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In Arts & Entertainment Commentary

Joe Pichetti (right) and Jim Farrell staged "A Number," and Farrell thinks the struggle is a good thing for small theater companies. (PHOTO: Ross Zenter)

Should small theater companies get financial help to avoid constant struggle?

A week ago, I wrote about the apparent closing of Soulstice Theatre and the loss of opportunities for young artists to find work in Milwaukee.

As part of that story, I talked about finding a way for Milwaukee to support small young companies that would give these artists a chance to work on their craft. I also suggested that it might be appropriate for the United Performing Arts Fund to set aside a small amount of money to funnel to these small companies.

In response to that column, Jim Farrell (whose name I misspelled) lodged his disagreement with the UPAF idea. I have a great deal of respect for Farrell, who ran Splinter Group for several years. The company did some outstanding work while functioning on a shoestring budget. Farrell and his wife, the marvelously talented Niffer Clarke, shut down Splinter Group after last season, and the theatrical landscape is poorer because of that.

Farrell is a man with broad experience in the world of theater as an administrator, actor, director and producer.

"I don't think it's UPAF's job to foster young talent," he wrote. "They are very good at what they do – they are a fundraising machine unlike virtually any in the country. UPAF is neither good for actual art or bad for actual art. They stabilize arts institutions. They are good for arts infrastructure. This doesn't trickle down to artists who make union scale no matter what or non-union artists who work for stipends (or most likely for free).

"I would also say that small companies opening and small companies closing is a sign of arts health. Let UPAF fund the major institutions. But Milwaukee's (or any other city's theatre scene) shouldn't be judged by The Reps, or the Ballet's or the MSO's of the world. The health should be judged by the onslaught of artists who make theatre happen out of sheer determination, passion and force of will. I call it the churn. The more vigorous the churn – the healthier the performing arts are.

"I believe the theater scene is very strong in Milwaukee mostly because every year there are new college grads starting companies. Ninety-nine percent of them will close in a short time. But that doesn't mean that the creators of the work toiled in vain. Artists creating compelling original art. Let's not measure success by whether companies are still around when the next millennium is upon us. That seems like a lot of pressure."

Farrell's argument also reminded me of a conversation I had with Viswa Subbaraman, the recently departed artistic director at Skylight Music Theatre. Skylight received funding from UPAF and Subbaraman has also run small companies.

"When I ran a small company, I wanted to get funding from a group like UPAF," he said. "But I now think that the struggle is an important part of the growth and strength of small companies. If it's too easy to produce a show, it's hard to grow as an artist."

I have deep respect for both Farrell and Subbaraman, and their arguments have had an impact on what I believe.

It's clear that the Milwaukee theater community faces the challenge of young artists leaving town in order to find work. Not recognizing that as a problem is short-sighted and will likely affect the quality of the art in this town.

But I also agree that the struggle to put on a play is a big part of the maturation process. The concept of the "starving artist" is not lost on me, and I think there is an intrinsic value in having to go through the struggle to produce your art.

There is, perhaps, a middle ground here that would serve the interests of the theater community.

UPAF, or some other organization, could establish a fund that would administer limited grants upon requests from small theater companies. Not big money that will fund an entire production, but a couple of thousand dollars that will ease some of the stress inherent in staging a play.

There may not be a perfect solution, but I am committed to the idea that this community needs to find a way to keep it's daring and committed artists in this town.

As a community, we constantly strive to attract and keep this millennial population that is such a highly prized group. We should do no less for our artists.

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