Less With More, part 1

When I teach, talk to artists and think about my life as a theater artist, 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 talked about this in other forums – last year with Collective Arts Think Tank – but I want to start using a few blog posts here as a clearinghouse for more of what I (think I) mean on the subject.

I invite challenges, support, comments, questions and delicious pies.

I’m talking most about live performance, because that’s where I work, but it can often apply to visual art and film as well.

The simplest way to define doing less with more is that it means bringing more resources to fewer projects, rather than trying to get a lot done with a little.

The Frustrations

I started saying do less with more because I was frustrated by a few trends I was seeing:

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. In institutions it often means institutions are preserved at the expense of increasing the number or pay scale of artists in the house. To my eyes, it has led many of us to let down the very fragile and elusive form we work in.

I don’t see other disciplines relying so heavily on scrappiness. It’s okay to be a filmmaker and do a movie every five or more years. No one says a poet who puts out a collection every 10 years is “not writing enough”. (Whether the poet or filmmaker wishes they could produce more is another question, but to me they are addressing the market more honestly.) But in theater there is this pervasive myth that rate of production equals relevancy. Like, by putting up a show or two every year, I’m somehow more legitimate. I’m proving I’m a pro.

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

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 don’t think work is made better by doing more with less. Doing more with less is the efficiency model, it’s how capitalism works. You try to cut down the cost of production while increasing the rate. I think art is about partaking in a seemingly inefficient activity to create something amazing for it’s own sake. So we think bigger, so we take in the world with our imaginations. So we confuse ourselves into understanding more. That takes more time than we usually give it.

I think the market is oversaturated. If there are always so many shows going on in a place like New York at any given time, and we’re all desperate to pull in audience, and our houses aren’t filling up, maybe we are not meeting demand the way we ought to. 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. Even if your houses are full, are you paying people? Are you surviving mostly on everyone’s donated, or partially-donated labor? And is that, as the funders like to say, sustainable?

The current funding model doesn’t really work for most of us. There are too many worthy projects for grantmakers to actually be able to fund all the best ones. 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. 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 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? Then set 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. There will always be deadlines, crises, financial constraints and time crunches. That’s a given. But why compound them? I think we should aim higher with our work, and that might take a little longer to accomplish, even a little longer than we might like sometimes.

Next, maybe we’ll talk about how to make art in a marketplace, rather than for it?