Southern Theater launches ‘Netflix’ residency program

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August 20, 2014
By: Eric Best
Eric Best

The Southern Theater will launch a residency program next year with 15 local performing art groups, taking the venue in a new direction.

The nondescript, white-brick theater has stood the test of time for more than a century at 1420 Washington Ave. S.

Executive Director Damon Runnals plans to return the Southern to its old role of curating performing art through a new membership model, ARTshare, which he calls “Netflix theater.”

For $18 per month, ARTshare members will be able to attend any and all resident performances. If the program sells out with the maximum 2,100 members, the Southern will give resident companies, who each have annual productions for three years, a steady revenue stream of $11,000 per year.

Runnals took inspiration from companies with membership models like Netflix, food co-ops and National Public Radio.

“Corporations want to lock you in and ask for your consistency,” he said. “I saw that as something I liked.”

Runnals’ said his interest in the program is two-fold. As a user, he said ARTshare allows members to attend shows when they like. As a business, Runnals said having consistent membership revenue is dependable and takes the risk off of the Southern and resident companies. It’s his hope this results in better art, he said.

“There are many companies that produce because they have to, not because they want to. [ARTshare] will allow [residents] to do one show each year and put a lot of resources in it,” Runnals said. “It will take pressure off larger companies who can spend more time on this performance.”

Memberships are currently available and have a minimum commitment of 12 months. Runnals said he has plans to incentivize memberships. ARTshare members will be able to reserve general admissions tickets before they go on sale to the public and have access to member-only content.

He said he also has a lot in store for the Southern, including potential plans for a closed-container bar, a second space for residents and events to get audiences to hang out after shows. To assist ARTshare residents, Runnals is also bringing on a full-time production director.

The Southern and its board of directors are no strangers to financial trouble. In May 2011, the theater was close to bankruptcy and let go of all but then-production manager Runnals, much to the fear of many in the local performing arts community. Runnals took a position managing the Southern, which transitioned into a rental space without its own artists or seasons.

When the Southern’s board of directors promoted Runnals to executive director in 2012 he had the opportunity to take the space into a new direction. This is where ARTshare comes in. The program will return the theater to curating performing arts, but instead of putting together seasons, Runnals said he’s forming a community.

“I’m curating artists, not art,” he said. “As a member, you’re buying into a community instead of a series of products. I think it will play out to really change the way the Southern operates.”

Runnals put together the 15 companies with a familiarity with the Southern, consistent production, business acumen and/or readiness for a boost. The residents also span several genres, from dance to comedy to original work to scripted groups.

The program also has the potential to connect different audiences. Runnals said he thinks of ARTshare like a food co-op, where he can link consumers (audiences) directly with producers (artists).

Lisa Channer, co-founder of resident company Theatre Novi Most, said joining ARTshare was a “no-brainer” because her company will be able to plan shows well in advance and it will help smaller companies find new audiences. Theatre Novi Most is already putting together Rehearsing Failure,” which debuted last year,” as part of its residency.

Channer said she thinks the Netflix comparison to ARTshare is spot-on.

“The space becomes your living room,” she said.  “You don’t pay each time, you just go.”

Noah Bremer, artistic director of resident company Live Action Set, has been in on the early conversations regarding ARTshare since 2009. For Bremer, the biggest draw was having a consistent presence for his company’s movement-based work at a space like the Southern.

“The Southern has a reputation for innovative, new performance pieces,” he said.

ARTshare was also a unique opportunity, Bremer added, because there are so few models like it nationwide.

Swandive Theatre, which Runnals co-founded, is also a resident company, but he said he will not receive residency funds.

With so many artists in one space, Runnals said he hopes they experiment along the way. Because of the residents' variety, there's a lot of room to play on the groups' unique characteristics.

“It’s going to be a big sandbox and everyone will be playing in it,” he said.

Depending the program's success, Runnals said residents may come and go if it's not a good fit for them or if they get too big.

However, ARTshare isn't guaranteed to work.

While residents may feel less financial pressure under the program, Bremer said ARTshare isn’t risk-free, stressing it will only be successful if audiences participate.

Runnals said he knows the risks, but the reward could mean bringing so much back to the Southern.

“This program isn’t a slam dunk yet. It doesn’t have a big brand that’s making it happen or a giant sponsorship behind it,” Runnals said. “Membership is the only way it’s going to come to fruition.”