The White Board & Work/Space

Michelle Preston's picture

Here at SITI Company my staff and I spend a lot of time encouraging the Company members to share their process either through blogs, videos or in person with our donors and board members.  I firmly believe that sharing the stories about why and how we develop SITI productions is a crucial tool in audience building and donor engagement because at the end of the day the quality of our relationship to people is more important than the number of tickets sold or the size of the donation.  I’m certain that many of you follow Anne’s monthly blogs and derive as much joy from reading them as I do.  I also hope you’ve been able to read Leon’s blogs announcing SITI Work/Space and SITI Thought Center, and if you haven’t I encourage you to do so.  Now it seems, the tables have been turned and they’ve asked me to write about the practical realities of making something like Work/Space happen and why Leon is telling the world about the white board in my office.

For those of you who may not have read Leon’s blog yet, you may be wondering, “what is Work/Space?”  There are several analogies that the co-artistic directors like to use (a painter’s studio, a tarmac with planes waiting for takeoff, etc.) but I like to describe it as a glass container.  The name Work/Space refers to early play development happening within our own Peter Zeisler Studio in Midtown for a concentrated period of time.  Within the container of Work/Space there are many plays, championed by a range of Company members, directed by Anne, Leon, Ellen and others. Some of them will go onto become fully realized productions, some will not.  But really what’s important is that the ensemble is able to work together, in New York, on projects that are of interest to them.  Within Work/Space we are free from the restrictions of commissioners, funders, presenters – you know, all of the people that until this point have generously given us the time, money and residencies needed to create our work. And it’s no secret that those residencies and commissions are getting harder and harder to come by. The landscape of the touring theater world is becoming a hard place to live in.

Am I a crazy Executive Director? Is SITI really giving its artists the time and space (and weekly salaries) to work on whatever plays they’re interested in without having secured advanced commissions, residencies, premieres, project specific funding?!?  The answer is yes and also no.  Since 2016 is the program’s inaugural year, there is absolutely a leap of faith on my part and on the part of SITI’s Board of Directors and we are strategically allocating some funds that we’ve saved over the years to re-invest back into the artists that make SITI what it is.  Work/Space has also received inaugural funding this year from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Howard Gilman Foundation, and we are truly grateful for their support.

But we aren’t doing this without a plan ­– that’s where the whiteboard comes in. On the wall in my office there is a white board and on it are about a dozen productions that SITI is interested in working on over the next 3 to 5 years.  Also on it are ideas for presenting partners, commissioners and project specific funders for each and every project.  Production by production we’re laying out a plan and during the 6 weeks of Work/Space in 2016 we focused on only 4 of those plays.  In 2017 we anticipate 8 weeks of Work/Space to work on 2 new plays and give some additional time to plays first visited in 2016.  We’re also learning that not everything needs extensive development in our studio.  Some of the plays on the whiteboard need to be built at a regional theater, some may end up being set aside in favor of other projects, and of course we’re still open to accepting commissions and residencies.  And yes we’ll continue touring because it is the lifeblood of our collective enterprise and how we engage with the audiences we’ve built around the country and the world.

The white board also represents the most creative aspects of my job.  It’s easy to believe that the job of an Executive Director is all about budgets, fundraising, board development, staff management and financial oversight. And yes, it is those things, but it’s also about innovation, it’s trial and error, and that white board is what I stare at when I don’t know where to go next.  I look at it and I think about how to bring these vague plans and whispery ideas into the world.  I think about the artists of the ensemble whose lives SITI’s work supports and how to ensure that there is fire and excitement in what we do, both for ourselves and for our audiences.  And I try to remember that if those of us working in the performing arts don’t take chances, then what are we really doing?  The art I want to help create pushes people outside their comfort zone, so why should I expect that the process of making that kind of art wouldn’t do the same thing to myself and my colleagues?

Remember when I told you Work/Space was a glass container? The container in my mind is nothing more complicated than the idea of having space in which to work and the money to pay our artists to be there. The container can hold any number of projects and is limited only by our imaginations, our dreams or our interests as a Company.  As we approach our 25th Anniversary next year I also believe that the innovation of Work/Space holds the key to our next decade together and will allow us to become what our ensemble needs us to be now, not just blinding doing “what has worked before”.  It’s made of glass because we want to use it to make our artistic process more transparent and shine some light on how we as an ensemble create work.  We have already begun inviting people into the Zeisler Studio to see early development of plays when they’re still rough sketches of ideas and our new Membership Program has lots of opportunities to interact with us via digital content, art objects and of course time spent with SITI Company members.  We’re also working to make our home in New York a gathering place of artists and intellectuals via SITI Thought Center

So I invite you throughout the fall and winter to join us in the studio, see our work and converse with us.  If you are moved by what we’re doing, consider joining our Membership program to get an insiders view. And from time to time, I’ll keep sharing the discoveries we make along the way as we figure out how to make this thing called Work/Space viable.