Less with more, part 1

Lately, when I teach workshops, talk to artists and think about my own career as a playwright and performer, I have been using the phrase “Do less with more,” as a counter to the crisis mode that seems embedded in much of the art production I see around me. I’ve been writing about this in other forums – most recently with Collective Arts Think Tank – but I want to start using this blog as a clearinghouse for all of what I mean on the subject.

I’ll be posting about this here roughly once a month. My thoughts are informed by my experience as a playwright, actor, ERS company member, teacher and arts advocate. I absolutely invite your challenges, support, comments, questions and pies. I’m going to talk most about live performance, because that’s where I work, but it can often apply to visual art and film as well.

The Six Frustrations

I started saying Do Less With More out of a few frustrations:

1. The opposite refrain: “Do more with less,” which I hear from artists, administrators, venues, and funders alike, constantly, started to bug me because I don’t see the value in it. Doing more with less has led us to under-resource much of our work. To my eyes, it has led many of us to let down the very fragile and elusive form we work in. American contemporary theater and dance often look shoddy compared to other forms, or those same forms in places with more readily available resources.

2. I’ve heard “do more with less” in boom and bust times, so it can’t just be about the current economy.

3. I think doing more with less has become a convenient excuse not to try and make great work. If we are always doing more with less, we can always fall back on the excuse of not having had enough resources. I want to advocate that we risk big, fail big, and succeed big.

4. I don’t think work was ever made better by doing more with less. Working with fewer resources might help some artists curb some indulgences some of the time. And doing more might help a lazy or under-realized artist in some ways. But the combination of the two seems deadly, at least as a mantra.

5. I think the market is oversaturated. If there are always so many shows going on in NYC at any given time and we’re all desperate to pull in audience, and our houses are half full, maybe we are not meeting demand properly. Maybe we can build demand through anticipation (“wow remember how great that show was two years ago by those guys? I can’t wait to go to the new one!”), maybe we can collaborate on bringing better resources to each other rather than desperately clinging to our own small slices of a pie (traditional support models) that seem to be shrinking.

5. The current funding model doesn’t work. There are too many worthy projects for grantmakers to actually be able to fund all the best. I know this is true because funders tell me it is so. All the best projects do not get funded. This means that you may have a great idea, and you may feel you have to get it into the world on a timeframe that is supported by the annual funding cycle, or perceived cycle that is out there now. The fact is it might take more time to get those funds in place, to really get the work done right, than it seems like it ought to.

In my experience, doing less with more leads to stronger work. That means really taking the time to explore and define a given piece of work until it’s really ready for people to pay money to see it.

I look to examples like The Foundry Theatre (where the work is not produced until it’s deemed ready, even if that’s years later than expected), Soho Rep (which cut it’s season from five to three productions, allowing each to be more realized and recognized) and ERS, which produces a show about every two years, which then continue to tour and bring in income and accolades for as long as five years.

Doing less with more means thinking hard not about how little you could get a piece done for, but what would you do if you had everything you really needed to make it the best it could be, how long would it take to amass all that, and then setting out to do the project on the project’s terms rather than on someone else’s (Equity, LORT, NPN, The Whitney Museum, etc.) idea about what a typical production schedule is.

Of course, there will always be deadlines, financial constraints and time crunches. That’s a given. But why compound them? I want to advocate that we aim higher with our work, and that might take a little longer to accomplish, even a little longer than we might like sometimes.

In future installments: case studies on doing less with more; other fields in which there is a glut of ‘product’ related to demand; when you need to do more with less in a strategic way; knowing what your work really costs to make.