New Hazlett Theater offers a CSA for the performing arts

You’re probably heard of community-supported agriculture, and if you’re a regular Creative Exchange reader you have most likely also heard of community-supported art – you can even download our toolkit and check out a map of CSA programs across the nation right here.

Like community-supported agriculture, community-supported art typically consists of “shares” of locally-produced artwork delivered in intervals throughout that CSA season to collectors who have bought into the program. This model supports artists in the creation of new work and establishes relationships with those interested in supporting local artists while collecting unique works.

But the New Hazlett Theater‘s CSA Performance Series isn’t what you would think of as a “typical” CSA. The Pittsburgh performing arts venue and artist incubator has taken the concept of the CSA program and applied its logic to the performing arts.

When they first started toying with the concept, Director of Programming Bill Rodgers says, “Almost overwhelmingly the response was, ‘Don’t do it.’ In terms of feasibility, there is a lot this program is trying to take on – like how to engage the artist and convince the general public. It defies conventional wisdom.”

“We needed to figure out how it would fit with our mission of cultivating emerging artists,” says Executive Director René Conrad. “We decided to treat it as a residency. From a shareholder’s point of view it’s like a subscription series – they’re paying in advance to help these artists create their pieces.”

She says the New Hazlett has previously held artist residencies but never through a competitive open application process. With the CSA Performance Series, they felt they could formalize the residency process and get a performance schedule locked down so that the artists would have a year to prepare before presenting their works. “Throughout the history of this organization we have helped nurture young artists through projects,” says Conrad. “We work collaboratively with whatever part of the project you need some assistance with.”

The six artists chosen for their first CSA cycle for the 2013-2014 season were selected through a juried process. Since that inaugural season, the CSA Performance Series had brought over 100 new and emerging artists to the stage with dance, music, original plays, and experimental animation.

They are currently about to select artists for their fourth season. Applications are open to any West Pennsylvania artist over the age of 18. Interested artists give their “elevator pitch” and discuss previous collaborations in the online application. There is a period during which artists can submit their applications and get feedback on their proposals and budgets because, for many of these artists, this is a new process altogether.

“We keep augmenting the program to facilitate artists at different stages in their careers,” says Conrad.

New Hazlett selects four panelists who remain anonymous but have previously performed in their space, including at least one person from the previous season. The panelists sit down and talk about each applicant based on the goals of the CSA program.

“This program is geared towards emerging artists, but what if you’ve been a famous mime for the past 20 years and you submit a new work or are playing piano; is that ’emerging?'” Conrad asks. “We flesh that out and score each proposal, then narrow the applicants down to ten. We meet with them, get to know their personalities, their understanding of the program, their availability. We address the issues they might not even see as being vague. From that round we sort out the season.”

Each artist gets one performance night in front of an audience of about 300 people, held on a Thursday night with a two-month buffer between each new performance. For season four, the number of CSA artists is being cut down to five from six, to allow some breathing room between the year-long seasons. Performances are well-documented with professional photography, video, and interviews with the artists featured on the New Hazlett website.

“We wanted to bring some sort of critical eye to the coverage,” Rodgers explains. “Since it’s only one evening, reviewers aren’t interested in covering it, so we started doing this Q&A with the artists that we put out into the world before the performance. The interviewer then has a week after the performance to write a review. We like this idea of there being this documentation that the artist can link out to.”

Even the professional photography serves a dual purpose of providing high-quality documentation for portfolio use as well as a bit of professional training for the artists themselves.

“It is almost like a marketing lesson for them,” says Conrad. “Some people have no idea what photos they want to set up. I feel like that is a huge benefit for them. The artists are really involved in the process. We present them with six images we culled down, and together we have to pick two images to use that we are all happy with.”

All of this experience and documentation helps the emerging artists to grow and refine their craft, giving them valuable mentorship, professional and collaborative experience, and portfolio content in the photography and video footage, which can help the artists get funding for future works.

“They have this really robust experience, then they can say, ‘Okay, now I’m really ready for the next level,'” says Conrad. “They go on and take over the world!”

During season two, New Hazlett opened up the CSA series to also incorporate emerging designers – the folks doing to stage lighting, sound engineering, stage sets, costumes, video – “People whose portfolios are still in progress,” says Rodgers. “The designers are available for our artists to collaborate with.”

The artists are given a $1,000 budget to pay the designers.

“That level of production and directing is a really great crash course,” says Rodgers. “Working with designers is not something the artists are usually asked to do. We’re cultivating designers for the artists to work with, and we’re planning on doing interviews with the designers as well to showcase them as really integral parts of the process.”

“A lot of the younger designers hit the road early on in their careers, so the question is can we make enough work that’s interesting for people in that part of the industry as well?” Conrad asks. “A lot of the performing artists stay and become mature artists in this region. Can we nudge those designers a little bit to grow their careers here as well?”

The New Hazlett team vets all of the designers, and those designers are considered “in-network,” much like health insurance. If the artist chooses an “in-network” designer, they have access to the $1,000 budget. If not, they have to pay for the design work themselves. This helps them to further grow their designer pool and cultivate these designers professionally, nurturing the local stage design industry.

As of right now to the best of their knowledge, New Hazlett is the only theater organization in the country offering a CSA-style subscription series program, but Rodgers says they wish they weren’t.

“We don’t want to be the only ones because [if there were others] then there’s an opportunity to partner,” he explains. “Then we can have a shared showcase where the artists can travel to the other CSA cities. We’re fine-tuning this program so it is possible [to replicate] in other locations.”