Southern Theater launches ArtShare, a new model for artists and audiences

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Photo by Bill Cameron
Black Label Movement 
The Southern Theater rolled out its new ArtShare program yesterday, offering a Netflix-like experience for audience members that will feature a lineup of local dance and theater companies. While single tickets for shows will continue to be available, the Southern is hoping to bring its patrons along on a more cooperative model, where a monthly membership affords them the opportunity to choose from a variety of rotating performances at a discounted rate. 

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Damon Runnals 
According to executive director Damon Runnals, who devised the scheme with input from the participating companies,  the full schedule will be announced over the next six months (the current list of groups is now available on the Southern's website). The ArtShare program goes into effect in January, but memberships can be purchased now. 

The ArtShare Model, which includes 15 participating companies over the next three years, will usually consist of three companies performing in repertory over the course of two months, with several guest resident companies performing in two-week exclusive spots. For audiences, tickets will be raised to $28 per show, but for a membership fee of $18, you can get a monthly pass. According to Runnals, the participating companies, who don't have to pay any fees, all get a monthly payout from the membership program along with a split of single tickets. Runnals says if the Southern reaches its membership cap of 2,100 members, the companies would see $11,000 before ticket sales. 

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Theatre Novi Most 
As he was working with the different companies to come up with a workable model, Runnals says that initially they looked at a more traditional format where each company performed for three weeks. "I kept looking at it, but it forced some groups to perform over holidays," Runnals says. The other problem with the three-week model was that it lacked variety for audience members, where a monthly membership would allow for seeing at most two different shows. "We wanted to push the idea of variety and accessibility," Runnals says. "Now it's possible for the members to see three different productions in a week." 

Currently the only Southern staff member, Runnals says that in January when ArtShare begins, the Southern will add an additional staff position of production director, who will provide technical advising for the different groups, though each group will still bring in its own production and technical staff. The Southern's production director will also help with space and equipment management duties that so far Runnals has been taking care of. That's going to be needed, since with the new model, the Southern is increasing production by at least 25 percent. 

When choosing companies to invite into the partnership, Runnals says he looked at factors such as groups that he had a working relationship with at the Southern or had rented from the Southern. "We were looking at groups that somewhat fit an aesthetic at the Southern," Runnals says. In addition, Runnals was looking for groups that were ready to "take the next step" in terms of taking ownership of the space. While the companies don't pay fees to participate, there is an expectation of becoming part of a community of artists with the other groups. 

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Four Humors 
Lisa Channer, co-artistic director for Theatre Novi Most, says her organization got involved with the planning two years ago when Runnals first started brainstorming about what a consortium of resident companies would look like. "What was exciting right away was this idea that we all have a shared purpose," Channer says. She was attracted to the idea that the different artists and companies would be supporting one another instead of existing as islands reinventing the same thing. "All of us are tired and stretched too thin," she says. "It felt like a beautiful new idea." 

The model affords Novi Most with the knowledge of when and where they will perform in the next three years, which is really helpful for planning. They'll be in the first group of three companies to perform in January and February, presenting Rehearsing Failure, a work originally developed at the Red Eye about the women in Bertolt Brecht's life. 

Now, Channer says she hopes people realize what a great deal they will be getting if they choose to be members. "It's a good deal for artists, it's a good deal for the community," she says. 

Jason  Ballweber, artistic director of Four Humors, was also part of the planning process in the early stages. He says the plan seems very fair both for artists and for audiences. The repertory model won't be too much of a change for Four Humors, which is used to producing work that can go on tour. "We're used to the festival circuit," he says, adding that because the Southern's space has so much character, it doesn't require a lot of set. 

Ballweber says he imagines it might take time for audiences to buy into the new model, but he's confident they will realize that $18 a month is a great deal. "It's just a new idea that may take some getting used to," he says.

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