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Raising the stakes

Cash-strapped arts groups go hat in hand on the Internet to make ends meet, get people talking

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It costs money to bring Lucy the Slut to Winnipeg.

Kayla Gordon, artistic director of Winnipeg Studio Theatre, didn't have any way to pay to rent and ship the furry puppets from California -- including Lucy, Kate Monster and the Bad Idea Bears -- needed to present WST's current revival of the naughty musical Avenue Q at the RMTC Warehouse. The eight-year-old company had been turned down for funding by the Winnipeg and Manitoba arts councils and faced a pre-run $3,500 puppet-transportation bill.

Gordon opted for a relatively untapped source of funding for Winnipeg theatre. She launched an Indiegogo campaign and raised $3,000, relieving some of the company's immediate financial pressure.

Crowdfunding is slowly gaining traction in Winnipeg theatre, if not all the arts. Shakespeare in the Ruins used it to raise $3,000 for its Shakespeare in Central Park last August. In January, an independent troupe collected $1,200 to stage Judith Thompson's drama Such Creatures, starring 91-year-old actress Doreen Brownstone.

"It was a last resort for me," says Gordon. "I thought long and hard about doing it. I hate begging for money, but because it was for a specific reason, I thought it wasn't so bad."

As an inducement to give, WST offered any donor of $500 a walk-on part in the production. There were no takers, but there were a number of $250 cheques from people, including one from an avid Avenue Q fan from Edmonton.

"I think this is a trend," says the former artistic director of the Winnipeg Jewish Theatre.

It could be the next big thing for independent artists across Canada, following the Toronto Fringe Festival's launch of a national crowdfunding platform last month. Fund What You Can (FWYC) will compete with leading global fundraising sites like Indiegogo and Kickstarter to provide a cost-effective way for indie artists -- especially fringe-festival performers -- to take advantage of the kindness of strangers. Until this Aug. 31, FWYC will be free to anyone who wants to create a campaign.

"This is a very exciting one," says Camilla Holland, Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre general manager. "I think it is great when artists are able to find the resources they need to deliver their dream."

None of the Winnipeg campaigns reached its target, but because the Indiegogo flex-funding option was chosen, the groups got to keep all the pledges. At Kickstarter, it's all or nothing: if the goal is not reached, all the money is returned.

Last week, a group of local actors mounted a Kickstarter campaign with a goal of $22,000 to bankroll a local web series called The Communers. It focuses on the inhabitants of an eco-village, living off the grid. Most of the money is earmarked for performer salaries. Writer/director Will Antoniuk says many hands are helping to make one dream come true.

"It brings the power back in the hands of the artist," he says, during an interview this week. "It's great to see artists not take the passive role of, 'Hey, give me money.' Now they are going out to get the money they want."

So far they have raised more than $1,000 and hope, through a series of incentives/rewards, plenty more people will kick in even a few bucks. The donor of $5,000 would receive the top perk of a walk-on role, dinner with the cast and admission to the premiere party. For $250, Antoniuk will incorporate your name into the series.

"One donor wrote he didn't have money but had a farm and offered to let us film there for free, so that might save us some money," Antoniuk says. "It fits perfectly with our grassroots, do-it-yourself project."

Actress Stefanie Wiens and her playwright partner Angus Kohm are working on an unnamed feature film in which Brownstone plays an aging B-movie queen investigating the mysterious goings on in her apartment building, while trying to revitalize her fading career. Their Indiegogo campaign, run last December-January, targeted $25,000 (it amassed $16,100). The money was important, but so was generating some buzz about the project. When you don't have a big publicity machine behind you, an attention-getting crowdfunding campaign can get fans talking on social media.

The inaugural Winnipeg Spoken Word Festival, set for this June, initiated an Indiegogo campaign last month and potted more than the $1,500 goal, the only Winnipeg campaign to do that. The money will help the event's modest bottom line, but festival director Rose Jang also wanted to get the spoken word out.

"The campaign is like a soft launch for the festival," she says. "It acts like publicity before we do the publicity for the festival. I think this is a really good model. It's basically a patronage system for the masses."

While small fish have found plenty of room in the crowdfunding pool, some Hollywood sharks have come to feed. Actor Zach Braff raised $3.1 million in three days on Kickstarter to fund his movie Wish I Was There. The theatrical version of Veronica Mars raised $5.7 million.

"It feels like they don't need to be playing in our sandbox," Wiens says. "Zach Braff can just fund his movie on his residuals from Scrubs."

That common opinion is the reason you won't see RMTC trotting out an Indiegogo fundraiser any time soon.

"I just think that it would be odd for an organization of our size to jump in a marketplace that is so dedicated to the independent artist base," Holland says.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 10, 2014 C7

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