Breaking the Theatrical Fundraising Mold
by Dorit Avganim
Lesser America Launches The Dare Fund
Heralded as putting the “bite” back in American theater, the fierce young company Lesser America has been engaging NYC audiences for the last six years with challenging but accessible productions of gritty, realistic, new plays. Their viscerally acted, high-energy performances have them consistently selling out theaters like Cherry Lane, Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, The Barrow Group, and Theater for the New City, and being recognized as Critics’ Picks by The New York Times and TimeOut. Lesser America brings compelling stories to their audience without requiring them to take a college prep course in order to appreciate them.
Now, they’re applying their innovative theater-making style to theater fundraising with this November’s recent launch of The Dare Fund (thedarefund.org). Lesser America will act as hosts of this ongoing online campaign, challenging famous folks to dares à la the ALS Ice-Bucket Challenge and #22pushups to bring attention and funds to charities and nonprofits while simultaneously supporting Lesser America’s upcoming season. Videos will air online challenging celebrity favorites like Samira Wiley (you know her as Poussey Washington on Orange is the new Black) and Finn Wittrock (of American Horror Story and The Big Short) among other champions to take on one of three dares voted on by the public. With every vote placed (aka dollar donated: 1 Vote = $1), celebrities will be enlisting public support for organizations they believe in, including Lesser America.
Making art happen in NYC is a dare unto itself, with hundreds of professional artists, and arts nonprofits competing for the same small pool of funding and resources. Lesser America co-founder and Dare Fund creator Laura Ramadei came up with this fundraising idea years ago as an antidote to the vicious arts funding cycle. After one false start, it became a backburner idea, but Ramadei just couldn't let go. “I thought the project was dead and never coming back, but it did kind of nag in the back of my mind,” said Ramadei. “I knew I’d feel better if I tried it and failed than if I just completely let it go.” When Lesser America came about, Ramadei and the company found themselves hitting up against the challenge of raising money for producing their theater shows. “It seemed so obvious,” continued Ramadei, “to revive the idea with the help of Nate and Dan [Producing Directors of Lesser America]. Not only would we be offsetting costs for our productions, but we’d be serving our community on a greater scale. As theatermakers, we’re constantly thinking about how to make our work more meaningful. Putting on a play isn’t necessarily the most radical or effective form of activism. So we’re excited that The Dare Fund presents new opportunities for us to make an impact.”
Theater companies in NYC can spend significant portions of their time on administration and fundraising, and comparatively minuscule time actually creating and disseminating the art projects core to their mission (for more on that, check out the Brooklyn Commune’s 2013 white paper The View from Here). Most conventional arts funding is earned via donations and grants. Nothing about Lesser America has ever been conventional - from their award-winning shows to their producing aesthetics - so it’s no surprise that they’ve set out to disrupt existing models. When asked how Lesser America has fundraised in the past, Ramadei has replied in a way that resonates with how most small downtown theater companies function – on the fly and with a good amount of financial frugality, hard work, and the aid of increasing artistic allies: “We've been very lucky to make contacts with some very supportive donors, but they are only a small few. Mostly what we do is keep things cheap. We keep our overhead down and production costs as low as possible. We've been very lucky in some of the residencies and partnerships we've formed with theaters that have enabled us to have a space to work in.” These partnerships have allowed the company to build a reputation, one that now has Lesser America growing and approaching a new level of production. “We’re trying to figure out how to raise money without relying on all of the same existing, exhausted avenues,” said Ramadei. “Most theater fundraising avenues are very, very beaten paths. [The Dare Fund] is our attempt to potentially resolve that...or at least shake things up.”
And it very well may. With its first celebrity campaign bridging Wiley’s passion for Lesser America and Hell’s Kitchen’s 52nd Street Project together as vote/donation recipients, The Dare Fund’s pledge videos will draw viewership and dollars to both with a 50/50 split. When asked about the value in enlisting stars to help fund the independent theater scene in NYC Ramadei remarked, “Yeah, working with celebrities, and using celebrity as a leverage tool is tricky. But we plan to operate with integrity and to make the charities and our art form the priority. Companies often cast ‘names’, or ‘stunt cast’, to sell tickets to shows, but we feel like that takes away opportunities for less well-known actors to break into the business. We’d rather give those same stars who believe in our company - and in our mission to provide ‘affordable, accessible theater’ - an opportunity to support us through The Dare Fund.”
While The Dare Fund’s activities will run year-round (donation pools will never close, even after a dare has been selected, completed, and filmed) its Fall launch period is a trial to see if the concept can help fund Lesser America’s January production; Ramadei told me that she can’t announce the show just yet, but she does know that it will be at Cherry Lane Theater. “We're very lucky to be in residence at Cherry Lane. It’s incredibly special because it's such a cool, iconic institution,” Ramadei explained. “Lesser America has been very lucky when it comes to rental and performance space - we’ve managed to form partnerships with some great organizations, that have subsidized that typically daunting expense. It’s one of the few ways that we’ve managed to stay afloat thus far.” Now Ramadei and Lesser America are navigating the next and natural step for a thriving, no longer new theater: the expanding of their operations. “We hope The Dare Fund will help us make that leap,” Ramadei told me. “And we hope that the project endures. Though I originally came up with the idea before Kickstarter even existed, we know that the tools we use in The Dare Fund aren’t revolutionary at this point. But our hope is that by providing an ongoing platform, that instead of burning out, the campaign will keep going and growing. We want people to keep coming back to vote for new dares, and to learn about new causes. ”
Not only is The Dare Fund looking to challenge arts fundraising standards, but it also aims to solve another issue plaguing theater: new audiences. “In New York theater it feels like we all have the same audience as well as the same donor base. I could see twenty plays a month and see all the same people in attendance. So being able to build an audience online [through The Dare Fund], means bringing more people to see our live events. It’s an idea that’s sort of borrowed from UCB [Upright Citizens Brigade, the improv theater] or any organization that has established a specific kind of cult following that also hosts live events.” But Ramadei assures it’s not just about ticket sales, it’s about real community engagement. “I don't know that tickets alone, which we like to keep really cheap for our audiences, could ever pay for the whole theater company,” said Ramadei. “It’s not just about ticket sales, it’s about access and awareness. Of course we hope to reach new audiences for our shows, but having a larger, broader, positive impact beyond the theater world is incredibly appealing and allows us to expand our mission beyond our own needs.”
DORIT AVGANIM has more than a decade's experience in live performance and TV/Film production, helping artists and socially conscious media groups bring their message to audiences worldwide. In 2012 she co-authored The View From Here with the arts and economics research group the Brooklyn Commune, which galvanized her interest in urban issues. Dorit is currently pursuing her PhD in Public and Urban Policy at the New School.