Theatre for One, by One
It’s the Opening Weekend Festival of the new Lewis Center for the Arts building, the inauguration of the newest building of the 300 Million dollar Arts and Transit complex, and in the midst of the new forum lies a mysterious red caravan the size and width of an office cubicle. A queue of ten people is being ushered around by two red jumpsuit-clad students, who instruct them to wait their turn to enter the cube-on-wheels. One by one, participants enter the box, see a five-minute play performed just for them, and leave in enraptured silence.
This is Theater-for-One, a theater venture run by a company called Octopus Theatricals, whose stated purpose is “creative producing and consulting”, according to their website. Based in New York City, Octopus was launched in 2013 and since then has consulted on or created 14 independent ventures. One might expect a professional theatre to produce such a project as Theatre-for-One, but increasingly the work of sourcing the space, budget, staff, and logistical details of theater is being done by the same companies that are also producing their own work. This is a consulting and creative model, not exclusively one or the other.
Octopus was founded by Mara Isaacs, a former producing director at the McCarter Theatre, with a venerable 25 year career in more traditional theatre enterprises spanning over 100 productions, both on broadway and off. Working in these venues, she began to see a trend away from a donation model of revenue and toward reliance on box office income exclusively, which was squelching creativity. “Many of these institutions have every intention to support the next generation of work,” she told me, “but find themselves producing something very safe because they’re concerned with sustaining the institution and the bottom line.”
Isaacs’ interest in simultaneously supporting artistically innovative work and maintaining safer investments, such as Broadway musicals, led her to eventually strike out on her own. Because of her experience, she was able to support herself by indpendently consulting for commercial theatre while soliciting so-called “angel” investors - investors who put their money into a brand new enterprise without much evidence of future return - to believe in her half consulting, half producing business model. Meanwhile, she filed and created an LLC, had a logo designed, and began acting as though there was a company - even though that company was just her at her laptop computer.
Toward the beginning of the process of starting the company, she consulted several entrepeneurs in the theatre industry for counsel. “What would you do differently if you were doing this all over again?” she asked, and one of them responded, “If there’s any way you can do it without taking someone else’s money, do that. Being beholden to investors influences the artistic choices you can make.” She scrapped the angel investors idea, and opted instead for one of the most innovative features of Octopus’ structure, a project-by-project funding model.
Four years later, Octopus has grown to a three-person full time staff, and a project-by-project hiring procedure for other positions, which keeps costs low. Currently, Isaacs is working on a commercial musical that she hopes will go to Broadway, Polish and Argentinian theatre companies that she is bringing to the US, and a program to support the development of dance-driven musical theatre. International development is central to Octopus’ mission, she asserts, and it’s now possible to bring together artists from all over the world. The flexible project-by-project consulting and producing model makes it possible to support a wide range of projects.
It’s surprising, then, that Octopus is largely unique in its operational mission and style. The traditional theatre world is awash with large independent commercial producers, who source broadway shows and can sport a largely successful return on investment. And there’s a sprinkling of independent managers who take experimental theatre models, projects like Theatre-for-One - and tour them regionally to Brooklyn Academy of Music and Philadelphia. But Isaacs doesn’t know of any who, like Octopus Theatricals, do both. It remains to be seen how quickly this trend is picked up, and whether flexible production and consulting organizations become the new way in the theatre world in general.