means much more than the early closure of a show. It means not only the loss of an individual’s stake, but also a lost opportunity to further invest back into the cooperative for future theatre projects.

That’s it then, as long as you have money to spare for a stake, then you’re in?

No way! Absolutely not!! Nobody here is buying their stage career!!!

In Wag The Dog Theatre’s case, each owner has auditioned (individually and also with group call-backs). Each has been interviewed by the three cooperative founders (Warren Baumgart Jr, Krissy Jesudason and Victoria Mintey) to become a part of it. As well as favouring a professional track record in the acting industry, the founders of the cooperative looked for a strong work ethic and an enthusiasm to commit to practical matters in creative ways, in bringing the play the whole way through the production process, to the stage.

Where does the money go then?

As well as the original stake money, revenue from ticket sales will be used to pay for rehearsal space, venue costs, licences, ticketing and engaging other stage professionals such as the tech staff we cannot do the show without.

Any profit is either invested back into the company or split each way between the owner plus one. The plus one stake is to be ploughed back into the cooperative as part of ‘legacy’, enabling the company to support any extra expenses in future productions. This might mean hiring an actor from outside the cooperative, who they would particularly require for a role – brought in for the purpose of that show only without being one of the owners.

Ok, it all seems like a good idea!

It is! Rather than waiting for a commercial theatre company to hold open call auditions, it’s one method of getting up and out of your comfort zone and into a creative one! It’s a way of making great theatre … together.

Thank you for asking.  We hope that Wag The Dog Theatre may also inspire other artists here in Singapore!

Happy Labor Day! Whatever your creative collaborations may be … may the fruits of your own labors be sweet!

From – Susie Penrice Tyrie

(Photography by Alexandra Dolibic Fancher and Natalia Wakula)

The Memory of Water by Shelagh Stephenson is showing at the Drama Centre, Black Box, from 30 June to 9 July. Tickets available through SISTIC.

You can follow Wag the Dog on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram



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